February 2012

Taking a day

Wednesday is my first scheduled day off of the spring but BlueJays.com will still have full coverage of everything happening at camp during my absence. On that same day, Carlos Villanueva is expected to throw his first bullpen session since going through a mysterious hand injury that likely is related to a circulation problem. If everything goes well, he will throw another bullpen session on Friday and shouldn’t be too far behind the rest of his teammates despite the recent setback.

On the main site, you’ll find my feature on veteran Omar Vizquel and his quest to crack  Toronto’s 25-man roster to cap what has been an illustrious career. There’s also a notebook item with injury updates on Villanueva/Jesse Litsch plus an item on the Blue Jays looking to be more aggressive on the basepaths.

Upon my return look for articles later this week on Brett Cecil, who has been one of the biggest story lines this spring after dropping 32 pounds during the offseason following a frustrating 2011 season. I’ll also be working on some items about Eric Thames, Brett Lawrie and some of the club’s top prospects who are in camp with the team.

In the meantime, don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @gregorMLB where I’m posting daily pictures and various tidbits from Spring Training.

Snider reflects on last year

Blue Jays’ Travis Snider arrived in camp last season with a guaranteed job but things aren’t quite as clear cut this time around. He is in a heated competition with Eric Thames in left field and the loser of that battle likely is headed for Triple-A Las Vegas. On the main Blue Jays website, you’ll find my feature on Snider who talks about that competition, his previous struggles and what he needs to do to get back on track.

Also on the main site, there is a notebook with an update on the bizarre ailment currently facing right-hander Carlos Villanueva. Also included in that article are two small pieces on Toronto’s intrasquad game later this week, and the need to control the running game better than a year ago.

Don’t forget, you can follow me on Twitter @gregorMLB where I’m posting daily pictures and various tidbits from around Spring Training. In the meantime, there was simply too much stuff about Snider to fit into one article so I have provided the transcript of my one-on-one interview with him, which took place on Sunday.

Enjoy!

Travis Snider:

Did the wrist injury you suffered at the end of last season have an impact on how you were able to approach the offseason?

“I definitely spent some time rehabbing that, getting it strong, and adding some more focus on forearm and wrist strengthening as well as a maintenance program to carry me throughout the season.”

Did it push back any of your workouts or cause problems with your usual offseason schedule?

“I don’t usually start hitting until around Christmas anyways so it wasn’t a setback for the offseason by any means. I didn’t jump right into my upper body lifting just because I wanted to make sure everything was strong, healthy and 100% before I started to push myself in the weight room. But it wasn’t much of a setback, it wasn’t anything that stopped me from coming here prepared, it’s not a thought in mind anymore.”

You went through a major mechanical change with your swing in 2011. Where does that stand now and did you have to make any further adjustments during the offseason?

“I think what (Triple-A hitting coach Chad Mottola) and I established right before I got hurt, was an end product of a lot of adjustments and changes that I’ve been trying to make over the last two-to-three years. I finally got my hands into a lower position to start, which for me coming out of high school and all the way through the Minor Leagues I held my hands high. Coaches in the past had tried to make that suggestion, Dwayne Murphy being one of them, but it really took a whole summer in Vegas to get the repetitions needed to find the level of comfort to go into the cage every day as well as practice and carry it over into games.

“Unfortunately, where I left off the last week before I got hurt was when we started seeing the results in the games but it was a good platform for us to build off of going into the offseason and really understanding where I needed to be in my offseason training, in the cages as well as coming down here knowing what I needed to accomplish each day.”

How difficult is it to make that kind of adjustment during the middle of a season? It often results in having to take a step or two back before making real progress.

“I think any time you make a major mechanical change, the mindset is something I really learned about. Going into that adjustments in the past, I’ve always struggled with the idea of making a drastic change instead of understanding there is a process to it and it’s not going to happen overnight. But the better mindset you can take into it, the more productive and more successful you’re going to be in a shorter amount of time.

“Instead of getting caught up and saying, okay I need one week to be able to drop my hands and get comfortable with it, it’s sort of a gradual process and there’s a lot of trial and error we had to go through to get to the point where I am now being comfortable with my hands, my stance, I was more of an upright hitter the last couple of years and had some success at the end of 2009 with that, which I wanted to carry over in 2010 but that wasn’t the case. It came time to make that adjustment and I feel comfortable with where I’m at.”

Seems like you and Mottola have developed a very strong relationship. Was he a key factor in all of this?

“I don’t think there could have been a better, not only coach, but personality. Chad, he’s been through the grinder through his own experiences in baseball and he relates to guys very well whether it’s struggling to make an adjustment because of your mindset or making adjustments that needed to be made because of mechanical flaws. He knows how to mold his style of coaching into each personality and I’d say that’s probably the hitting coach to do because we all have egos, we all have things that have worked in the past for us.

“For a lot of us as competitors it’s hard to let go and he does a very good job of working through that process with you and establishing to mindset every day that, hey we’re here to get better and if things aren’t great today it doesn’t mean you can’t go out and get three hits and it also doesn’t mean you’re going to wake up tomorrow feeling great so you have to keep the right mindset.”

I can only imagine the level of frustration you went through last year. How was Mottola able to help you through those low moments?

“From the experiences that I’ve had with him over the years, we have built a strong personal relationship where he understands my personality and he can tell, even I’m not saying something, if I don’t agree, and he can take that and use it against you in a great way. He’ll say, ‘okay I know you might not be comfortable with this, or it might not be what you want to do, but let’s try it.’

“He takes the positives from the negatives and puts it into your routine every day. In that situation, when you’re being sent down for the second time, third time in my career where I’m getting sent straight down to Triple-A, it was almost relieving to go back and see him and understand we’re going to pick up right where we left off the first time and just work with the process and not get caught up in everything else.”

What were you able to learn from everything that you went through?

“Taking the positives out of it is really the most important thing for me. I’ve always been overly competitive in a sense, when you get into this game, understanding how to deal with adversity. I never dealt with a lot of baseball adversity growing up and there were a lot of things off the field that I felt like I handled the right way but I think as we grow as players and as people you have to be able to make those adjustments on the fly and not get caught up in the logistics, the business side of things, and really concentrate on what you can control. That’s everyday, go in there, getting your routine established, working through that routine and making the adjustments as you go.”

John Farrell and Alex Anthopoulos have talked about the need for you to show more consistency at the Major League level. The counter argument from some people is that you haven’t been given enough of an opportunity to show that consistency at the Major League level. What’s your take on that situation — especially being sent down the second time last year?

“I had discussions with John and Alex about the second stint but when you look at the decision that had to be made I understand. With where I was at, the competition I had at that particular time, there wasn’t a whole lot of argument from me. Not being so concerned with why, versus how are we going to get back, how are we going to get this thing right, how are we going to get consistent.

“Consistency is the key. Any person at this level, whether you’re an offensive guy or a defensive guy, you have to be consistent. I understood that the consistency wasn’t there during the time I was up there. So, being able to say, okay we got some things accomplished, had a good couple of weeks, a tough week and a half to two weeks and you’re going down, but the mindset wasn’t bitterness or anger towards anybody but as an opportunity to go down, get things figured out. I firmly believe that everything happens for a reason and yeah I wish I could say I had 600 at-bats but that’s the way the cards fell. At the end of the day, there’s no guarantees in life, there’s no guarantees in this business and you have to work for everything you get and that’s going to continue to be my mindset going forward is just to control what I control and let the results speak for themselves.”

How do you avoid putting too much pressure on yourself when you know you might only have a short period of time to showcase your skills in that type of situation?

“I’ve experienced the over thinking, I’ve experiened enough of that side of things to understand that doesn’t lead to any success. I think the mindset has to be growth mindset. The challenges are going to be there, the adversity is going to be there, but what defines a person in life is how you overcome that adversity and for me I know I can sleep well at night if I know I went out there and gave it everything I have.

“Being able to work through struggles is important, but in this business and in this game you can only expect so much before you have to take the responsibility on yourself for your performance and your preparation. I think controlling your preparation and really putting everything into it that you need to get ready is the key to be successful and forgetting about all of the other things that can play into a certain situation.”

Did you find yourself over thinking things at times last year or was that something you got better at?

“I think it’s something I continue to learn from the experiences. Any time you are struggling as a hitter, you find ways to get inside of your own head and the greatest hitters don’t do that. For me, as I experienced two times last year, really struggled up there and understand the way your mind can trick what’s going on out there in the real world. For me it’s about concentrating on the present moment and what I can control at that particular time of the day, whether it’s going into the cage, my workout routine and staying on top of the maintenance stuff to keep me healthy and on the field playing to a high level. I think if you take care of those things and the rest will take care of itself.”

With that in mind, what do you think you need to do to win the job in left field?

“I don’t think there’s one particular thing. I think it’s a matter of going out, we’re about a week away from games, it’s a matter of maximizing what I need to accomplish to be in game shape and game ready starting on March 3rd when we get this thing rolling and going one day at a time. Like I said, putting into what I can each and every day to get the most out of myself when I step on the field and not worrying about if I have three hits or four strikeouts — you’re going to have those days — but at the end they’re going to make a decision and it’s their decision to make.”

What has Farrell told you about the current situation and what he’s expecting from you?

“The same thing he told you, the consistency, we’ve seen what it can be but I have higher expectations for myself than just having two good weeks. Going forward, it’s about not putting pressure on yourself if you have a bad couple of games but also understanding when things are good, they’re good, and when things are bad you have to just keep grinding, keep working, keep the right mindset and look at the challenges each day as an opportunity.”

Blue Jays’ first full squad workout

The Blue Jays went through their first full squad workout on Saturday afternoon at the Bobby Mattick Training Center. The full scoop on today’s events plus an injury update on right-hander Carlos Villanueva can be found in today’s notebook.

Also on the main Blue Jays’ site, there is a feature on Alex Anthopoulos believing this is the best team he has put together during his time as general manager. There is a growing sense that this team  will compete late into the season and while there are still plenty of question marks that remain a lot of veterans on the down sides of their career have been replaced with an emerging young core of talent which should bode well in the future. I’ll link to the article here when it goes live on the site.

Also, don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @gregorMLB as I’m posting daily pictures and various Spring Training tidbits from Blue Jays’ camp. In the meantime, here’s a transcript of an interview with Ricky Romero for your reading pleasure.

Working on anything different this spring?

“Planning on working on refining the cutter a little better this year and kind of learning how to pitch with it. Backdoor side to the frontdoor side, stuff like that, so that’s where my focus is coming into the spring. I already talked to Papi (Blue Jays pitching coach Bruce Walton) about it and we’re on board and obviously you always want to clean up your mechanics and shake that rust off. Other than that just have a healthy spring and go from there.”

What did you learn during your first season as a No. 1 starter?

“I think you’re kind of looked at as the leader of the staff, and I felt like the way I went out there and led by example, I did a pretty decent job of it. I was proud of that and obviously now having Brandon, Dustin, Cecil and Henderson on board and all the guys fighting for spots I think they kind of saw what happened last year and a lot of those guys don’t want it to repeat again. I feel like a lot of guys are focused and ready for this year.”

On the need for more innings from the rotation…

“I think every starting pitcher that’s a goal they have in mind every time they take the mound and that’s to go as deep as possible. Being around it and the more you see it, the more you see what it takes, I think it gets you more mentally prepared than anything.

“It also helps when you look at the bullpen on paper, we’re as good as anyone, and I think that helps a lot. We have a lot of depth, we have two closers in Francisco Cordero and Sergio. A lot of guys have done it before with Frasor and Casey, I feel like our depth in bullpen is tremendous and I’m really excited to see them work.”

On Brett Cecil coming into camp having dropped 32 pounds…

“Unbelieveable, just watching him and the determination he showed and the work he has put in, you can tell right away. I think everyone is happy for him and now it’s just a matter of going out there, putting it all together and getting outs because that’s what you’re here for. I mean, it’s good that he lost all that weight but you have to go out there and perform.”

On finishing last season strong…

“It definitely felt good to get on a roll towards the end and finish the season strong. I think that was one of the things people questioned about me, whether I was going to be able to hang through a whole year but I was able to do it and not once did I feel fatigued or tired. I just wanted to finish strong and I did.”

How much did it help your career to go through those rough years in the Minors before breaking into the Majors as a rookie?

“A lot. To this day I still thank god I went through those times. For me, personally, as a young player I think you have to fail before you come up here just so you know what it’s like to fail. It happened for two and a half years for me where I was consistently failing. I think it made me mentally stronger and it’s tough for a young kid to come up here and all of a sudden they get hit in the mouth and don’t know how to react. But I think a lot of those guys that happened to last year, they’re coming in with a different mindset.”

On J.P. Arencibia…

“I think him and I had a great relationship as far as a game plan and knowing what to do. You can go through scouting reports and things like that but I think he always knew what was working for me that night and we were always on the same page. He’s going to continue to get better, and having Molina on his side was good, and I think having Mathis will be just as good too. Mathis has obviously that experience of working with a great staff in Anaheim and if (Arencibia) continues to learn, which I’m sure he will, he’ll be that much better.”

Lots of young starters around now — wasn’t like that when you broke into the league..

“When I came up it was Roy Halladay and guys like that, that were older than me so I was kind of the younger one. Now, I’m only 27 years old, and I feel like I’m old now. Everyone is kind of you’re the leader of the staff but I don’t pay attention to stuff like that. I just continue to go about my business and work hard. I learned in the big leagues by just watching one guy and I hope other guys do the same with me. Just watch the way I work and go about my business and when it’s time to strap it on it’s full game mode and hopefully guys continue to adapt to that learning process.”

On the competition among the young starters…

“I think it’s great. It’s just pushing guys to be that much better, including me. I always say, there’s always someone working just as hard as you, if not outworking you, so you have to continue to push and I feel like the competition this year I think it’s going to put pressure on all of us and make us work that much harder.”

Can the overall inexperience hurt this team?

“We won’t let that happen. We have guys that have done it for awhile now, position players, pitchers, and I think our youthfulness is going to work on our side and to our advantage.”

More certainty with the roster compared to last year at this time?

“I think so. Obviously we came out with a few question marks last year from the starting staff, position players and everywhere else. I felt like a lot of those questions got answered last year. J.P. did a great job, Lawrie came up and did a great job at third base and Lind did a tremendous job at first base. I think at one point last year we all just came together and it was like, okay these are the guys that are going to be with us for awhile and it’s good to know that. It’s good to come to Spring and I don’t have to worry about that stuff anymore I just go out and play the game.

On lots of Blue Jays being on Twitter…

“We have fun with it. We talk a lot of smack. We usually pick on Lawrie … we’re just trying to get to the fans. There were a few times this offseason where I’d just sit back and have fans ask me questions about anything. When you’re able to do that and they’re able to communicate with their favorite athletes, I think it’s awesome and now that we have the power to do that, it’s a great thing, and I think we use it to our advantage by showing that we do care.”

Rasmus speaks

Colby Rasmus arrived at the Blue Jays camp on Thursday afternoon and the following day spent a long time chatting with the media. This doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but for what it’s worth I’ve never seen the guy as upbeat, positive and forthcoming as he was with the reporters today.

That type of new attitude is also something I’ve noticed during the past 24 hours in the clubhouse. He seems to be talking and joking around with his teammates a lot more than he did in the past, and more often and not, there’s a smile on his face. That’s not something that happened a lot last season and while it doesn’t guarantee a better performance on the field, it certainly can’t help.

Lots of people seem to want to write off Rasmus as a bust and in my opinion it is just way too early to do that. Remember, it was only last year that similar doubts had been raised about Toronto shortstop Yunel Escobar. Atlanta had very similar problems with Escobar as the ones St. Louis experienced with Rasmus. Also, just like Rasmus in 2011, Escobar struggled after coming over to Toronto in a midseason trade but a full Spring Training the following year seemed to do wonders for his comfort level and confidence. 

The results followed and the whispers of doubt have all but subsided. There’s no reason to think a similar fate couldn’t happen to Rasmus and the mechanical changes he has made to his swing only lends more to that positive line of thinking. But it’s still very early in camp, the results haven’t been proven on the field so until then this is all talk but I have a feeling there are a lot of Blue Jays fans out there that are encouraged by this turn of events.

Only time will tell… In the meantime, here’s my feature on Rasmus and his new outlook on the game. There is also a notebook with items on Escobar and Edwin Encarnacion reporting to camp, plus an update on this weekend’s activities. Also, don’t forget you can follow me on Twitter @gregorMLB

Here is the full transcript of Rasmus’ scrum with the press:

Benefit of spending entire Spring in Toronto…

“It means a lot. I had a nice offseason, I came in feeling good, my body feels good and just seeing some of the smiling faces around, just getting back with the guys that I spent a little time with last year, seeing all of the coaches. It’s just a good feeling, ready to get going and very excited for the season. I think we have a good shot.”

Looks like you’re having fun again…

“I definitely think that means a lot. Last year I was beat up a little bit mentally. Just couldn’t do many things right last year, I felt like my confidence got down but this offseason I’ve had some time to get that back and I’m just going to try have fun, smile and just enjoy my teammates and not let the things that I can’t control bother me. Last year, some times, I might have tried to control some things I couldn’t control and worry about things I shouldn’t be worrying about. If I would have just focused on the game, see the baseball, hit the baseball, run it down and catch it, it probably would have took care of itself. Just get out there, relax, play the game, see the ball hit the ball.

“I played good in the outfield in the end in Toronto, in the last part of the season my outfield was good I feel like and I was just relaxed. In St. Louis, I got into some trouble where my outfield wasn’t very good but I just wasn’t playing like myself. I wasn’t relaxed, I was worried about messing up and thinking like I had to go over the top to do these things and I just got stressed out, got caught in a place where my confidence wasn’t there. Now I’m getting my confidence back and now I’m just going to go out and play the game.”

Let others affect your mood…

“Once it got down to it in my last little but in St. Louis is just got crazy. The fans were upset with me, the coaches just banging heads a little bit and I just wasn’t comfortable. I couldn’t relax and play. So, I think the coaches over here, like last year when I came in the outfield coach was cool and just told me to just go out there and play. ‘I know, you know, that you messed up, whenever something happens I don’t have to come at you and breathe down your throat.’ I already knew I messed up and I already knew I was doing things wrong but jsut that added pressure I didn’t have no way to filter it out. It just kind of ate me up and it showed in my play.”

Any one person who sat you down and worked you through…

“Not really, I just went home and spent some time with my family which I usually do and got in the weight room, which is a place that I’m comfortable at, trying to put some strength back on. But I didn’t really talk to many people. I think that might have been my problem to begin with, getting too much advice from too many different sides, my headed started spinning a little bit, I didn’t know which way to actually go. Instead of just having confidence in myself and sticking with what I know, I kind of listened to other people and might have gotten my head into different places where I felt like I wasn’t confident when it came down to it when I needed myself the most.”

Bad timing of last year’s wrist injury…

“Yeah, that was definitely bad timing but those things you can’t control. I felt like, like I was saying earlier, that my outfield play was alright but I was definitely struggling with the stick. But I think this year, getting my confidence up, go out there and play the game and not worry about the stuff I can’t control.”

On changes made to his leg kick…

“I tried to lower it down a little bit, I might have been getting a little too crazy with it. And just trying to focus on getting my weight back over the plate, I was flying off a lot. I hurt a little something with oblique over in St. Louis that might have caused me to do that a little more instead of staying in there on the ball. That’s one thing I’ve tried to do.

“But like I said, once I go out there and just try to play the game without thinking about all that stuff, just go out there and have some swag and smile and have fun and just laugh and play like a kid again I think I’ll be all right. In St. Louis I just got to where I was so much just business, I was out there with no emotion, every day, I felt like I couldn’t, I just felt like everything I did was the wrong thing. If I showed emotion like I was happy, I wasn’t playing good enough so I could do that.

Right group of guys for you in Toronto?

“Everybody’s been great, all the players, some young guys who have a lot of life to them, it won’t be like St. Louis where I’m just the young little puppy and everybody wants to teach me the tricks and beat me down and tell me that I’m doing things wrong. These guys are cool, Bautista’s awesome, always upbeat, (doesn’t) show anybody up or try to put his ego on top of you. This all about playing the game, having fun, just a bunch of guys trying to win a ball game.

Negative comments from LaRussa…

“It’s definitely tough to deal with, especially when you feel like you’re working hard. I definitely worked hard in the gym, I got to where my swing, I just couldn’t feel anything. I was trying to do too much and changing things, every day a different swing, which is one thing I want to do now, stick with one thing, get my little routine and stick with it. If it don’t work, I go home happy, that’s fine, I did it myself and have my own little routine and I stuck with it, instead of listening to everybody giving me advice here and there.

“The media in St. Louis, they were always on me, I guess I’m an easy target because I’m nice and I try to talk and be nice to the guys, but that’s just not how it works. They’ll take you for everything you can get. So I’m just going to try keep my mouth shut, play the baseball game, relax, and just have fun.”

Was your dad helpful for you this offseason or did you stay away from that advice…

“He’s definitely helpful for me. One thing I talked with my dad about, is my dad can be a bit negative at times, just because he wants the best for me and he’s scared that I’m not going to do the right thing, he always looks at it from the point of I’m not doing enough, you can always do more. I talked to him about trying to be positive with me, keep me in a positive light and I think that’s something that can help me because he is such a big influence on my game and my overall mentality.

“Positivity, stay positive, because I think if I stay positive and I’m having fun, like last year at the beginning of the season with St. Louis, I was having fun, just relaxing, playing the game, and I played great. If I can try to do that all year, stay positive, have a lot of positive vibe coming at me, it’ll help my game.”

What happened in St. Louis that made things so go sour…

“I don’t know, I guess I just said some things that rubbed people the wrong way. I don’t know really, it’s all about how you play. If I would have played good, it wouldn’t have mattered, but I didn’t play good and like blood in the water, they came after me. But it’s all good, I’m here today ready to play, I’m not worried about it.

What type of changes did you make with your swing…

“I don’t look at it as a whole lot of changing in my swing. I changed it from the time when I was struggling, but there were times when I was hitting good too. It wasn’t like I just struggled the whole time. I think I got to where in my swing I just didn’t know where to go – one day doing one thing, one day doing the next.

“I didn’t feel comfortable. I didn’t have any confidence in myself every day to just go out there and just see the ball and hit it. I tried different things throughout the year and now I’m focusing on some things like lowering my leg kick a little bit, talking with Murph, and just getting my weight over the plate and getting inside the baseball. Simple, not too many things going on. Just relax and hit the ball.”

On hitting coach Dwayne Murphy’s trip to his home…

“Just came in and hit a couple days just to see kind of what I was thinking at the time and what I was doing with my swing and what I was trying to do, so that way, throughout the season we can bang heads a little but. It’ll just kind of be me and him working together on my swing and not nothing else.”

Seems like you’re a completely different person…

“No doubt. I really never felt good in St. Louis. I always felt like I wasn’t … I don’t know. I was always so much younger than everybody else, and I just felt like I was never really, I guess you could say, a part of the team kind of. I never got comfortable, and Tony wanted it that way. He always said he didn’t want me to get comfortable, he wanted me to always stay working hard and doing this and doing that.

“So I think that was one thing that might have hurt my game a little bit. I feel like it would be good for me to get comfortable, and know I’m going to be here and know I’m going to be a part of the team, know I’m going to be here ‘til the end instead of worrying about maybe getting sent down and this and that. Just go out there to play the game, have fun, relax. During the offseason I had a lot of time to spend with my family. It’s quiet in Alabama, you know. Spent a lot of time with just my family and some people that I know, not dealing with all the riff-raff, all this stuff. I think right now I’m in good shape and feeling good mentally, so we’ll see what happens down the road.”

What were you thinking when you were watching the Cardinals during their playoff run?

“I didn’t watch it.”

You weren’t rooting for them?

“I was. I got a lot of friends on that team, a lot of guys I love and respect. I have no hard feelings towards anybody, you know? Just didn’t watch it. I was doing something else.”

I assume you’ll be getting a ring?

“That’s what I hear, I don’t know. I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Did you get your postseason share?

“I got a little something, something.” (big grin on his face)

John Farrell responds:

Was the lower leg kick his idea or did it come from the club?

“That was a lot of conversation when he came over to us. He was in agreement with some of the things that were causing his timing to be off a little bit. But last year, coming to a new club, coming to new surroundings, building that trust factor, he might have been a little bit reluctant to make those adjustments at the time which we talked through and totally understood his point of view.

“He just felt like there was going to be an appropriate time where maybe the consequence of maybe on-field performance might take away from it. The argument would be, well the performance wasn’t there, but that’s part of dealing with a player and when they’re open enough to make those adjustments. But he knew very clear going into the offseason all of the things that Murphy and others were providing him and he spent the time making the adjustments.

“You’ll see a more controlled leg kick that allows him to maintain a bat path more consistent to handle multiple types of pitches.”

Report back from Murphy’s trip to visit his home…

“Very positive. From a fundamental standpoint the more controlled leg kick, he was able to handle the ball away from him, handle the ball on the inner part of the plate, he was hitting the ball to all fields. But the most important thing that stood out was his eagerness and his attitude of being very positive, couldn’t wait to get to camp and couldn’t wait to get back involved.

“Today was Day 1 that he was on the field and just the interactions … he’s a good kid. He understands what makes him successful and just hearing the conversation with him, he’s eager to get going and he comes in with a very positive outlook.”

Villanueva talks about Braun…

Right-hander Carlos Villanueva held court with a group of reporters on Friday morning to discuss the Ryan Braun situation. Why Villanueva? Well, because he is a former teammate of Braun’s but more importantly he is an alternate represenative on the Players’ Association Executive Board.

Here’s what he had to say about Braun winning his appeal to avoid serving a 50-game suspension for testing positive for a banned substance.

Your take on Braun — any inside info?

“No, not really. I was actually asking some of the guys that know a little bit more about what exactly was it that happened. I know that he was not guilty. Obviously we’ve all seen that.

“But my understanding is that they went under the arbitrator and the third party determined it wasn’t conclusive enough.

Chain of custody problems…

“Doesn’t sound very professional, I guess. But in the end it’s good for Braun, it’s good for the Brewers. As long as it was done under the rules then we’re all for it.”

Prevailing feeling Braun won on technicality…

“I’m waiting for him to saying something. But at the same time we have to remember that that information should never have been out, should never have been public. We shouldn’t even be talking about this now. The fact that it came out, before he accepted the MVP and everything, and of course him being the MVP, I imagine it was a very difficult off-season for him, I guess.”

“He’s happy now.”

Integrity of system…

“Everybody is going to have their opinion, obviously, I’m one of the guys that every time I get tested I check the numbers and everything a hundred times, I ask the guys ‘how many times have one of you
messed up and actually done something wrong?’ You always get ‘Oh, if that’s happened, it’s happened once.’ But we’re human, there’s human error in everything we do. And of course even though it might be 99 out of 100 times they do it right, that one time it might affect somebody the way it apparently affected Braun.

“Nobody wants that cloud hanging over their name, and I played with him for like four or five years, and when he was in the minor-leagues, and he’s always been a super worker and a guy that has shown that he has integrity. Hopefully after this he can start cleaning up his name and keep working like he did before.”

Affects his name…

“It does, because nowadays the opinion of people with all the social media out there, there’s always going to be people doubting, ‘Oh, he got off because he’s Braun, because he’s the MVP.’ Everyone is
entitled to their opinion. The fact of the matter is he had nothing to do with the outcome. It was three parties, they decided he’s not guilty and I’m sure he’ll take that and go about his business.

Does baseball need to look at system…

“Oh yeah, and I’m very sure that whatever happened in this case, we’ll take very, very big measures to make sure it doesn’t happen again. We learn from mistakes, it hasn’t happened before but it was
bound to happen I guess. It happened now, you correct the things that need correction and like I was saying with the HGH test, (the urine sample) is supposed to be a simple test, it’s been done forever, and there’s error in that.

“Imagine bringing in a more difficult testing system and a more difficult thing doing it with blood and everything. That’s why things take time, but in the end, as long as we can go back and correct ourselves.”

Need support…

“Exactly, you need the majority. That’s why we have a negotiating committee, that’s why it’s the Players’ Association and the MLB, there’s not one single person making decisions it’s everyone
together. If it’s eight out of 10 or nine out of 10 then you have the support of the people you need to get it done.”

How do you stop leaks…

“You hire different people, hire a different lab.”

Suspicions on leak?

“I don’t know. I’m hoping it wasn’t the person that tested him because that wouldn’t be good for anybody. Especially for us because it creates doubt. Now everybody that does the test will be thinking
about that. You don’t want to be all nervous, it’s a simple urine test and now I have to be worried that they might mess up my test but you have to trust the system. You have to trust MLB in conjunction with the MLBPA are going to clean it up. That’s part of it, people mess up, it happens I guess.”

Do you think you there needs to be an explanation of arbitrator’s decision?

“I don’t think [Braun] has anything to say, really. I don’t necessarily want to hear from him. I want to hear from somebody, maybe the arbitrator.”

He’s got 30 days but report not made public…

“If I was just a regular fan, I would want to know a little more about the situation, because I’m sure, like me, a lot of people don’t really understand what happened in the middle. We know the initial and the final answer, but just for our own peace of mind, to try to understand the process a little more. Sometimes for us to understand the process, something like this has to happen, so that way more details come out. If you get tested and nothing ever happens, you really don’t have any questions about the matter.

“But because it was such a high-profile player, it raises some questions. But I don’t think it’s going to be that big of a deal with people saying, ‘Oh, the integrity of the tests …’ It happened. Hopefully
it’s an isolated incident and whoever messed up, get rid of him and get somebody competent to do their job.”

Put yourself in Braun’s shoes?

“He’s definitely feeling relieved, I imagine. I don’t think good or bad because I don’t anything good can come out from having your name out there, especially how things have gone in the last couple years. We’ve cleaned up our sport a lot from the steroid era to now. Only a handful of players are now testing positive.

“But I read one of his statements yesterday and he said it was now time for him to clean up his good name, and he can say that, because obviously the decision was made that he isn’t guilty.”

More from Bautista

It has been a long day at the ballpark so I’m going to try and make this blog entry relatively brief. On the main site you’ll find a feature on Jose Bautista and his return to health following an injury plagued 2011 season. It also takes an in depth look at the somewhat overstated controversy of his comments regarding drug testing during the offseason.

There’s also a notebook with items on Colby Rasmus reporting to camp, Brett Cecil suffering from a migraine and Omar Vizquel likely hanging up the cleats after this season. Don’t forget to follow me on twitter @gregorMLB where I have been posting daily pictures along with breaking news and tidbits from Spring Training.

Here are some more comments from Bautista that didn’t make it into today’s article:

On the offseason…

“I rested a little longer than I usually do because I had all of those nagging, day-to-day injuries like the sprained ankle and banging up against the wall. So I wanted to I wanted to let my body heal a little bit. So, I rested for eight weeks and got back into training slowly.

On silencing his critics in 2011…

“I don’t really care about that, it’s not what I keep my focus on. I just try to remain productive and I know the things that allow me to do that is to just focus in on my preparation and my work and those are the only things that I worry about. Keeping that in mind, I felt like I had a good year individually but at the same time my overall success is dictated by how well my team does and I don’t feel like we played as well as we could have played.

“I know it’s not only up to me and everything’s not under my control but I feel like I could have done more at times and helped out in different ways. Not only by getting a hit or driving in a run but doing different stuff on and off the field and in the clubhouse. But that’s more experience for me and I feel like it’s going to help me be better this year so I learned from last year and it’s a new year now and I feel good about our chances.”

On the revamped bullpen…

“We haven’t even started the season, but on paper it feels like we have a lights-out bullpen. I know there’s a very capable group put together. I’m excited to think that in those close games we’re going to have much better chances to come out on top and I think those are the biggest difference maker in a season for any Major League team. You want to win every single close game that you can get.

“Knowing that we have great arms throughout the bullpen and it gives us a lot of peace of mind and I can see the starting rotation being much more relaxed when they go out to the field knowing that they can rely on those guys and on the offense as well. We don’t have to get 10 runs up on the board to win a ballgame. If we just get ahead one or two runs we’ll feel comfortable those guys are going to be able to hold the lead and close out the ballgame.”

On what it will take for Blue Jays to make the next step…

Just health. Last year we did okay, we finished .500, it’s a tough division but whatever, I’m not trying to use that as an excuse. I think eight guys out of the nine that were in the starting lineup at some point were on the disabled list and that hurts you. When you lose the main guys in the every day lineup the team chemistry and the way everybody plays together gets thrown off a little bit. At the same time the production from that particular player might be hurt when they come back because there’s a period of adjustment.

“If we all remain healthy and we can play together all year long we’re going to have a much better final product than last year and if you think about it, if we had won five more games that means five less losses and we would have been 10 games over .500 and right there with the Rays trying to sneak in for the playoffs. It’s not that much of a difference when you look at it — five games and we feel pretty good about the group we have put together and we’re hoping for big things this season.”

John Farrell on Bautista…

“I think players of his calibre, and the production that they put up, there’s always going to be added questions or media attention and the potential for distractions just because of what they garner, what they earn in that regard.

“The one thing that is so unique about Jose is that he’s a smart guy, he’s aware that some of that attention is going to come his way but he doesn’t let it get in the way of his work. From just a sheer production standpoint there’s no reason to think he’s not going to put up a year similar to the last two.”

Spring Training: Pitchers and catchers first workout

The Blue Jays second day of Spring Training is in the books with all of the pitchers and catchers now in attendance. Second baseman Kelly Johnson, outfielder Ben Francisco and infielder Omar Vizquel were among the new arrivals of position players with the reporting date for that group set for Friday.

On the main site you will find today’s Notebook with items on Vizquel and Johnson. Also you’ll find my feature on the club needing improved performance from their starting rotation in order to have any chance at the postseason and a piece looking at the signing of Rick VandenHurk with an injury update on prospect Alan Farina.

I’ve included some leftovers from John Farrell’s scrum with the media today. Also, don’t forget you can follow me on Twitter @gregorMLB where I’m posting daily pictures and also including any breaking news.

Farrell:

On the improved bullpen…

“Alex did an outstanding job of bringing in the guys that are here today. The one thing that became very clear during the offseason, as we continue to add either through trade or free agent signing, is that they were guys that had more recent success in the roles that they are coming off from a year ago.

“It’s a diverse group in the standpoint of the ability to matchup. We’ve got some guys that can go multiple innings. With the addition of VandenHurk today, he’s going to be a guy that will mix in and compete for the long guy out of the bullpen.

On the need for a second lefty…

“We want the best pitchers who are going to make us the best and most complete pitching staff. If that’s right handed or left handed that will work itself out but any time you have multiple left-handers that can be a luxury obviously to be able to match up earlier in the game before you get into that seventh, eighth, ninth inning type of a situation but we want the most dependable, reliable guys when we break north.”

On Cordero starting with a clean inning…

“It would be (ideal). That’s our view right now and that’s how we would look to approach things — is to give him a clean inning. That’s what he has been accustomed to as a closer and I think any reliever, you’d like ideally for them to come into an inning they can come in and start themselves.”

On the interest in VandenHurk…

“We’ve always had very good reports on him. He’s always had very good arm strength, he’s had good swing and miss, particularly effective against right-handed hitters. He’s a guy that has started in the past, and with that starting experience behind him, he’s a guy that can pitch multiple innings out of the bullpen.”

On McGowan…

“Consistent with his bullpens before camp opened up. He doesn’t take added time to get into the flow of the bullpen, he doesn’t need extra throws to get loose. By comparison, relative to everyone else in cam,p he has mainstreamed. The ball has good sink coming out of his hand and it has been very encouraging in the two weeks leading up to today the way he has thrown the ball off the mound.”

On Bautista reportedly being drug tested 16 times in the past two years…

“When you see that number of tests administered it makes you take a step back and say is there additional thought behind that. We’re privy to seeing his work ethic and intelligence, and the adjustments he’s capable of making, you might look at it and say are those tests because this is someone whose broken out and really become and elite player and superstar, I’d like to think and which we all know, it’s the result of hard work and adjustments along the way and not something artificial.

“The fact that he’s had that many tests and they’ve all been negative, speaks more volume to the fact there’s nothing hidden here and there’s nothing for it to be attributed to other than the fact that you’re looking at a damn good player who’s put in a lot of hard work and learned along the way. That’s the reason for his success, not a shortcut.”

Spring Training: Pitchers and catchers report

Greetings from the Sunshine State where the Blue Jays pitchers and catchers officially reported for their physicals on Tuesday evening. They’ll be joined on Friday by the position players with the first full squad workout taking place the following day. 

To get you started, make sure to check out my article on Toronto’s new closer Sergio Santos and there’s also an article on the start of Spring Training with quotes from Ricky Romero and John Farrell. Below, I’ve also included a lot of leftover items from Farrell will be expanded upon in coming days but the nuts and bolds can be found below.

Also, don’t forget you can follow me on Twitter @gregorMLB. I will be posting pictures from Spring Training every morning and will also provide news throughout the day when it becomes available. 

On the competition in left field…

“I thought that the way Eric came up last year and handled himself offensively, he hits with a lot of confidence, he believes in himself when he’s in the batter’s box. Thought he worked extremely hard and improved his defense, which is still an area where there is some development left.

“Yet, Travis Snider, who is probably a stronger defender right now, the consistency, the production, the swing and how he maintains that swing is really how we’re going to continue to monitor in Travis’ case. But it will be a head up competition in camp.”

On Snider’s chances…

“There has been some references to time running out and I would dispute that emphatically. He is a talented player, has a multi skill set. We want the best player in that position, and as Travis has come up and done very well, it has been the consistency of that production that has been a little elusive and that has been the course of three different times that has taken place. So, he’s well aware, as is Eric, of the situation that he comes into and it will be a battle.

“We’ll make the decision on which player makes us the best team. While they’re not the same, we’re going to factor in what each player can do individually and what gives us the best 25-man roster when we break and go north.”

On McCoy’s versatility…

“His versatility is a plus, there’s no question about it, but we also look at what Omar can bring to us. His veteran leadership, his mentoring ability, I don’t want to play on that too heavily because he’s still a player with a lot of talent and as I said we’ll get into that as we get into Spring Training.”

On Vizquel’s defense at SS…

“The one thing that you look at over time — and you read the reports and get evaluations of other people — he has had a long career as a shortstop. Whether the arm strength is as good as it was a few years ago, might not exactly be the case, but you can also look at an alignment with Lawrie at third who has tremendous range that can cover up the six hole a little bit more than the average third baseman. That takes away from some of the concern that might be there with the throw coming out of the hole at shortstop.”

On starting staff…

“We’re confident in the guys that are here … We know that we’ve got to get a greater number of quality innings pitched by that three, four, five slot. If guys hadn’t had success previously it would leave a little bit more in question but the fact that you have Cecil, who has been a 15-game winner, the way Dustin is throwing the ball in the early, going on top of the way he finished out last year, he we all feel will continue to improve and get better. Henderson did an outstanding job in the time that he was here, the 10 starts that he made.

“What our focus and emphasis will be in camp is to create a much mor clear mindset that the our starters intent is to go deeper into the game. That stems from their physical work, that stems from being efficent and attacking the zone … We’ve got the people here that we feel like will make up the difference — and I refer to that 10-game difference in the standings — and that’s going to primarily come from an improved starting rotation.”

On Cecil losing 32 pounds during the offseason…

“It speaks volumes and he is to be commended for it. We sat down and had some very candid conversations with him at the end of the season. He was well aware of it, he wasn’t pleased with the way things went last year and to his credit, he went out and made the committment from a body composition standpoint to get him in better shape. Whether that transitions into increased velocity we’ll see but I think more importantly his body control and ability to repeat his delivery is where this will really help him.”

On McGowan being treated the same as other SPs…

“Right now, he’s grouped in. For lack of a better term, he has mainstreamed into the routine and the throwing program we’ll go through with every starter. Once we get closer to games, and the intensity as it picks up if he needs — because last year he didn’t throw bullpens between starts — we’ll monitor that. If that is needed to where it’s some flat ground and loss toss rather than throwing off a mound inbetween starts that’s not uncommon for starting pitchers to use that type of routine.

“We know more about him after going through a full year last year. Both from a rehab standpoint and what he did in September. But like any other starting pitcher, regardless of whether it’s Dustin or not we’ll monitor their needs and adjust accordingly.”

“Honestly, he pitched with more velocity in September than I anticipated, or any of us anticipated. Those are all positive signs. Any time a pitcher goes through what he has gone through, you’re going to go through a bit of a learning curve again to pitch effectively with the stuff that you have now versus pre-injury but he’s a smart kid and he’s making the adjustments along the way.”

On how may starters will receive multiple innings this spring…

“We have 10 that we mapped out that will get multiple innings and start when those opportunities arise. Certainly they’re going to have back-to-back outings, or build on top of maybe one of the guys we have penciled in to begin the season in our rotation, but 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 starters stretched out.” (Note: the 10 are Romero, Morrow, Cecil, Alvarez, McGowan, Laffey, Drabek, McGuire, Hutchison, Jenkins.)

On who bats second…

“The hope is that Kelly Johnson takes that spot and runs with it. We’re still going to try to alternate through the lineup as best we can. If there are matchups that will dictate otherwise then we’ll make that adjustments. Yunel will lead off but I’d like to see Kelly in that two hole.

“He’s had years where has been very good at getting on base. To me, that’s the most important things. Guys that can get on base at a higher rate in front of Bautista, Lind, in front of Lawrie, Encarnacion that’s where we’re looking to build it from.”

Spring Training coverage to begin Feb. 21

The blog has been in a hiatus for awhile but it will be back up and running on Feb. 21 when I officially report for Spring Training in Dunedin, Florida. I’ll be there for the entire six weeks and will have daily updates and regular photo galleries posted here.

In the meantime, all of my articles can be found on the main site. The latest entries include a Spring Training preview and features on J.P. Arencibia and Ricky Romero. Keep checking http://bluejays.com for all the breaking news and check back here in a little over a week for the start of Spring Training. 

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