Jays notebook: Crack open the grapefruit

Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Carlos Villanueva. (REUTERS/ Mike Cassese)

Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Carlos Villanueva. (REUTERS/ Mike Cassese)

KEN FIDLIN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:17 PM ET

With his spring routine interrupted this week after a circulation problem left him with an ice cold pitching hand, Carlos Villanueva expects to be ready to pitch in a Grapefruit League game sometime next week.

Villanueva threw 15 pitches off a mound Wednesday and Friday will toss a full bullpen session of 25 pitches. By Sunday he is expected to be able to throw batting practice and then a decision will be made as to what comes next.

“Everything went okay,” said Villanueva. “I think I’m back on track to pitch in a game by the middle of next week.”

Meanwhile, Brett Cecil will start Saturday’s Grapefruit League opener against Pittsburgh. Henderson Alvarez will start Sunday against those same Pirates in Bradenton and then Drew Hutchison will start on Monday in his hometown of Lakeland against the Detroit Tigers. Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow will pitch Tuesday and Wednesday against the Phillies and Red Sox, respectively.

DRABEK’S EARNING HIS STRIPES

Pitch-by-pitch and day-by-day, Kyle Drabek is starting to win back not only his own confidence but the confidence of his Blue Jay masters and teammates, as well.

Wednesday, slugger Jose Bautista was one of the hitters who stood in against Drabek in live BP and came away impressed.

“He looked like a guy who knew what he wanted to do out there,” said Bautista.

Drabek struggled through a lost season in 2011 but has returned with a purpose, determined to improve his mechanics as well as his mental approach.

“The true test,” said manager John Farrell, “will be when we get into games and he’s asked to balance the running game, the emotion of the game, all those things. That will be the litmus test for all this drill work.

“Ultimately, it will be about executing pitches rather than focusing on his delivery. That’s a natural progression.”

FREE AGENT STRAGGLERS

At this point in spring training, Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos wouldn’t turn down a free look at some of the free agent stragglers still on the market, but it would have to be on his terms.

“Sure, if somebody called and asked for a no-strings-attached minor-league contract, we’d be willing to take a look for a few weeks,” said Anthopoulos.

“But it’s not something I’m looking to do. At this point, with camp already under way and everybody fully aware of where they stand and what’s expected, it could be very disruptive. I would hesitate to do it.”

Among the players still on the market are Vlad Guerrero, Derrek Lee, Magglio Ordonez and Johnny Damon.

Anthopoulos cited the 2007 spring training, when Shannon Stewart came into the picture well after camp started and was selected for the roster ahead of Reid Johnson as a bad example of this kind of thing.

Stewart, as it turned out, was at the end of his career and had little to bring to the table. Johnson, who was displaced, is to this day a productive major-leaguer.

CECIL’S NEW LOOK

Blue Jay scout Mel Didier saw Brett Cecil pitch three times in Las Vegas last summer during the lefty’s three-month exile to triple-A.

This week, Didier has been an observer at three of Cecil’s bullpen sessions. After Cecil faced live hitting Wednesday morning, Didier approached him.

“He told me that in none of the three games he saw last year was I throwing with the same free delivery and arm speed that he saw today,” said Cecil, with some pride.

Nobody can be certain what the baseball season has in store for Cecil, with his new svelte shape and stronger core, 31 pounds lighter than last October.

“But no matter how well I pitch,” he said, “I’ll be able to go home every night and know that I put myself in the best position I could think of to succeed.”

ON SECOND THOUGHT

The Blue Jays braintrust spent last summer swearing up and down that Adeiny Hechavarria would be, then and always, a shortstop, period. Do not even suggest that second base is an option.

Well, Wednesday, they retreated from that position, if only enough to get comfortable with the notion of Hechavarria’s ability to fill in this summer if there was an injury anywhere in the big-league club’s middle infield.

“That doesn’t mean we’re looking to move him (away from shortstop),” said manager John Farrell, “but in the event that we need some flexibility, he’s our premier defender in the minor leagues. We’re going to get him some reps at second base but we still view him, long-term, as an elite shortstop.

“If there was a six-week injury or a two month injury, it’s not a long-term positional shift for him but he would be the clear-cut candidate. We would not consider bringing him up in a utility role.”

Hechavarria might already be the best defensive shortstop in baseball. The only thing holding him back has been his offence but Blue Jay vice president Tony LaCava, who oversees the farm system, is confident the 22-year-old Cuban will hit well enough to be a big-leaguer.

“What we’ve seen in stretches and especially at the end of last season when he was bumped up to triple-A,” said LaCava, “is that the bat is coming around. There is nothing about this kid, physically or with his swing, that says he shouldn’t become a good hitter.”

Farrell is in full agreement.

“The one thing that you see right now is that he just looks stronger,” said Farrell. “In throwing batting practice to him the other day, I got a rare vision of him from the mound and he has a very simple swing but this year there’s a little more authority in that swing.”

Last fall Hechavarria’s citizenship status prevented him from leaving the continental U.S. That is no longer a restriction.

“About four weeks ago he was notified that he can travel into Canada,” said Farrell. “We had wanted to bring him into the rookie camp in Toronto in January and it was still prohibited because of the documentation.”

Hechavarria last played second base when he was 15.

YOUNG CANUCKS IMPRESS SCOUTS

The only thing that differentiated the 10 minor-league prospects from the general population of Blue Jays were the names emblazoned across their backs.

Jake Marisnick, Chris Hawkins, Jacob Anderson and Canadians Michael Crouse, Dalton Pompey and Marcus Knecht were among the kids summoned to be faux baserunners while the Jays worked on baserunning defence Wednesday morning.

“What stands out, whether it’s Marisnick, Crouse, Anderson, Knecht, Pompey, you’re talking about some good looking bodies,” said manager John Farrell. “Had they not had their names on the backs of the jerseys, they would have blended right in with the full group. We’re talking about guys who are 18 to 20 years old but they have a physical presence about them. They’re good-looking young players.”

Jays’ vice-president Tony LaCava said that Crouse, who played with Marisnick and Knecht at Lansing last year “might be the best baserunner in the entire organization.”


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