Fringe Blue Jays Francis, White and Clement begin pitches for roster spots

Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Bowden Francis throws during a baseball spring training workout Sunday, Feb. 18, 2024, in Dunedin, Fla. (Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo)

TAMPA, Fla. – During the pandemic season of 2020, the Los Angeles Dodgers shuffled Mitch White between the big leagues and the alternate training site on four separate occasions. The next year, he ping-ponged from the majors to triple-A Oklahoma City 11 times, while in 2022, he rode the options-express shuttle seven times, although a deadline trade to the Toronto Blue Jays added a fresh twist to the mix.

“It was a lot,” he says of all those trips up and down over the three-year span. “At the time I was like, yeah, what are you going to do?”

Such is life on the fringes of a big-league roster, a situation the 29-year-old and several other players vying for jobs with the Blue Jays this spring are accustomed to. Assuming Alek Manoah reclaims his spot in the rotation and the other incumbents are all healthy, White is in the mix for a long relief role, as is Bowden Francis, who was optioned five different times last season.

During a 12-6 loss Sunday to the New York Yankees, highlighted by Alejandro Kirk’s home run and Davis Schneider’s diving catch in left field, both right-handers began making their on-mound pitch for the role. Francis allowed two runs in two innings, White surrendered a two-spot in an inning afterwards, while Ernie Clement, the out-of-options infielder in the mix for a bench spot, went 0-for-3 with four innings in the field.

White is also out-of-options – Francis has one remaining – as he was a year ago, when he came to camp with a shoulder issue, ended up on the injured list, was designated for assignment July 30, outrighted to triple-A Buffalo five days later and reinstated to the 40-man roster Nov. 6.

Since the Blue Jays can’t send him to the minors without him clearing waivers first, White’s limbo runs deeper than usual, since if he doesn’t break camp with the club, he could end up somewhere else.

His mindset?

“The same as it always is – I don’t have any certainty one way or the other, and that’s fine,” he says. “Just go pitch. As of now, I’m a starter and building up and then go from there. Pete (Walker, the pitching coach) and Ross (Atkins, the GM) and (manager John) Schneider have been great, being super open about, we don’t know exactly what your role is going to look like, but we’ll just see how it plays out, whether that’s taper down towards the end of spring and be in the ‘pen or keep building up and be a starter or whatever.”

Francis’ future is similarly clouded and as things stand, he’s potentially facing another season yo-yo-ing between levels, after a year in which his contributions to the Blue Jays (36.1 innings with a 1.73 ERA over 20 games) were significant beyond the numbers.

While new rules implemented by Major League Baseball in 2023 limited the number of times players could be shuttled between the majors and minors at five, that’s still a lot of back-and-forth to endure, which is why Francis spent the off-season focused on adding strength.

Coming into 2023, he had gone to pitch for Caguas in Puerto Rican Winter Ball because he needed to refine some things on the mound. Feeling better on that front, he wanted to complement it by working on his body because “I felt like there was more in the tank.”

“I’m just looking to take advantage of each opportunity I’m getting because I’m only getting older,” he says. “I just want them to know that I’m here to help the team as much as I can. I’m trying to do as much as I can. But a lot of it is out of my control.

“It’s hard because my family was travelling most of the time so we’d have to pack the whole car up and then head back,” he adds. “But I had to turn that switch pretty quickly because I knew if I let it drag on, when it went back to triple-A it would just snowball. So I always had to harness my energy and feel like I’m going through it, not getting mad at it.”

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With a young family, that isn’t always easy since Francis knows “I’ve got to put food on the table.” In years past, he might have carried the frustration of bouncing between levels for longer periods of time, “but it definitely hits me deeper now with what’s on the line. This is my career so I’ve got to take each day like it’s my last.”

Teammates were often frustrated whenever Francis was demoted last year, feeling that based on merit, he deserved to stay. But because he had options, he often unfairly ended up the odd man out, something all too familiar for Clement.

The 27-year-old was released by the Oakland Athletics in March, signed a minor-league deal with the Blue Jays soon after and then went up and down four times, batting .380/.385/.500 in 29 games while providing one win of value, as calculated by Baseball Reference.

His contribution was especially significant in August and September when both Bo Bichette and Matt Chapman were injured and he, Schneider and Spencer Horwitz helped cover the gaps. Still, once again he’s fighting for a job and, to some extent, also fighting to remain in the organization, since being out-of-options opens the door to that possibility.

“Be mindful and live in the moment – that’s the best way to do it,” Clement says of coping with the instability. “It can be so difficult at times. Last year it was like a guy gets hurt, you’re going up, he comes back, you’re going down and then there are times where you just don’t really expect it. Like, Davis went up and they sent me down. Obviously, I was very excited for him and he did so well, it was so cool to watch, but I kept riding that up-and-down train. Luckily, I was used to it and I knew how to handle it from a mental standpoint. But it can test you a little bit.”

Clement passed that test by making sure to leverage his time in Buffalo. There, he worked closely with hitting coach Matt Hague, now an assistant on the big-league staff, to refine his swing, which in turn helped him perform better when he did get recalled.

“I mean, if you’re not in the big leagues, there are things you need to work on. It’s that simple. If you were perfect, you’d be in the big leagues,” he says. “Last year, having a bench role, it can be tough. But when I’d go down, I’d get to play every day and I was really thankful for that. I looked forward to going to the field every day, whether it was in Toronto or Buffalo because I really just wanted to play.”

This season, he very much hopes that continues with the Blue Jays, as does White, who’s looking to turn the page on a trying 2023.

His woes last year actually began in 2022, when he finished the season with some soreness in his shoulder, expected some rest to make it go away, only to find that the pinching sensation he felt whenever he threw kept lingering.

White came to camp early to rehab, couldn’t get himself right and chased his season as a result. In 10 games for the Blue Jays he allowed 10 runs over 12.2 innings, striking out 13 and walking seven. Worse though is that his velo was down in the 93 m.p.h. range, which led to him being designated for assignment.

After a mental reset when no one claimed him, he reported to Buffalo and made some mechanical tweaks, bending deeper into the heel of his plant leg on his delivery, which helped ensure his arm was whipping, rather than dragging, as he released the ball.

By season’s end, White was sitting at 96 m.p.h. deep into starts and against the Yankees on Sunday, was up to 98 m.p.h. and at 96.7, sat nearly three miles an hour above his average a year ago.

“The end (of 2023) was like a breath of fresh air,” says White.

Extending that into this year is now his focus and he feels much better about where his delivery and his shoulder are, compared to a year ago. At the same time, he knows better than to think anything is guaranteed since being out-of-options “is just a different scenario, but it’s the same thing.”

“You’ve still got to pitch and figure it out and they’ll make those decisions from then on,” says White. “That’s how I look at it, at least.”

An outlook shaped by all those trips and down the transactions wire.

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