February 2007

The gloves were popping

You know it’s early in Spring Training when the manager pulls a roster out of his pocket to see who’s pitching on the mounds in front of him. Toronto’s pitchers and catchers took part in the first official workout on Saturday, and manager John Gibbons was getting acquainted with a few of the new faces and young pitchers taking the hills.

The sun came out today, making for a more enjoyable day out on the ball fields. Pitchers took turns firing fastballs, and moved to one of the diamonds to work on fielding drills. Catchers spent time behind the dish and in the batting cage at the Bobby Mattick Training center.

Morning physicals took place without any casualities, but right-hander Brandon League is dealing with a tight hamstring. It’s not serious, according to Gibbons, which is good news for the Jays. League is the leading candidate for Toronto’s setup job.

Pitcher Ty Taubenheim came into camp looking trimmer and said he dropped about 15 pounds over the winter. A.J. Burnett and Brian Tallet both arrived sporting long locks. Tallet, who cycles through hair styles throughout any given season, showed up with a shoulder-length ‘do. Reed Johnson arrived with a longer chin beard — think back to when Jeff Bagwell showed up with the extra-long gotee.

All hair styles and fitness updates aside, we did talk some baseball on Saturday. Gibbons would like his pitchers to get quicker to home plate in order to cut back on opposing teams’ stolen-base totals this season. Toronto gave up an AL-worst 130 swipes in 2006.

Gibbons also said that Shaun Marcum would most likely make the club’s bullpen if he didn’t win a rotation job. Casey Janssen, Dustin McGowan, and Taubenheim — on the other hand — would start in the rotation at Triple-A. And concerning the bullpen, Francisco Rosario and Brian Tallet are each out of options.

Tomo Ohka and Victor Zambrano (visa issues) weren’t the only ones having problems getting to Dunedin, either. Toronto third base coach Brian Butterfield has been unable to get to Florida because of inclimate weather. He’s been stuck in Maine, but is expected to arrive some time on Sunday.

That’s all I got for you tonight. It’s 1:26 a.m. (why am I still up?) and tomorrow’s workout kicks off at 9:30 a.m. I guess I should hit the sack. I was up watching the slam dunk contest, which I was disappointed in. The only thing that made watching the NBA All-Star coverage tonight remotely worthwhile was seeing Charles Barkley in a race with a 67-year-old referee and barely winning.

On that note…

Pitchers and catchers report

OK, I understand that the last thing any of you readers want to hear about is how us poor reporters are shivering here at Spring Training, but man, it has been chilly.

I think the problem is that, when you head to Florida, you have this built-in expectation of how the weather is going to be: "It’s going to be hot and I’m going to need sunblock." Well, when you’re forced to wear a sweatshirt and pants,  you purposely leave your sunglasses in the car, and you actually wonder for a moment why you didn’t pack your winter hat, then I’m afraid it’s cold. But if this were the temperature right now in Toronto, I’d be outside in shorts and a t-shirt. It’s all relative. At one point today, my teeth were actually chattering while I stood outside.

Back to baseball, though. The Blue Jays’ pitchers and catchers reported to Dunedin today. Tomorrow, they will all have their mandatory morning physicals and the first official workout is tentatively slated for 12:30 p.m. There were some more fresh faces at camp today — most notably, A.J. Burnett has arrived. We spoke with Burnett, but I’ll save the bulk of it for a feature I’m putting together for this weekend. He’s worked out indoors this winter and recently moved to Maryland. Today was the first time he’s thrown outside since last season, but he’s healthy and ready to go.

Two pitchers not at the Bobby Mattick Training Center — and who won’t be until next week — were Tomo Ohka and Victor Zambrano. Both had visa issues and are still in Japan and Venezuela, respetively. Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi said he believes the pitchers will be in camp by Tuesday or Wednesday.

Some highlights of our sit-downs with Ricciardi and Jays manager John Gibbons today:

– Gibbons isn’t sure how the lineup will shape up. He said the biggest question is where he’ll fit Lyle Overbay and Alex Rios into the lineup. When working on arranging the lineup, Gibbons said he’ll be focussing on NOT sandwiching slower players in between or behind hitters who don’t run as well. Gibbons wasn’t as concerned about the lack of left-handers in the lineup. He said he’s even thought about possibly trying Vernon Wells as the No. 2 hitter and having Overbay bat third.

– Ricciardi said that Spring Training will determine if Gustavo Chacin is really going to be Toronto’s No. 2 starter. As of right now, that’s where Chacin slots in, but things could change this spring. Ricciardi said he’d like to see Chacin improve on maximizing his pitch count. Consider that last season, Chacin averaged nearly an inning less per start than he did in 2005 (his elbow injury probably played a role in that stat, too).

– Ricciardi also said that he doesn’t think Scott Downs is currently a backup plan for the back end of the rotation. Chacin, Ohka, John Thomson, Josh Towers, Shaun Marcum, Casey Janssen and Dustin McGowan would all be tried before Downs. So Downs will remain in the bullpen — maybe partly as Toronto’s left-handed specialist.

– Ricciardi again mentioned that Zambrano appears to be ahead of schedule. Zambrano has reconstructive elbow surgery in May and could be ready as early as May or June for the Jays. He’s already thrown off a mound this winter. Ricciardi said that Toronto might consider using Zambrano as a reliever if the rotation is locked in place when he’s finally healthy.

– On Thursday, Gibbons said he planned on using closer B.J. Ryan in fewer multi-inning save situations. One day later, Ricciardi emphasized that point, saying: "I think we’re going to keep him to one inning. I think that’s the right thing to do. Most guys like that definition that they’re going to pitch that one inning. Although, he’s a guy who will do whatever you want him to do. But in the long haul, we’re better off just having him pitch one inning."

That’s all for now. I’m going to keep warm in my condo down here until I have to brave the cold in order to go get some dinner later (I know, I wouldn’t feel bad for me either). I’ll blog more after the first workout tomorrow.

Until then, what are your suggestions for this season’s lineup? Here’s a list of players most likely to fit in at the different spots (the first names listed making up what I would deem as the projected lineup right now):

1. Reed Johnson, Alex Rios
2. Alex Rios, Lyle Overbay, Aaron Hill, Gregg Zaun, Vernon Wells
3. Vernon Wells, Lyle Overbay
4. Frank Thomas, Troy Glaus, Vernon Wells
5. Troy Glaus, Frank Thomas, Lyle Overbay
6. Lyle Overbay, Alex Rios, Troy Glaus
7. Gregg Zaun, Alex Rios
8. Aaron Hill, Gregg Zaun
9. Royce Clayton, John McDonald

Give me your lineups…

Early Birds

It was relatively quiet at the Jays’ Spring Training complex today. Well, aside from the popping of gloves and the crack of the bat. Pitchers and catchers aren’t required to actually be at the Bobby Matttick Training Center until Saturday, when the first workout is scheduled. A lot of pitchers and position players were already in camp, though.

Today was more of a "Hey, how are doing? How was your winter?" kind of day for me. One of my favorite things about Spring Training is that it’s a lot more laid back than the regular season and it’s a great time to just chew the fat with reporters, players and staff. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of work to be done, but in between shifts at the laptop, it’s nice to just relax in the Florida sun.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t much of that sun today. I actually had to wear a fleece today because it was unusually cold. But, no, I’m not complaining. I could be taking my dog out in the snow at 8 a.m. in Toronto. Still, it was by far the coldest day I’ve experienced down here.

There were a lot of players around today, and some that weren’t there today, but have already arrived. Some of those include Vernon Wells, Roy Halladay, Aaron Hill, John McDonald, Russ Adams, Alex Rios, John Thomson, Josh Towers, B.J. Ryan, Brandon League, Scott Downs, Jeremy Accardo, Jason Frasor, Gregg Zaun, Sal Fasano, Jason Phillips, and a bunch of others. There’s sure to be more tomorrow.

Toronto manager John Gibbons also made his first appearance at camp, and I ran into hitting coach Mickey Brantley on my way out of the clubhouse in the afternoon.

A few of us reporters met with Gibby today and talked about a few things. He reiterated that he’d like to have more defined bullpen roles for some of the pitchers this season, and he’d like to reduce the number of multi-inning outings from Ryan. Gibbons also said he wasn’t worrying too much about his contract situation (he isn’t signed beyond this season).

There were some other topics discussed, some of which I included in the Jays notes on the site today. One thing that I did get confirmed — even though it had already been reported elsewhere — was that Roy Halladay didn’t experience any setbacks this offseason, contrary to an internet report that surfaced recently. So, don’t worry Jays’ fans, Halladay is just fine.

One thing that is interesting is how Halladay is adjusting his spring workouts. He plans on reducing his number of mound sessions and won’t work in his cutter until later this spring. The cut fastball can put added strain on a pitcher’s forearm, and Halladay thinks overusing the pitch last spring helped lead to his injury that ended his season in September. By cutting down his workload now, he should be in better shape come August and September this year — obviously, barring some other unforeseen setback.

Towers also paired up with Halladay on a run around the complex today, too. Gibbons added that Towers spent time with Reed Johnson this offseason in Las Vegas, where Johnson lives and where they worked together with a trainer. Gibbons isn’t counting Towers out, as far as the competition for the Nos. 4-5 spots in the rotation goes. After all, Towers did win 13 games in ’05.

"I’m a big Josh fan — always have been. He’s done a good job for us here. I think last year was just an aberration," Gibbons said. "I expect him to bounce back. Josh is one of those guys you root for, because he’s never had anything handed to him."

He’ll certainly have to earn his way into Toronto’s rotation again, that’s for sure. That’s all for now. I’ll be back at the complex tomorrow for the reporting day, which only means pitchers and catchers have to be in town — not necessaarily at the training center. So stay tuned for more…

A good time to head south

Talk about good timing. I woke up to the worst snow storm of the winter in Toronto, and am now kicking back at my place in Florida. The conclusion of my day turned out just fine, even if the traveling part was a bit hectic. My flight left Toronto on time, despite the massive snow fall, but I barely made it to my connecting flight in Newark.

The first plane I was on had zero visibility on its first attempt at a landing and it had to pull up at the last minute. So we were put into a holding pattern and our pilot came on the intercom with this message: "We might be able to land in Newark in the next 20 minutes, but if we can’t, we’re going to have to head to Richmond, Virginia, because we don’t have enough fuel."

Thank God that Newark allowed our plane to land 15 minutes later. Once we got to the airport, I ran out and jogged to my connecting gate. When I got there, the lady at the counter said, "Jordan?!" — signaling that I was pretty much the only guy the flight to Tampa was waiting on. Once into the jetway, the woman shut the door behind me. Unfortunately, my luggage couldn’t run through the terminal with me.

Everything worked out, though. I got to Tampa — albeit about an hour and a half delayed (could’ve been worse) — and my bags were dropped off at my hotel later this evening. It’s now 12:48 a.m., but I’m here, I have all my stuff, and I’m ready to get this whole Spring Training thing underway.

Toronto’s pitchers and catchers aren’t required to report in Dunedin, Fla., until Friday, but I’ll be heading to the Bobby Mattick Training Center tomorrow morning anyway. I do feel sorry for those of you shoveling yourselves out of the mess back home, but hey, somebody has to bring you all the latest Blue Jays’ news down here in the heat of Florida!

There will be daily updates on bluejays.com and I’ll try to post on the blog as often as I can. So stay warm, and stay tuned…

State of the Franchise

It’s only second year on the Toronto beat, but I’m already getting used to the signs of spring. The annual State of the Franchise event took place on Thursday night downtown. After the function concluded, the reality that Spring Training is practically here hit me. I get on a plane on Wednesday morning, land in Tampa that afternoon, and the marathon that is the 2007 season will begin.

First things first, though, I’ll fill you all in on some things that came up tonight. As usual, there were some minor tidbits that didn’t make it into the general story.

ZAMBRANO WATCH: Maybe the biggest "news" of the night, which wasn’t earth-shattering by any means, was that Victor Zambrano could be available sooner than expected. This doesn’t mean that he’ll be ready to jump into the mix for a rotation spot this spring, but Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi did indicate that the righty could potentially be ready by May.

"I think Zambrano’s a little further ahead than maybe even we thought," Ricciardi said. "I’m not saying he’s going to make the team in April, but he may be closer to pitching in May than we thought. He’s got great work ethic and he’s really pushing himself. We’re probably going to have to pull the reigns on him a little bit."

If healthy, Ricciardi said Zambrano could be the guy they’ve been looking for to replace the 180-odd innings that Ted Lilly provided out of the No. 3 spot of the rotation. Consider that Zambrano is 45-41 with a 4.45 ERA in his career, and won 12 games for the ’03 Devil Rays team that finished with 99 losses. Lilly is 59-58 with a 4.60 ERA in his career.

ROGER THAT: One season-ticket holder at tonight’s event asked Ricciardi if the Jays had any interest in Roger Clemens. Here’s what the GM had to say on the subject:

"He’s 44 years old. At some point, the train comes to a stop," Ricciardi said to a mixed reaction from the crowd. "He’s a great pitcher, and could he help us? Definitely. There’s no doubt about it. But I don’t think Toronto is on his map. I think he wants to go to either New York or stay in Houston, where he lives.

"The other thing is it’d be really hard for us, with the good young players that we have, to bring a player in and allow him to go home on weekends and not travel with the team. Not that he hasn’t earned that, but I think in our environment, it wouldn’t set the greatest example. And I dont think he’s as interested in us as maybe we would be in him."

2B OR NOT 2B: Just because Toronto found a temporary way to keep Aaron Hill at second base this season — signing shortstop Royce Clayton to a one-year deal — doesn’t mean playing short is out of the young infielder’s future. Ricciardi said that it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Russ Adams could become Toronto’s second baseman in 2008, moving Hill back over to shortstop.

Adams was Ricciardi’s first pick as Toronto’s GM during the First-Year Player Draft in 2002. So, when Adams became the Jays’ starting shortstop in 2005, he was in his fourth professional season. Ricciardi said on Thursday that, if they had been more conservative with Adams, this year might’ve been his first in the Majors. So while Toronto believes Hill is a better defender at second, he might have another position switch in store come next season.

MINOR MATTERS: Casey Janssen and Dustin McGowan have an outside shot at starting jobs with the Jays this spring, but Toronto’s plans are for both pitchers to be in the rotation at Triple-A. Joining them should be right-hander Ty Taubenheim, who Ricciardi said could be a long reliever/spot starter in the future.

The Jays also plan on having catching prospect Curtis Thigpen start at Triple-A, and Ricciardi noted that the club hopes to have him team with Zaun at some point in the Majors. Consider that Zaun is under contract for the next two seasons.

FEELING A DRAFT: Toronto has 10 of the first 150 picks in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft.

–The Globe and Mail’s Jeff Blair touches on Toronto manager John Gibbons’ current contract situation. Gibbons’ contract expires after this season.

That’s all for now. I’ll probably be wearing shorts and enjoying some Florida sunshine when I post next. I’ll catch you all down in Dunedin. Stay tuned for more…

Wells, Zaun in town for a visit

For me, the reality of how close the season is to getting underway starts to sink in when the Jays hold these end-of-the-offseason charity events. It’s freezing outside and I brave the cold to go cover the functions and talk to the players who made the trip to Toronto, and you end up talking a lot about how it’s cold and you can’t wait to get to Florida. On Wednesday, Vernon Wells and Gregg Zaun showed up at the Liberty Grand, where the Jays were holding their third annual Reverse Draw.

What could’ve been a whole lot of nothing turned into two very good, lengthy conversations with both players. In fact, so much was talked about that much of it will never appear in any published articles. There was some good tidbits that I’ll fill you all in on here, though.

FROM WELLS:

–While not a whole lot of what either player said was "newsworthy," meaning we mainly just discussed the recent moves Toronto has made or how each guy’s offseason has gone, there were some interesting comments from both players. Wells admitted being happy that the Jays didn’t trade away Alex Rios or Reed Johnson in order to solve the pitching issues:

"I talked to [Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi] and we discussed some things and by no means did he want to trade either one of those guys. Those guys are going to be at the top of our lineup most likely and be the catalyst for this lineup. We needed those guys and I’m very thankful we were able to keep them in the fold."

–Wells also had some interesting comments about new Boston pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka:

"I didn’t face him [in the World Baseball Classic], but I saw him pitch when we went over for the Japan tour. There was one game I didn’t play in and he two-hit our team in a heartbeat. It was interesting and fun to watch and I’m glad I had that day off."

"He has command of everything, which normally you’ll find with Japanese pitchers — they have command of all their pitches. And he’s not afraid of you — no matter who you are. He’s going to throw his fastball and he’s going to throw his gyro ball or whatever. Hopefully we just make enough contact on that thing to do some damage."

"I’ll just watch [the gyro ball] the first time he throws it to me. If I look stupid, you guys understand — it’s a gyro ball. It’s not supposed to do that. Sooner or later I’ll figure it out. … You guys may not notice, but I’ve had some ugly swings that have worked sometimes. We’ll see what happens."

FROM ZAUN:

–Zaun had a much praise for Toronto’s acquisitions of John Thomson, Tomo Ohka and, most recently, Victor Zambrano:

"I know Ohka a little bit from my brief time with Montreal. He’s one of those guys who chews up innings. He keeps you in the ballgame. … Hopefully we can get him healthy and get him out there and see what he can do. The split-finger is an outstanding pitch. He’s a control fastball type of guy. Thomson and Zambrano are sinker, slider type of guys."

"Zambrano can be absolutely downright nasty. You don’t see a team like the Mets trade away a guy like Scott Kazmir for somebody who’s not talented. This guy is very talented. He was the ace of the staff in Tampa Bay and I know a lot of teams wanted him at that point. Unfortunately for him, he’s been injured. Maybe he can make the road back. "

That’s all for now. Today makes it officially two weeks until I leave for Spring Training. The offseason has been nice, but I’m more than ready to get back into the grind of the baseball season. Stay tuned for more…

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