Blue Jays takeaways: Montero a worthwhile gamble

Marcus Stroman struck out three and walked none in four shutout innings and Darrell Ceciliani hit a two-run homer to give the Blue Jays a 2-1 victory over the Phillies.

DUNEDIN, Fla. — It was a big news day for the Toronto Blue Jays, with Aaron Sanchez being named to the starting rotation and Edwin Encarnacion getting some game action for the first time this spring (in a minor-league game, but still) drawing the biggest headlines.

But there was still a game to be played, fake or otherwise, and as they have pretty much all spring long, the Blue Jays came out on top. This time it was Darrell Ceciliani playing the hero again, blasting a no-doubt, two-run homer with two out in the bottom of the eighth. He now shares the club lead for spring taters with Justin Smoak and Troy Tulowitzki.

Here’s what else stood out about the Jays’ 17th win of the spring against five losses:

The Blue Jays had their opening-day lineup on the field for Monday’s game (save for Encarnacion, who homered in that minor-league appearance) and couldn’t get anything going offensively. Collars were taken all around, as the only Jays’ starter to get a hit in the game was Kevin Pillar. The soon-to-be-announced leadoff man had an infield single and a double, and every other one of his mates in the starting lineup went 0-for-2 except for Ryan Goins, who was 0-for-1 with a walk. To their credit, Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista each drew a walk, as well.

The author of the Blue Jays’ misfortune was righty Vincent Velasquez, who earlier in the day found out that he’d won a job in the Phillies’ rotation. The 23-year-old, who came over from Houston in an off-season trade that netted the Phibos big-time reliever Ken Giles, celebrated his success by throwing six innings of two-hit shutout at the Jays, walking three and striking out everybody but Russell Martin and Troy Tulowitzki at least once, for a total of eight Ks.

Spring training or otherwise, it’s quite a feat to shut down a lineup that’s likely to once again lead all of MLB in runs scored.

The Blue Jays brought lefty specialist Randy Choate into camp a couple of weeks ago, hoping that he could fill the role that Aaron Loup had played the last few seasons, as a second portsider out of the bullpen behind Brett Cecil.

The 40-year-old has become so much of a specialist, though, that his appearances have shortened to the point where he’s recently been brought into games to face only one left-handed batter and then leave. Last season with the Cardinals, Choate made 71 appearances while throwing only 27 1/3 innings, so he averaged just 1.15 outs per outing. That number was 1.77 outs per appearance in 2014 and 1.65 in 2013. He hasn’t averaged even two outs per appearance since 2004.

With only one proven 200-inning starter in the Blue Jays’ rotation, a one-out reliever may not be a luxury they can afford, so John Gibbons sent Choate out to pitch the seventh inning against the Phillies, looking for him to complete the entire frame.

Without a left-handed hitter to face, it didn’t go well.

Choate faced Darin Ruf, who hit an 83-mph full-count fastball over the wall in centre field to give the Phillies a 1-0 lead. Cameron Rupp followed, and poked a double into the right-field corner. Choate then walked Peter Bourjos and made a really nice play on a sacrifice bunt by Freddy Galvis before his day was done. Four batters faced, and the only one who was retired was trying to get himself out on purpose.

When the Blue Jays make a roster move in the middle of a game, it’s always fun, and around the seventh-inning stretch they announced that they’d claimed one-time super-prospect Jesus Montero on waivers from the Mariners.

Montero was a top-10 prospect in the game from 2010-2012, according to both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus, and his trade from the Yankees to Seattle before the ‘12 season was heralded as one of the great and rarely seen strength-for-strength deals of minor leaguers.

Injuries and weight issues have derailed Montero’s career, though, and transformed him from a valuable young catching prospect to someone who just hopes he can hook on somewhere because of his bat.

He hasn’t donned the catching tools since 2013, when he caught just 27 games in the majors and minors combined, so it appears as though that door is closed.

As a hitter, Montero has yet to hit his stride in the bigs. He’s slashed a career .253/.295/.398 in 865 major-league plate appearances over four seasons, with 28 home runs, though he has an .872 career OPS in the minors.

Last year, Montero came to spring training healthy and having dropped the excess weight. He went down to triple-A and hit .335/.398/.569 with 16 home runs in 97 games, earning a July call-up. The success didn’t translate and the Mariners waived Montero this weekend, enabling the Blue Jays to pick him up.

At just 26, Montero still could have a strong future ahead of him, and the Blue Jays have had great results from reclamation projects with a lesser pedigree in the recent past. He’s out of options, and there doesn’t appear to be a spot on the big-league roster for him, so the Blue Jays are likely to put Montero right back on waivers and see if he gets through. He should, since the Jays are next-to-last in American League claiming priority, which means every team in the league passed on him this time save for the Kansas City Royals. He’d have to get through the National League, too, but as a player who projects as more bat than anything else, Montero isn’t exactly attractive to teams in the no-DH league.

If he clears waivers, Montero would go down to Buffalo to see if he can resurrect what was once such a promising career. If he does, it’ll be with the Blue Jays — a worthy gamble indeed, since all it cost was A.J. Jimenez, who was going on waivers in the next week anyway since he’s out of options and wasn’t making the team.

The Blue Jays have just three more Grapefruit League games left this spring (the exhibition affairs in Montreal don’t count as far as any citrus standings are concerned). The squad will split Tuesday, with half the team staying in Dunedin for FAES finale against the Tampa Bay Rays — Arnold Leon will start that game against Matt Andriese.

The rest of the Blue Jays go to Lakeland to meet Matt Boyd and the Detroit Tigers, with Joe Biagini starting for the visitors.

Joe Siddall and I will have the Jays and Rays for you live on the interwebs, starting at 1:00 p.m. ET. Tune in, won’t you?

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