Pitchers make their own way
Zambrano, Janssen hope strong springs beget roster spots
TAMPA, Fla. -- The number of players in camp with the Blue Jays keeps shrinking. In a little more than a week, Toronto's roster will have been trimmed down to 25 big leaguers, and they'll all be able to officially put their six-week stay in Florida in the rearview mirror.
When Spring Training began in mid-February, Casey Janssen and Victor Zambrano were far from being considered locks to make the team. The way the two pitchers have performed since then has forced the Blue Jays to keep them around, though.
"I kind of joke, but I say, 'I'm treading water,'" said Janssen, standing in front of his temporary locker at Legends Field. "Every day there's a cut or something, and I'm still around. We'll see. Hopefully there's a reason why I'm still here."
There's a significant reason for Toronto to keep Janssen and Zambrano in the mix for jobs. Both pitchers are accustomed to being utilized as starters, but there's currently a glaring hole located in the Jays' bullpen.
Right-hander Brandon League, who has lost a considerable amount of velocity on his fastball since suffering a strained right lat muscle earlier this spring, appears destined to begin the year on the 15-day disabled list. Entering the spring, Toronto was counting on League as its setup man for All-Star closer B.J. Ryan.
With League out of the picture, the Blue Jays are trying to find the best solution for their eighth-inning role. All spring, the club has maintained that it will "take the best 12 pitchers north," and losing League, combined with the strong efforts by Janssen and Zambrano, could cause a chain reaction that lands both of the pitcher relief jobs.
"A lot of things change when you lose one of your top relievers," said Toronto manager John Gibbons, referring to League. "You have to adjust."
At one point, Janssen appeared ticketed for Triple-A Syracuse, where he figured to be slotted into the rotation. The 25-year-old right-hander has impressed Toronto so much this month, though, that the Jays are rethinking how he should be used.
In six games, including a two-inning appearance in a "B" game this spring, Janssen has posted a 1.98 ERA with 18 strikeouts and just one walk over 13 2/3 innings. On Saturday, he gave up two runs -- both on a home run to Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez -- and whiffed four batters in four innings.
"He's had a tremendous spring -- he really has," Gibbons said. "I don't know what his role would be yet, but there's some openings out there with League being down. There's no question he's pitched well enough to make the team."
Janssen went 6-10 with a 5.22 ERA in 17 starts for Toronto last year, and he's only made two relief appearances in his professional career. He said he'd be willing to accept any role if it meant he'd be on the Major League roster, though.
Zambrano, on the other hand, isn't solely in the running for a relief job, though that route appears to be more realistic. The 31-year-old right-hander is 10 months removed from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery, but he's been baffling the Toronto brass with his speedy recovery.
The Blue Jays haven't eliminated Zambrano -- also the owner of a 1.98 ERA this spring -- as a potential candidate for a spot at the back end of the rotation, but the club also lacks a veteran presence in the bullpen. Zambrano, who signed a Minor League deal with the Jays in January, has experience as a reliever, posting a 4.82 ERA in 78 games out of the 'pen in his career.
"We've been saying all spring that, once we knew he was fine, we were going to stretch him out like the other [starters] to see what he's got," Gibbons said. "But he might end up going either way for us. We're looking at things, with the absence of League, 'How are we strongest?' That's a big factor."
Zambrano made his first start of Spring Training on Saturday, limiting New York to two runs on four hits over four innings. The righty threw 38 pitches and yielded no runs across the first three innings. He then needed another 38 to get through the fourth, when he began to struggle with location.
"I felt pretty strong," said Zambrano, who had three strikeouts and two walks. "To start this game, it helped remind me of a lot of things I did in the past. I'm feeling pretty good."
Zambrano, who is 45-41 in his career, admitted that he prefers to work as a starter. Like Janssen, though, he didn't come to camp to win a spot in the Minors, so Zambrano is willing to do whatever Toronto might ask of him.
"Right now, any situation for me [is fine]," Zambrano said. "I'm concentrating on being healthy and helping the team in any situation, whether I'm in the bullpen or I'm a starter. But my first thing right now is to be one of the starters on the team."
As with the bullpen, it's still not clear how the rotation will look come Opening Day. Pitchers Tomo Ohka and Josh Towers have pitched well this spring, but Zambrano has worked his way into the mix.
"Things are starting to take shape right now," Gibbons said. "But we're still going to let everything play out."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.