TORONTO – Kirby Yates has been through this type of situation before, heading into the new year after a difficult and trying down season, seeking to regain his form on the mound and establish his place on the roster.
The circumstances were different back then, when a waiver claim by the Los Angeles Angels in October 2016 offered him a fresh start after a miserable up-and-down campaign with the New York Yankees. He was 29, onto his fourth organization after 7½ years of pro ball and in need of something to rescue his career.
“Basically, I was abandoning everything that I had done before and starting over is the way I could put it best,” the newest Toronto Blue Jays reliever recalled Friday during an introductory Zoom call. “I got into a workout regimen I hadn't done in the past, was in the weight room five days a week, which wasn't always the case. Introducing a new pitch that I was unsure of and abandoning a pitch I'd been throwing the last five years.
"This year compared to that is different just for the fact I know what I need to do to be successful at the big-league level. It's just about me getting that health and getting back to it.”
The Blue Jays are betting on his ability to do just that after August surgery to remove bone chips from his right elbow, handing him a $5.5-million, one-year deal that includes $4.5 million in performance bonuses. Yates will achieve those if he’s anything like the dominant force he became with the San Diego Padres, who claimed him from the Angels on April 26, 2017, five days after he gave up home runs to Kevin Pillar and Justin Smoak in a 5-4 win over the Blue Jays.
In San Diego, Yates’ transition started coming together, his new splitter steadily developing into a game-changing weapon as he morphed from journeyman reliever to all-star. The transformation touched every aspect of his game, from surrendering winters surfing the waters around his native Kauai, Hawaii., in favour of a more structured routine around the gym, to refining his repertoire. By the midpoint of 2017, he began to sense that his new approach, anchored by the new split, was going to play.
“I’d thrown it enough in a big-league game and faced enough good big-league hitters to where I felt like every time I threw a good one, it worked,” said Yates. “It was just about being able to throw the good ones more consistently. In September (2017), I was just throwing fastballs and splitters and when I saw the results, I started getting comfortable with that.
"I was able to take the results to 2018 and keep progressing with it, and get comfortable to where it was in 2019, where I was able to command it in and out of the zone, being able to really understand how I set it up and do what I need to do.”
Last year, none of that mattered, as his elbow issues flared up and a pair of messy two-run, 28-pitch outings July 26 and 31 offered cause for concern. Back soreness sidelined him for a week and when he returned Aug. 14, striking out Arizona’s Daulton Varsho on six pitches, he immediately hit the shelf again with the elbow discomfort that led to surgery.
Now, Yates says his elbow “feels good” and that he’s through the rehab process, working out as he normally would to get ready for spring training.
How well that goes will, in part, determine the role he fills with the Blue Jays, who have added him and swingman Tyler Chatwood to a relief corps that already included Canadian Jordan Romano and Rafel Dolis. The Blue Jays, who pursued Liam Hendriks earlier this winter, are believed to still be pushing on lefty Brad Hand, as well, seeking to create a well of arms to cover the looming 162-game marathon complicated by last year’s truncated 60-game campaign.
With Ken Giles hitting free agency after Tommy John surgery and Anthony Bass reportedly signing with the Miami Marlins, the closer’s role is open with the Blue Jays and for now, Yates seems like a candidate to grab the role.
First things first, “I need to prove I'm healthy, I need to prove I'm still myself and I'm capable of doing it,” said Yates. “If I can go out and do those two things, I think I have that opportunity of getting that ninth inning. I'll take any role I can get as long as I can go out there, pitch, do my job and help us win on an every night basis.
"If I'm pitching the eighth inning and there's someone better for the ninth inning, that will still be fine. If I'm locked in and I'm doing my stuff, that means the guy that's getting the ball in the ninth inning is going to be pretty good and that's all you want.”
Helping in his transition is that manager Charlie Montoyo is the man at triple-A Durham who in 2014 knocked on his hotel door at 1:30 a.m. one night and told Yates that the Tampa Bay Rays were promoting him to the majors.
Another familiar face is Bulls teammate Matt Buschmann, now the Blue Jays bullpen coach. The conversations between them, along with pitching coach Pete Walker, helped assure Yates that he’d be comfortable with how things are done.
“I really liked where we were at,” said Yates, who described the Blue Jays as being pretty aggressive in pursuing him. “I felt comfortable, especially with the relationship I have with Charlie from before. I felt really good about it. It's an exciting team. And I felt like hopefully I can do my part to make us a little bit better. And then when you sign a guy like George Springer, it's like boom, OK perfect, this was awesome. It's just exciting to be a part of that, a team that's pushing really hard to get to the next level.”
If he can find himself again, the way he did during that 2017 season, the Blue Jays will have a much better chance of taking that next step. And while back then he needed to finish a total overhaul of what he was on the mound, this time he just has to get back to what he’s been.
"More or less it's just being able to feel confident on that mound and being healthy and like where I'm at,” Yates said. “So far, so good this off-season. I've been, every step along the way, feeling good about what I'm doing and getting back into that rhythm and just being myself again, able to go out there every day and compete at the highest level.”