The real games have begun, and for those who so looked forward to the return of the sweetest of summer sports, we’ve already been reminded that this can be a game of failure and disappointment.
Balls get bobbled and dropped. Runners are stranded in scoring position. Cement-mixer sliders are thrown and subsequently pummelled. Batters guess wrong and look silly. Pitchers miss their spot and get punished.
Moreover, each year sees several players of whom much is expected, but whose performance fails to live up to the expectations, whether through bad health or bad luck. It’s a cruel game, which is why we cheer every solid hit, every well-located pitch, and every play well made.
It’s also why we look forward to players who pleasantly outstrip our expectations of them. Those unexpected contributors can often mean the difference between a team that languishes and a team that legitimately excites the fans and ushers in games and moments with meaning.
With so much roster turnover in the past few months, there are many new faces now dotting the field and the Blue Jays’ dugout. And some of them could be more than just warm bodies occupying roster spots for the time being.
Here are three newcomers who could be pleasant surprises, and contributors to the 2019 Blue Jays.
Brandon Drury , 3B
After a disappointing 2018 marred by migraines and injuries, there were very few expectations of Brandon Drury coming into this year. In a few short weeks, the perception of Drury has evolved dramatically.
Once thought of as the temporary stand-in for you-know-who at third base, his solid spring training campaign – .947 OPS, eight extra-base hits including three homers – turned many heads and flipped many opinions. Moreover, his solid defence at third was an added bonus.
This shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. Before his lost 2018, Drury was a productive and versatile member of the Arizona Diamondbacks, posting a .767 OPS while playing all over the diamond. When acquired by the New York Yankees before last season, he could have been perceived as a crafty pickup for the Bronx Bombers, akin to Aaron Hicks. By the time he arrived in Toronto for his abbreviated debut, he was barely noticed amidst all the other reconstruction.
Now hitting at the top of the lineup, Drury has overnight become a fashionable pick to contribute more than expected this season. Even with the likelihood that he could be supplanted at third base in the first quarter of the season, Drury’s positional flexibility could result in him seeing time at second, first, DH, or the outfield corners if his bat remains hot.
Trent Thornton, SP
For most of the spring, Thornton was perceived as a depth piece in Toronto’s pitching plans, who could perhaps be called upon should injuries or performance dictate. With the quick succession of injuries to the staff, as well as the delays in the game-readiness of others, Thornton quickly found himself thrust into the 25-man roster, and his big-league debut on Sunday.
Acquired from the Houston Astros for Aledmys Diaz, Thornton looked compelling at times this spring, striking out 16 batters in 15 innings while walking just five. Moreover, he’s a fascinating pitcher to watch, with his high leg kick and good movement on his pitches.
There’s a strong likelihood that Thornton will find himself dispatched to Buffalo once Ryan Borucki and Clay Buchholz are ready to contribute. But if he pitches well in the early part of the season, one might imagine him getting the opportunity to fill in different roles throughout the pitching staff. One is loath to shuttle a young starting pitcher to the bullpen, even if their delivery does suggest a Troy Percival comp. Still, there’s a lot of talent in Thornton’s arm (and legs) to wish on this year.
David Phelps, RP
The 32-year-old reliever remains somewhat in obscurity for Blue Jays fans, as he continues to recuperate from Tommy John surgery last year. Phelps did not throw any exhibition innings for the major-league club this spring, so his ability to return from the major reconstruction remains something of a mystery for the moment.
But there is enough from Phelps’ past performance to suggest that perhaps he could be a solid contributor to the bullpen when he’s ready to answer the call.
In his last two healthy seasons, Phelps threw 142.1 innings in 118 games, striking out 176 versus 64 walks. He posted a 2.72 ERA over the 2016 and 2017 seasons, splitting time between the Miami Marlins and Seattle Mariners. He also began his career in the bullpen of the New York Yankees, so the travails of working in the AL East will be no surprise to the veteran righty.
It could be several months before Phelps is fully prepared to return, and there may be some rust to shake off as he returns, but if he can recapture some of the form he had before his elbow gave out, he could be a valuable reliever in a bullpen that could use the help.
With any of these players, the aspirations are not for all-star berths or award votes. But any team needs its share of overachievement to make the season a more positive experience. And still, none of us should forget that at one point, Jose Bautista was a roster-bubble role player acquired midseason of whom little was expected.