DUNEDIN, Fla. — A Blue Jays roster already dotted with question-marks became a little more uncertain Thursday.
News that Canadian Michael Saunders had suffered a knee injury in a freak sprinkler head accident added a red flag in left field and left Toronto manager John Gibbons with another spring training headache.
The 28-year-old Victoria native is expected to undergo surgery to repair a torn meniscus and not be back until the mid-July all-star break, GM Alex Anthopoulos said.
Slugger Edwin Encarnacion arrived Thursday to see Saunders hobble out.
"I drove my car inside and I see Saunders with the two crutches. Wow," Encarnacion said. "A little frustrating."
"Before spring training starts, it hurts," he added. "That’s very hard for him and for the team because we need him."
Friday marks the first full workout for the team involving star position players like Encarnacion, Jose Bautista and Jose Reyes.
Gibbons already has to sort out second base, settle on a centre-fielder, figure out his first base and designated hitter permutations, decide on his catching options beyond Russell Martin, choose a closer, and flesh out both his bullpen and the tail end of his starting rotation.
He remains optimistic, citing key additions like Martin and third baseman Josh Donaldson. "I think this is the best team we’ve had."
But he acknowledged it is setting up to be one of the more challenging spring trainings.
"It’s probably the most important, because we’ve got some decisions we’ve got to make that we’ve got to get right. There’s some jobs at stake."
The six-foot-four 225-pound Saunders, who arrived in a December trade that sent pitcher J.A. Happ to Seattle, had reported to camp early to get a head start with the Jays. He was shagging balls Wednesday morning at the team’s training complex when he jammed his foot on a sprinkler head indentation.
Saunders said the pitch was a little wet at the time.
"It was a tiny bit slippery, I just think I stepped in the wrong spot."
Saunders’ left-handed bat will be missed. He hit .273 with eight home runs and 34 RBIs over 78 games in 2014.
The Jays had planned an outfield of Saunders in left, Canadian Dalton Pompey or Kevin Pillar in centre and Bautista in right. Pompey and Pillar have 96 big-league games between them.
Anthopoulos has already started making calls about possible outfield replacements but said any move would likely come at the end of the spring and would have to be tempered by what happens when Saunders returns.
"Ideally for us the guys that are in that clubhouse are going to take the opportunity. We’d prefer not to go outside," said Anthopoulos.
The Jays do have a bargaining chip in catcher Dioner Navarro, who has asked for a trade after losing his job to Martin.
Non-roster outfielder invitees at camp include Ezequiel Carrera, Chris Dickerson and Caleb Gindl. Dickerson has the most experience with 355 games with the Reds, Yankees, Orioles and Indians.
Gibbons said infielders Danny Valencia and Chris Colabello could also see outfield time.
Saunders, who underwent shoulder surgery in 2007, has been frustrated by shoulder and oblique injuries in recent years.
"I will be working my ass off to make sure that I’m ready to go as soon as possible," he said.
Anthopoulos said the club had not had any similar problems before but is reviewing the issue. The recessed sprinkler heads move up and down, and are hard to see, he said.
The outfield section of the field in question is not being used for the time being.
"I guarantee you they’ll take care of that," said Gibbons.
Saunders, who almost wiped out on his crutches after meeting the media, said the mental part of rehab will be the toughest.
"Last night was really tough for me, especially when we got the prognosis," he said. "I’ve got a good support system out here, though.
"I’ve described this to a lot of people that nobody’s more excited to be here than me. For me, I think the biggest thing I will have to overcome now is mentally rather than physically. I know I’m going to be in good hands, I know I’m going to be OK. It could be worse, it’s not an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament)."