Why Tiedemann’s quiet sim game marked a significant step for Blue Jays

Arden Zwelling and Ben Nicholson-Smith discuss potential changes the Toronto Blue Jays could make to their starting pitching rotation if Alek Manoah misses more time than expected, pointing at Bowden Francis as the likely replacement.

DUNEDIN, Fla. — If you’d walked past Field 2 at the Blue Jays’ Player Development Complex late Sunday morning, you wouldn’t have heard much.

No music. No fans. Barely any media. Just a leaf-blower in the distance, some hushed conversations between Blue Jays personnel and, every 20 seconds or so, baseballs hitting a catcher’s mitt at high velocity. Oh, and there was also Pete Walker’s strike call. 

From his seat on an overturned ball bucket behind a portable net, the Blue Jays’ pitching coach was also acting umpire for this simulated game. He seemed comfortable in the role, calling pitches with gusto. “Ha!” Strike one.

More importantly, the game’s second pitcher seemed at ease, too. In his first outing since left knee/hamstring soreness pushed him to the sidelines last weekend, top prospect Ricky Tiedemann worked quickly, throwing all three of his pitches for strikes. 

His fastball sat in the 95-97 m.p.h. range and while he described his pitch mix as “slider-dominant,” he showed off a couple change-ups too. He yanked a few sliders toward the right-handed batter’s box, but recovered each time, as Cavan Biggio popped up before Daulton Varsho, Isiah Kiner-Falefa and non-roster catcher Payton Henry each struck out.

All things considered, a step forward.

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“Getting on the bump is no issue for me,” said Tiedemann, who still plans to build up to three or four innings this month. ”Just being able to pitch is not a problem. It’s more just the running aspect (of fielding his position). Hopefully by the end of next week, I’ll be good to go.”

The progress of a top pitching prospect like Tiedemann would have major consequences for any team, since he has the upside to pitch at the front of a big-league rotation eventually. But for a contending team like the Blue Jays, the stakes are even higher. They won’t rush him — that would run counter to their vision for developing players — but if there comes a point that he’s ready for the majors, he’ll get the chance to impact this year’s team.

With that in mind, every step matters for the 21-year-old, so the soreness that delayed his spring debut was cause for at least a little concern. To the relief of the Blue Jays, though, Tiedemann felt good after throwing a side session Thursday, setting up his return to a game setting Sunday.

“Really jealous of his stuff,” said starter Yusei Kikuchi through interpreter Yusuke Oshima. “He struggled with injuries a little bit last year (pitching 62 innings), so I’m just hoping that he stays healthy because he’s a big part of this organization.”

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Rotation depth is especially important to the Blue Jays at a time that Alek Manoah is temporarily sidelined with a sore right shoulder. An MRI revealed no structural damage — good news for Manoah, who watched Sunday’s sim game from the grass behind home plate alongside various Blue Jays teammates. 

If the Blue Jays do need to cover a rotation spot when the season begins, it’s likely Bowden Francis who’s best positioned to get that assignment. The 27-year-old right-hander pitched 2.1 shutout innings against Atlanta Saturday, averaging 95.5 m.p.h. with his fastball on his way to three strikeouts. He attacks the strike zone, has logged big innings totals before, and acclimated to the majors last year, posting a 1.73 ERA.

There’s also right-hander Mitch White, who’s been clocked up to 98 m.p.h. this spring, and Yariel Rodriguez, the Cuban right-hander who signed a five-year, $32 million deal last month. Rodriguez emerged from his first live BP session of the spring with back spasms, slowing down his progress for about a week before he returned to the mound with a bullpen session Saturday.

“Not overly concerning,” manager John Schneider said this weekend. “He’s feeling 100 per cent right now, and that was our plan (regardless) to take it slow and really get him acclimated, but he should have enough time to ramp up into multiple innings when he does get into games.”

Yet at this point, it seems rather unlikely Rodriguez would break camp in the Blue Jays’ rotation. In fact anyone but Francis or White would be something of a surprise, and the Blue Jays hope it doesn’t even get to that point. According to Schneider, the concern over Manoah isn’t presently serious. 

From here, Tiedemann will test his leg with some running to be sure he can field his position as needed. If all goes well, he’ll likely progress into games while staying on a five-day schedule. That would suggest a Grapefruit League debut sometime next weekend, perhaps against the Yankees on Friday or the Phillies on Saturday.

Soon afterwards, teams tend to pare down their rosters, meaning Tiedemann’s stay in big-league camp might not last for too many more outings. But if he stays on this trajectory, he’ll likely push his way back to the majors sometime this year and have the chance to miss more bats in an environment that’s just a touch louder.

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