Roark seeks new path to success as Blue Jays pass on Odorizzi opportunity

Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Tanner Roark breaks down his shortcomings from last season and discusses how he plans on fine tuning his game in spring training ahead of the 2021 MLB Season.

TORONTO – Jake Odorizzi represented an opportunity to upgrade the rotation for the Toronto Blue Jays right up until Saturday, when the free-agent righty reached an agreement with the Houston Astros on a two-year contract that includes a player option for a third season.

Between the 30-year-old’s past relationship with manager Charlie Montoyo, his residence near Dunedin, Fla., a track record of success in the American League East and negotiations on a multi-year deal last off-season between the sides, he was certainly available to them.

The financial terms in what sounds like a creative contract weren’t immediately known. But the Blue Jays, confident enough in the stable of arms already in place to pass, remain intent to begin the season with what they have, and examine external adds as season moves along.

The merits of that decision will be judged closely once the bell rings. Pivotal will be how Nate Pearson recovers from a Grade 1 right groin sprain, and whether Tanner Roark recovers from a rough 2020 to become the type of mid-rotation stability post he was signed to be.

His spring debut in Saturday’s 7-1 win over the Philadelphia Phillies certainly highlighted some important trends to watch in his build-up to April 1.

The 34-year-old righty’s fastball averaged 89.1 m.p.h. and topped out at 90.7 over his two innings of one-hit work, and while too much can’t be made of a first spring outing, that’s down 1.5 m.p.h. off his average last year, which was down another 1.5 m.p.h. from 2019.

Roark worked out of the stretch and threw exclusively four-seamers against the Phillies as he tries to “find the two-seamer” that was once his bread-and-butter, but “got smoked” last summer when “it wasn’t moving as much.”

All of that has him trying to optimize the stuff he has right now – his slider generated four swinging strikes – while simultaneously aiming to recover some of the lost velocity that may very well be the difference between reliable innings-eating and good hitting.

“Oh yeah, I’ve worked on a bunch of stuff this off-season just to try to get into my backside a little better,” Roark said of trying to recover some velocity. “I’m still working on it every single day, to get that right delivery down exactly, and get everything fluid. I’m not worried about it. I can still get guys out and I still know how to pitch. Even if it doesn’t come back, I’m just going to have to hit my spots and work that much harder. But I have faith in the old arm right here.”

A fair bit will be riding on it, especially with manager Charlie Montoyo saying Pearson played catch at 90 feet Saturday and next steps will be determined based on how he feels Sunday.

Hyun-Jin Ryu remains the rotation’s foundation, while Robbie Ray, Steven Matz and Ross Stripling all have upside but also some volatility coming off down years. Odorizzi’s 2020 was submarined by injuries unrelated to his arm and he’s not a lock to regain his past form, but his track record makes him a decent bet for 30 starts and 160 innings.

The thinking was similar about Roark, of course, when the Blue Jays handed him a $24-million, two-year deal in December 2019. He’d made at least 30 starts in five of his previous six seasons, logging at least 165.1 innings during those five years.

Over that span he’d been evolving from a roughly 60 per cent sinker guy through 2016 to someone featuring a more balanced mix. Last year, opponents batted .383, slugged .851 and averaged an exit velocity of 93.2 m.p.h. against the two-seamer, compared to .344, .721 and 91.7 vs. the four-seamer.

“The better numbers are with the four-seamer,” said Roark. “I’ve got good rotation on the four-seamer, it plays well with all my other pitches. Eventually, I feel like I have good enough feel to make that two-seamer come back. I think I’ll find it sooner rather than later.”

There’ll be some urgency in that regard, since teams will need more from their starters with the season due to expand from 60 games back to the usual 162, even as rosters have returned to 26 from 28.

The Blue Jays very much could use a stable six-innings/four-runs type of starter since they probably won’t be able to bullpen their way through rotation flaws the way they did a year ago. For Roark, who dropped 10 pounds over the winter, to provide that, he’ll need impeccable command, since each tick down in velocity removes the commensurate margin for error.

“I’ve seen him working really hard this whole time, he had a great off-season of workouts. So far, he’s been doing a great job of working,” said Montoyo. “First outing. I’m not going to put that much stock on it. We’ll see where he is next outing.”

VLAD BACK AT HOT CORNER

Vladimir Guerrero Jr., played third base against major-league players for the first time since last spring Saturday, cleanly handling the only ball hit his way over four innings in the field.

“I felt very comfortable today, my legs reacted very well,” Guerrero said through interpreter Hector Lebron. “Working hard with Luis (Rivera, the third base coach responsible for infielders) and Danny (Solano, minor-league infield co-ordinator) every day has been great for me. I wanted to get a couple of ground balls in the game. I got one in the first inning and it went well.”

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The plan remains for Guerrero to be the club’s primary first baseman with Cavan Biggio taking the bulk of work at third, but the Blue Jays are trying to build as much versatility as they can into the roster. Montoyo noted how it will “only be great for our team” if they can roll Guerrero out there situationally as needed, and the soon-to-be 22-year-old who dropped 42 pounds over the winter is feeling as fit and strong as he did three years ago.

“I actually think I feel better (than in 2019, the last time he played third regularly),” he said. “I’m reading the balls good off the bat, my legs feel great right now. I feel a lot better than a couple of years ago.”

PALACIOS OPENING EYES

As outfield prospect Josh Palacios ran into third base for a triple during his 3-for-3 day Friday, Rivera decided to have a little fun at the expense of his uncle Rey, a former big-leaguer turned fireman.

“When I came into third, Luis told me in Spanish, ‘Hey, you’re a better hitter than your uncle,’” Palacios said. “I said, ‘Yeah, I hope so, because I’m not trying to be a firefighter like my uncle.’ This is my goal, this is my dream and he’s taught me a great bunch. I’m not trying to be a firefighter right now at least. I’d like to play a little bit of baseball.”

Palacios, who impressed enough at the alternate site last summer to earn a spot on the 40-man roster, continues to draw notice with his play. An athletic 25-year-old, he made gains both defensively with outfield coach Devon White and at the plate with hitting co-ordinator Hunter Mense, focusing on work to “patch a few holes in my swing.”

“We spent a lot of time working on challenging myself in the cage and trying to make what I did in the cage harder than what I did in the game,” Palacios continued. “So we came up with different machine challenges, different type of baseballs we used and different types of counts we used in the cage. And we tried to take it to a level of, if I didn’t break my bat at least once a week or twice a week, we weren’t challenging myself hard enough. So with attacking those holes that I had in my swing in the cage with different pitches, really trying to get after the weaknesses, making me feel uncomfortable in there, kind of helped free me up in the game a lot more.”

SHORT HOPS

The Blue Jays have started extending some of their regulars to three plate appearances in recent games, something Charlie Montoyo said they were doing to capitalize on Monday’s off-day. That way, George Springer, Bo Bichette, Marcus Semien and others set to sit Sunday got some extra work before essentially getting two days off. … Tyler Chatwood delivered another clean inning, again catching Montoyo’s eye. The right-hander is ticketed for some leverage work toward the back end of games. … The Blue Jays have struck back in their latest transaction battle, reclaiming right-hander Joel Payamps two weeks after the Boston Red Sox claimed him from them. Jacob Waguespack was designated for assignment to make room on the 40-man roster. … Their other recent transaction skirmishes include twice reacquiring lefty Travis Bergen, and Breyvic Valera yo-yoing between the Blue Jays and the Padres.

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