TORONTO â€” Pitchers and catchers are set to report to the Blue Jays’ spring training facility in Dunedin, Fla., on Tuesday. Here are five storylines to watch as the pre-season unfolds.
ANOTHER RULE 5 SPARK?
The Blue Jays selected right-hander Glenn Sparkman from Kansas City at December’s Rule 5 draft with the hopes he could be a repeat of last year’s success story, Joe Biagini. As a Rule 5 pick, Sparkman must remain on the major league roster for the entire season or be offered back to the Royals at US$50,000 â€” half the cost they paid for him in the draft.
Sparkman, 24, was drafted by the Royals in the 20th round in 2013. He hasn’t pitched above double-A, but spent time at four levels last season in his first full year since having Tommy John surgery in 2015. He was 2-7 with a 5.22 earned-run average over 60 1/3 innings split between rookie league, single-A, high-A and double-A.
Sparkman posted a Carolina League-leading 1.56 ERA for Wilmington in 2014 in his second pro season, earning both Wilmington and Carolina League pitcher of the year honours.
Biagini was a linchpin in the Blue Jays bullpen last season, pitching 67 2/3 innings with a 3.06 ERA. The right-hander didn’t give up a single run over 7 1/3 post-season innings.
Toronto will lose two of its top starting pitchers and its star slugger for at least one week, and possibly two, as the fourth instalment of the World Baseball Classic kicks off in March. Marcus Stroman and J.A. Happ were named to the United States roster on Wednesday while Jose Bautista will play for the defending champion Dominican Republic.
Dalton Pompey was named to the Canadian team while right-handers Marco Estrada and Roberto Osuna are on Mexico’s roster as designated pitchers. Osuna will be available for the first round while Estrada can be added later if the team advances.
The Blue Jays had six major league players leave in the middle of training camp in 2013: Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Reyes, Moises Sierra (Dominican Republic), Brett Lawrie (who got hurt while training with Canada and missed the tournament), and R.A. Dickey and J.P. Arencibia (U.S.).
This spring training could see the return of renowned ace Roy Halladay in a Blue Jays uniform. Halladay, who will be inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame this summer, told reporters recently that he wants to get involved in coaching with a major league team.
The 39-year-old Denver native signed a one-day contract with Toronto to retire as a Blue Jay in Dec. 2013.
The Blue Jays have a history of giving their alumni roles within their organization. Roberto Alomar, Pat Hentgen, Carlos Delgado and Sal Butera, who also played for the Expos, are all involved with the team. Former Montreal outfielder Tim Raines, recently voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, is also with the organization as an outfield/baserunning coach.
STRETCH IT OUT
The Blue Jays starting rotation is likely set with Aaron Sanchez, Francisco Liriano, Estrada, Stroman and Happ slotting in to those spots. But depth players that could fill rotation rolls if needed don’t seem as clear cut.
Toronto currently has right-hander Mike Bolsinger on its 40-man roster while Gavin Floyd and Brett Oberholtzer are listed among non-roster invitees who will have a chance to prove themselves this spring. Reliever Biagini, who was a starter before joining the Blue Jays last year, could also be stretched out.
Toronto’s pitching staff enjoyed a remarkably healthy 2016, allowing the team to use just seven starters all year â€” Liriano, a late-season acquisition made eight regular-season starts while Drew Hutchison slotted in for two spot starts during the year. Sanchez, Estrada, Stroman, Happ and Dickey accounted for the rest.
BACK IT UP
Toronto finalized its minor-league deal with catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia on Monday, addressing the lack of depth at the position left by the free-agent departures of Dioner Navarro and Josh Thole.
Saltalamacchia, who has 10 years of major league experience most recently with the Tigers, will have to learn a whole new pitching staff for a third straight year. The 31-year-old signed a free agent deal with Arizona in 2015, then signed with Detroit prior to the 2016 season. He played 92 games with the Tigers, batting .171 with a .284 OBP.
A.J. Jimenez, once thought to be the catcher of the future, was designated for assignment Thursday to make room for newly signed reliever Joe Smith on the 40-man roster. Juan Graterol, claimed off waivers last month, is the other catcher currently on the 40-man while 26-year-old Mike Ohlman is a non-roster invitee.
Reese McGuire, who was acquired along with Liriano in a trade with Pittsburgh last season, and Max Pentecost, the 11th overall pick in the 2014 draft, are Toronto’s top catching prospects.
Melissa Couto, The Canadian Press