Blue Jays’ Ken Giles gets important year off on right foot

Arash Madani and Arden Zwelling discuss Shun Yamaguchi’s tough start to spring training and where the Blue Jays rotation stands.

DUNEDIN, Fla. — It’s tough to explain, Ken Giles explains, following his first appearance of spring Monday afternoon. You don’t want to feel too good your first time out.

The Toronto Blue Jays closer looked really good on the mound, needing only 13 pitches (nine strikes) to retire three Atlanta Braves with ease on a pair of groundouts and a called strikeout. And he felt really good, too, pitching with pace, fine fastball command, and an electric slider.

“I had a pretty good feeling for it today,” Giles said of his slider. “It’s just one of those things. I don’t want to have a perfect feeling for it just yet. So, it’s one of those 50-50s. That’s where I want to be right now.”

That’s pitcher-speak for wanting to build up deliberately until opening day, rather than peaking too soon. Giles focuses on his mechanics during spring training outings more than anything, saving the fierce intensity he brings to his role for when the results count.

“I’m just trying to stay within myself, not trying to get too amped up. I’m trying to get some work done and just enjoy my time,” he said. “I really just want to make sure I stay within my mechanics.”

It certainly looked like he accomplished that Monday, as Giles cruised through his outing, easily retiring a big-leaguer (Charlie Culberson) and two top-100 MLB prospects (Drew Waters and Cristian Pache). On Tuesday he’ll review data from the outing, and then start focusing on his next feedback point in a few days.

TD Ballpark, thoroughly renovated over the last 12 months, displayed a plethora of improvements and new features around Giles during its grand re-opening Monday. Unfortunately, that didn’t include radar gun readings on the towering new scoreboard in left-centre field.

That made it impossible for observers to track velocities for Giles, whose fastball was averaging 98-m.p.h. early last season, but closer to 96 by the end after a mid-season bout of elbow inflammation. But he said his pitches felt as firm as they should be Monday, and that he didn’t experience any discomfort.

“Everything felt good. It felt like the ball was jumping out of my hand really well,” Giles said. “Sliders were pretty good. Overall, felt great out there today. It’s just about building up now.”

Giles was putting together a tremendous 2019, pitching to a 1.08 ERA with a 15.1 K/9 over his first 25 appearances, before elbow issues developed. A 10-day stint on the injured list in June to let things calm down put a pause on that and possibly cost him an all-star nod. Then, after pitching on three consecutive days in early-July, things got worse.

Over the next month, he made only five appearances despite never returning to the injured list. During that time he experienced nerve irritation in his right arm following a massage, visited with an elbow specialist for an examination, and received a cortisone shot.

Uncertainty over Giles’ health made his day-to-day availability a constant topic throughout summer, and even contributed to the 11th-hour nixing of a deadline deal that would’ve seen him shipped to the New York Yankees.

He finally returned to a regular workload in mid-August, and appeared in 16 of Toronto’s final 40 games. That’s continued into this spring, with Giles symptom-free and progressing as he normally would ahead of the season.

“He’s fine, he’s healthy,” Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said. “He’s ready to go.”

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That’s good, as Giles is an integral piece at the back of a volatile, unproven Blue Jays bullpen. The club is currently positioned to rely on Rafael Dolis, who spent the last four seasons pitching in Japan’s NPB, and Anthony Bass, a winter waiver claim from the Seattle Mariners, to get the ball to Giles through high leverage. Not exactly proven MLB commodities.

Wilmer Font, who was acquired for cash last season and pitched mostly as an opener, will also be an option. Sam Gaviglio (career 4.84 ERA) will provide length, potentially along with Shun Yamaguchi, who’s currently up against it to crack Toronto’s rotation.

A.J. Cole, who split his 2019 between triple-A and the majors in Cleveland’s organization, is in good position to win a job, along with the hard-throwing Jordan Romano, who pitched to a 7.63 ERA over 17 major-league appearances as a rookie last season. Thomas Pannone, a converted starter, and Justin Miller, a non-roster invitee, are also in the conversation.

That makes Giles, Font, and Gaviglio the lone arms in Toronto’s bullpen to have spent the entire 2019 season in the majors pitching effectively. And Giles is the only one of the three to have done so in high-leverage spots late in games. Despite his injury trouble, Giles still threw 53 innings and finished the season with a 1.87 ERA and 14.1 K/9 — numbers that ranked among the best relievers in baseball.

That’s all to say that a healthy and effective Giles is extremely critical to this group’s success, presuming Montoyo can piece a bullpen together with such an uncertain crew and get the ball to him. And, of course, if the Blue Jays are not in contention by mid-season — FanGraphs gives the club a one per cent chance of making the playoffs as it stands Tuesday — the trade chatter that surrounded Giles last summer will begin anew as he heads towards free agency.

This is an important year for Giles, an important year for his impact on the Blue Jays. And it would be hard to start it any better than he did Monday.

Scrabble’s back
The Blue Jays reunited with their fifth-round pick in the 2007 MLB Draft Monday, inking left-handed reliever Marc Rzepczynski to a minor-league deal with an invite to spring training.

The 34-year-old pitched for the Blue Jays from 2009 through the 2011 trade deadline when he was part of a seven-player deal that brought Colby Rasmus to Toronto. He’s been with seven different organizations since, and spent 2019 with Arizona’s triple-A affiliate in Reno, pitching to a 5.04 ERA across 45 appearances.

Rzepczynski carved out a nice career as a left-handed specialist in a variety of big-league bullpens throughout his late-20s — from 2011 through 2016 he pitched to a 113 ERA+ across 268 innings with respectable peripherals (8.6 K/9 and 3.9 BB/9). But command issues cropped up as he hit his 30’s, reaching a nadir in 2018 when he walked 21 batters over 22.1 innings pitched between the majors and triple-A.

Even at his best, Rzepczynski posted somewhat elevated walk rates — but never to that degree. He spent 2019 trying to get his command back under control at triple-A and the Blue Jays believe he’s made an adjustment that should allow him to be back in the zone more consistently.

Still, MLB’s new three-batter minimum for pitchers will make it more difficult for Rzepczynski to crack any big-league roster. He’s been much more effective against left-handed hitting over his career, limiting it to a .227/.296/.305 slash line compared to .280/.385/.437 against righties. Last season, minor-league right-handers put up a .976 OPS (118 plate appearances) against Rzepczynski while left-handers were contained to .789 (96 plate appearances).

But the Blue Jays are starved for left-handed relief, with Pannone the only southpaw reliever on the 40-man roster. And the club obviously believes its old 2007 draft pick could still have something to contribute at the major-league level, as he did in 2016 when he pitched to a 2.64 ERA over 70 appearances.

“Maybe he can get back to who he was in ’16, which was unbelievable. Maybe he can get back to that model,” Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins said. “There are reasons to believe he has made some adjustments and will be more consistent. That was the reason for the signing.”

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Short Hops
Nate Pearson will be the centre of attention Tuesday, as the top prospect makes his 2020 debut against the New York Yankees. Pearson will start for a split Blue Jays squad before giving way to Julian Merryweather, Patrick Murphy, A.J. Cole, Yennsy Diaz, and Phillippe Aumont.

Starters Matt Shoemaker (knee surgery) and Tanner Rorark (flu) both threw bullpens on Sunday and felt good. They’re on track to be ready for the beginning of the season.

Blue Jays outfielder Jonathan Davis is expected to report to camp Thursday. The 27-year-old has been excused from camp to be with his wife for the birth of their child.

A total of 6,335 attended Monday’s re-opening of TD Ballpark, the largest crowd in the stadium’s history. Renovations increased its capacity from 5,500 to 8,500, including the standing-room only boardwalk around the outfield.

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