Blue Jays’ woes may lead to post-Tommy John reunion for Phelps, Merryweather

Watch as Toronto Blue Jays pitcher David Phelps is a little emotional leaving the mound in his return from Tommy John surgery.

TORONTO – One of the most frequent questions for David Phelps since he rejoined the Toronto Blue Jays over the weekend – aside from the obvious how he’s feeling and how the ball’s coming out of his hand – is about who among the guys down in Dunedin, Fla., is looking good.

The answer, surprisingly? Julian Merryweather, the right-hander acquired from Cleveland for Josh Donaldson last summer, who like Phelps underwent Tommy John surgery in 2018.

“From what I’ve seen, he’s got the potential to be a top of the rotation arm,” Phelps said Monday, when he was activated from the injured list and threw a scoreless inning of relief in a 10-5 spanking from the Los Angeles Angels. “He’s got really good stuff.”

Phelps and Merryweather were catch partners during big-league camp in the spring and once the Blue Jays headed north, they joined up with Matt Dermody, another pitcher working his way back from Tommy John, to form a rehab group at the club’s training complex.

As Merryweather continued to get stronger and stronger, surpassing his previous high of 97 m.p.h., on the radar gun, Phelps and Dermody would look at each other and laugh. “We were watching how well it worked for him and me and Derm were like, ‘Well, we’ve got to be throwing harder, too, right?’” quipped Phelps.

“I was sitting up in the bleachers for one of his games, first pitch comes out 96, second pitch 97 and I turned to Derm and said, ‘He’s going to hit 100 this year the way his body is working, the way the ball is coming out of his hand,’” Phelps continued. “Three or four pitches later the guy on the radar gun turns it toward us – 100 miles an hour. It’s not fair right now.”

Merryweather is slated to throw a couple of innings later this week and as he works through his prescribed workload, it’s unlikely he becomes a big-league option much before August. But if he continues to light up the radar gun, he becomes an interesting possibility for a Blue Jays team utterly desperate for pitching.

The latest beatdown laid on Edwin Jackson – seven runs on six hits, three of them homers, and two walks in two-thirds of an inning – once again underscored how bereft they are of internal options.

Jacob Waguespack (shoulder) threw two innings for triple-A on rehab Sunday but needs more time. Sean Reid-Foley, who had been pitching better after a poor start, has regressed again. Ryan Borucki (elbow) has just started throwing live batting practice. Clay Buchholz (lat) is still in a strengthening program. Double-A prospect Patrick Murphy’s rapid progress was paused after a foot touch in his delivery was deemed illegal and he’s working to adjust it now.

Even Rule 5 pick Elvis Luciano, whom the Blue Jays hoped might be built up into a start or two later in the season, is off the table after being transferred to the 60-day injured list with a mild strain of his ulnar collateral ligament (as an aside, he’s at 77 days of active service, so the Blue Jays need only for him to get 13 more days on the roster before year’s end to reach the 90 required to secure his rights).

Closer Ken Giles threw a bullpen Monday and is expected to be activated later this week (the first day he’s eligible is Wednesday), but that won’t help the rotation.

So if you’re part of the torch-and-pitchfork set demanding Jackson’s immediate launching into the sun, understand that the alternatives aren’t any more appealing.

All of which makes the spike in Merryweather’s velocity and his triple-digit touch so intriguing, even if GM Ross Atkins cautions that “we want to see a larger sample size before we start talking about what that means.”

Caution is certainly warranted, even if players typically don’t talk up other players unless they believe in what they’ve seen. Phelps’ take on Merryweather is far more aggressive than previous evaluations of the 27-year-old, but he suggests that those who rated him in the past should take another look now.

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.

Phelps, of course, would have pretty good insight into how much work Merryweather has put into his recovery, having endured the very same thing to get back to the big-leagues. His inning Monday, inconsequential within the bigger picture, meant a lot to him personally, as it was his first real game action since Aug. 30, 2017, a date that’s top of mind for him.

The 32-year-old from St. Louis aimed to be ready for opening day when he arrived at camp but felt some tightness in his elbow, shut things down for a week and slowed his pace down. Working with Ben Freakley, the club’s head of mental performance, Phelps focused on feeling healthy rather than results, which got him back on track.

Once a power arm in the back-end of bullpens for the Yankees, Marlins and Mariners, he topped out at 91.8 m.p.h. against the Angels, but still struck out Jonathan Lucroy in a clean inning.

“At first I thought I needed to see this velocity, this break (to be ready to return),” said Phelps. “But it wasn’t so much that. The biggest goal for me was health. As soon as I got back to feeling 100 per cent healthy, the results were going to come. … When I was pitching in games, I was trying to see the way guys were swinging at certain pitches. I wanted to make sure I could throw my curveball for a strike when I needed to and I wanted to make sure I could throw my cutter in certain situations. It’s more or less the way the ball feels coming out of my hand and the way I feel the next day.

“That’s why Wednesday-Thursday last week with the back-to-back with Buffalo in Indianapolis was such a big step for me, just knowing I could throw in a game, come back the next day and fire it back up again and not have any issues. That was huge.”

For the Blue Jays as much as him, given the ongoing need for any and all pitching. While he was the first member of his rehab group to get back to the majors, he was still thinking of the teammates he left behind. They formed a bond grinding through the same dreaded rehab, sharing an experience that will tie them together for years to come.

“In baseball, guys who have had Tommy John have a close fraternity. Everyone knows the struggles, everyone knows the ups and downs,” said Phelps. “When you see those guys having success, everyone is excited for them.”

Which is why he’ll be pulling for Merryweather.

“The last thing I said to him before I left Florida was, ‘Dude, I’ll see you in September,’” said Phelps.

The way things are going, they could be reunited even sooner.

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