Drabek gets under control

Blue Jays starter Kyle Drabek pitches against the Red Sox at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ont.,...

Blue Jays starter Kyle Drabek pitches against the Red Sox at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ont., June 12, 2011. (MIKE CASSESE/Reuters)

KEN FIDLIN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:38 AM ET

DUNEDIN, FLA. - Kyle Drabek has been hearing it ever since he first picked up a baseball.

Coaches, managers and other players have been telling him all his life not to let his emotions get the better of him.

“I’ve heard it, but I’ve never paid attention,” Drabek said Tuesday, on the eve of the official start to spring training where he will try to pitch his way back into the Blue Jays rotation.

“But it wasn’t until I got home this offseason and talked to my dad (former Cy Young Award-winner Doug Drabek) that it sunk in: When you show emotion on the mound, the other team is going to notice and then take advantage.”

Drabek began the 2011 season in the Toronto rotation and in his first 11 starts, the Jays were 8-3 and he was averaging just under six innings per start. By the end of May, Drabek was 3-3 with a reasonable 4.16 ERA, even though he was averaging about six walks every nine innings.

Then it all imploded in June. In his next three starts he pitched only 10 innings total, allowing 19 hits and 10 walks. His confidence was shattered and he found few answers during a three-month stint in Las Vegas.

This spring, with a simplified delivery and the welcome help of his coaches, he is trying to piece things back together.

“My first priority is mechanics,” he said of the work he’s doing with coaches Bruce Walton and Dane Johnson to build a repeatable delivery.

“But secondly, it’s about keeping my emotions intact on the mound. I’ve got to slow the game down. I tend to rush when I get frustrated.”

TWO-HOLE JOHNSON

While it appears Jose Bautista will remain as the third hitter in John Farrell’s lineup, the manager has made it clear who he wants in front of his two-time defending MLB home-run champ.

“I’d like to see Kelly Johnson take that (No. 2) spot and run with it,” Farrell said. “We’re still going to try to alternate (left and right) through the lineup as best we can. If there are matchups that dictate otherwise, we’ll make those adjustments.

“Yunel (Escobar) will lead off but I’d like to see Johnson in that two-hole. He’s had years where he was very good at getting on base and to me that’s the most important thing. We need guys that can get on base at a higher rate in front of Bautista, in front of Adam Lind, in front of Brett Lawrie, in front of Edwin Encarnacion.”

FIVE SPOTS, 10 PITCHERS

While the Blue Jays starting rotation has been penciled in as Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, Brett Cecil, Dustin McGowan and Henderson Alvarez, there are five more candidates whose next six weeks will be spent trying to convince the team otherwise.

Kyle Drabek, Drew Hutchison, Deck McGuire, Chad Jenkins and Aaron Laffey all will get an opportunity to make the club’s brain trust change its mind.

“We have 10 that we’ve mapped out who will get multiple innings and start when those opportunities arise,” manager John Farrell said. “They’ll get back-to-back outings or build on top of the guys we have penciled in to start the season in the rotation. We have a stretch of 10 days where we play three split-squad games and there’s going to be ample innings to get those 10 starters stretched out.”

RIGHT-HAND MAN ON BENCH

While the left-field starting job remains the only regular position up for grabs between Travis Snider and Eric Thames, there will be a variety of combinations under consideration with respect to the bench players who will back up in the outfield and infield.

Veterans Rajai Davis and Ben Francisco, both right-handed hitters, could both make the club, giving the Jays five outfielders.

“That’s a very real possibility,” manager John Farrell said. “With both Rajai and Ben, we can complement Colby and whoever ends up in left (all left-handed hitters), giving us matchup ability. I’m not talking about a platoon situation but it gives us a lot more versatility than we had a year ago.”

If the team goes with five outfielders, there is room only for one utility infielder, with four candidates in Mike McCoy, Omar Vizquel, Jonathan Diaz and Luis Valbuena.

“McCoy’s versatility is a plus, no doubt,” Farrell said, “but we also look at what Omar can bring to us with his veteran leadership and his mentoring ability. I don’t want to play on that too heavily because he’s still a player with a lot of talent but we’ll get into that as we go through spring training.”

McGOWAN 'ONE OF THE GUYS'

Dustin McGowan will be treated just like all the other rotation candidates, though his progress will still be closely monitored.

“He is mainstreamed into the routine and throwing program that we’ll go through with every other starter,” manager John Farrell said. “Because last year he didn’t throw bullpens between starts, once we get closer to games and the intensity picks up, if he needs to adjust his routine between starts, we’ll monitor that and take him off the mound and have him throw long toss or on flat ground in between starts. That’s not an uncommon thing for many starting pitchers.”

As of right now, McGowan is just “one of the guys.”

“Honestly, he pitched with more velocity in September than I anticipated, or any of us anticipated,” Farrell said. “And that’s a good sign. Anytime a pitcher goes through what he’s gone through, you’re going to experience a learning curve where you adjust to pitch with the stuff you have now, as opposed to pre-injury. He’s a smart kid and he’s making those adjustments.”

LOOKIN' AT LITSCH

While there appears to be little wiggle room in the Blue Jays’ bullpen structure, Jesse Litsch is very much in the picture as camp opens.

“He’s in competition for a job, that’s for sure,” Farrell said. “This is a guy who transitioned quite seamlessly to the bullpen. He can give us multiple innings and he matches up well against some good right-handed hitters. We look at him in kind of the same slot that (Carlos) Villanueva is in. They are multi-inning relievers who can come in and make a pitch, with an off-speed pitch, and take the sting out of the bat.”

At the very least, Litsch would likely be the first option for a call-up should any of the seven pre-ordained relievers (Sergio Santos, Francisco Cordero, Darren Oliver, Casey Janssen, Jason Frasor, Luis Perez, Villanueva) be injured or fail to perform.


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