DUNEDIN, Fla. – Josh Donaldson feels that he’s is in a much better place physically compared to a year ago, when a calf strain suffered at the beginning of camp left him in scramble mode throughout spring training.
Yet as the Toronto Blue Jays broke camp Sunday and headed to Montreal for a pair of exhibition games versus the St. Louis Cardinals, the star third baseman so crucial to the club’s aspirations this season conceded that there are still some issues he’s fighting through as opening day looms.
"I wouldn’t say I feel amazing right now, because I don’t," Donaldson said after going 0-for-3 and logging five defensive innings during a 7-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates. "But that’s getting through some things and hopefully by opening day, I’ll feel good."
To that end, he’s staying back in Dunedin to get his work in on the minor-league side Monday and Tuesday, rather than risk any chance of a setback on the sketchy artificial turf at Olympic Stadium.
He’s made the trip in each of his previous three seasons with the Blue Jays, but saw little sense in doing it again after a spring in which he’s dealt with a right shoulder issue, a cramp in his calf, and what he described as overall body soreness.
"Every year that I’ve left there I’ve kind of felt bad, body-wise, and so we just feel it would be a better deal for me to not go and hopefully get into the season the right way," explained Donaldson, who took 27 at-bats in 13 Grapefruit League games, collecting four singles. "I think it will benefit me not getting on the turf. It’s different than all the other turfs. I think it’s in my best interests to stay off it, and the team felt that as well."
Here are some other Blue Jays talking points from Sunday:
• Manager John Gibbons said the team will likely reveal its final roster in Montreal but indications are John Axford of Port Dover, Ont., and Tyler Clippard will both be in the bullpen once the season begins. The veteran right-handed relievers, each in camp on a minor-league deal, will stay back in Florida and throw a side while lefty Tim Mayza, the third arm in the mix for a relief role, joined the team on the flight north. Axford pitched at 96-97 mph during a clean 1.1 innings with three strikeouts versus the Pirates while Clippard followed with a scoreless frame of his own. "Regardless of what we start with we’ve got some good options that may not make the team," said manager John Gibbons. "It should remain a good strong bullpen throughout the year."
• If Mayza does indeed end up the odd man out, the Blue Jays will have only one left-hander in the bullpen – Aaron Loup. Carrying a second lefty makes sense, but Mayza does have options, while Axford and Clippard both have ninth-inning track records in the big-leagues and would likely have opportunities with other clubs if they don’t open up with the Blue Jays. "We’d like that, I think that’s ideal, whether that happens or not I’m not sure yet," Gibbons said of having a second lefty. "A lot of those guys have had really good springs, we know a lot about them. It’s not going to be an easy decision but we’ve got a pretty good idea of which way we’re going to go. We’re just not ready to announce it yet."
• One reason they’re probably not ready to make any official decisions is because space will need to be made on the 40-man roster for Axford, Clippard and, likely, infielder Danny Espinosa, another non-roster invitee who is expected to win the utility infielder’s spot over Gift Ngoepe, who has an option remaining. The Blue Jays are sure to be looking for ways to avoid risking any assets on waivers.
• Espinosa is a solid defender who offers more with the bat than Ngoepe, who might be a bit better with the glove. How much does offence matter in the role? "That guy is probably not going to play a whole lot to begin with," said Gibbons. "It always helps to hit in the big-leagues. You want to be able to do some things with the bat – you don’t have to be able to do that, but it’s ideal."
• Marco Estrada allowed five runs on five hits and two walks in 2.2 innings on a day when some players were as focused on getting ready for camp’s end as the game. Most of the damage against Estrada came in the third inning, but he was happy enough with his day’s work, despite the ugly line. "I was making good pitches, I had good fastball command, I liked the way the changeup was coming out of my hand," he said. "I threw a few good curveballs, cutters came out really well. I got what I needed out of it, physically. I’m not having any issues with my shoulder, my back, anything like that. I feel like I’m making pitches, so I’m ready. It was more of a stamina thing, for most of us, that’s what it is, being able to go six, seven, eight, nine innings with 100 pitches underneath you. We weren’t going to go that deep today, but even before that, I think I threw 80 pitches and I felt fine. I was ready to get to 100."