TORONTO – In normal times, the final week of training camp can be a somewhat treacherous stretch, as players are by and large ready to go, and the remaining slate of exhibitions carry far more risk than reward. Really, nothing good tends to happen.
These days, of course, are anything but normal, and each rep right now carries immense value because of the compressed lead-in to the season. Still, a week away from opening day, seeing Lourdes Gurriel Jr., leave Friday night’s intrasquad game with discomfort in his left side after a sacrifice fly in the first inning carried the familiar frustration of all late-camp injuries.
How he hurt himself, and how severe the problem might be, wasn’t immediately clear, and the Blue Jays said he’ll be re-examined Saturday. But they already have two other players dealing with oblique injuries – starter Chase Anderson and reliever Julian Merryweather, both expected to open the year on the injured list – and soft-tissue injuries are the inherent by-product of this camp run on fast-forward.
Not good, especially with the Blue Jays working to bring their roster picture into clearer focus ahead of the July 24 opener at the Tampa Bay Rays.
Gurriel, who only joined the team Monday after an unexplained late arrival from Florida, is making up for lost time more than most, so any time down will be costly. Manager Charlie Montoyo said this week that he envisioned the 26-year-old as the No. 3 hitter in his lineup and his absence would certainly thin out the order.
Anthony Alford and Derek Fisher stand as the likeliest beneficiaries if he has to miss time, but the Blue Jays have also been giving Forrest Wall – part of the return from Colorado for Seunghwan Oh in 2018 – some run at camp and he’s someone to keep an eye on. Joe Panik and Cavan Biggio could also find their way into the outfield for some work.
The priority, however, remains ensuring sufficient coverage for the 540 or so innings that lie ahead in the 60-game sprint, which is why “the main thing is building starters,” said Montoyo.
“Everything else is good,” he continued. “The guys are having enough at-bats. They feel good. Everybody is healthy right now so I feel really good going into the season. The main thing is building starters in case something happens.”
To that end, the Blue Jays continue to extend as many of their arms as they can during camp, with Trent Thornton getting up to 83 pitches in Team Bo’s 7-5 win over Team Grich, even if they were logged over 4.2 innings, with seven hits, two walks and five earned runs allowed.
Thornton also struck out five but was burned by two rough patches, a stretch of four straight hits capped by a Vladimir Guerrero Jr., double in the third that pushed three runs across, and a two-run homer by Randal Grichuk in the fifth.
Reading into the results of intrasquad play can be a mug’s game, but when it’s all anyone has, and the season looms, everyone is starting look for both sound process and some positive results.
“It’s a good mixture of both,” said Thornton. “Today I felt like I had good command on most of my stuff. My breaking stuff was well located all day. Yeah, it’s process-oriented but you also want to see some results with this being as close as it is to the season. For me, I thought it was two bad pitches. Other than that, I was hitting my spots for the most part.”
Pitching in an intrasquad game for the first time after working only in live batting practice beforehand, Thornton said he felt some fatigue at the end of his outing because he pitched with more adrenaline due to the more formalized game-setting. Still, he’s positioned to be in the 100-pitch range in his next time out, which should set him up well in the Blue Jays rotation.
Hyun-Jin Ryu, Matt Shoemaker and Tanner Roark are the other locks and who’s No. 5 behind them is uncertain. Nate Pearson is throwing thunderbolts but may not break camp with the club for service-time reasons, with Anthony Kay and Ryan Borucki also in the mix.
At the same time, the Blue Jays are stretching out several others including Shun Yamaguchi – who allowed three runs on five hits and two walks in three uneven innings – and T.J. Zeuch, who worked two messy frames but recorded only three outs and threw 49 pitches.
Given how a COVID-19 outbreak can quickly decimate a roster, the Blue Jays want to have as many pitchers ready to haul innings as possible, so while Yamaguchi is out of the running for a rotation spot, they’d like to have him ready to jump in, if needed.
“He’s another guy we’re having built up so he can go two or three innings, maybe more, so he could be a long guy, he could be a spot-starter if we keep building him up like that, because he’s done it before,” said Montoyo. “That’s how I see him.”
Elsewhere on the roster, there’s more certainty.
Infielder Santiago Espinal continues to impress in a late push for a roster spot, although hurting his case is that Joe Panik is positioned to spell Bo Bichette at shortstop, when needed.
Espinal could end up on the club’s three-man taxi squad, along with catcher Caleb Joseph and arm to be determined.
“There aren’t many spots,” said Montoyo. “More or less the guys you knew from spring training that had a chance to make the club (are) still the same way.”
Unless, of course, something changes during these anxious days ahead of opening day.