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Gregor Chisholm: The only good news about Borucki’s bad news? Blue Jays pitching is in much better shape this spring

Gregor Chisholm: The only good news about Borucki’s bad news? Blue Jays pitching is in much better shape this spring
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DUNEDIN, FLA.—It’s like clockwork every spring. The Blue Jays arrive in Florida with visions of a set roster and the excitement of monitoring competitive battles for the final spots on the team. Then the best-laid plans are tossed aside because of an injury.

, Ryan Borucki’s bid to make the opening day roster has been thrown into question because of a left elbow injury. Last spring, it was “soreness” that limited his big-league season to a pair of starts and resulted in surgery. This year, the discomfort is described as “tightness.”

Borucki was recently sent for an MRI, and while general manager Ross Atkins remained somewhat coy about the official diagnosis, he appeared to rule out any structural damage. The 25-year-old has been temporarily shut down and will be evaluated in one to two weeks to determine the next steps of his recovery.

“We’re just going to be cautious,” Atkins told reporters Friday morning in Dunedin. “I think with any pitcher, if they felt some tightness in their elbow at this point in the season … we would err on the side of caution.”

Except Borucki isn’t just any pitcher, so there might be cause for more concern. The native of Illinois has been plagued with elbow issues throughout his professional career. The Jays took him in the 15th round of the 2012 draft knowing full well he had a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament which would likely require Tommy John surgery. After a handful of appearances in the Gulf Coast League, Borucki went under the knife and missed the entire 2013 season.

In 2015, he missed almost another full year because of a left shoulder issue. He then stayed healthy until last spring, when he was shut down midway through camp because of elbow soreness. “Just precautionary,” Borucki said at the time. The injury, which was first believed to be inflammation, was later revealed as a bone spur. A few days away turned into a few months and after a brief return in July, Borucki was scheduled for another surgery.

Both the Jays and Borucki insist the issue this time isn’t as severe. The medical charts might even back that up, but it still has to be a concerning turn of events for the player and team. Elbow issues are scary enough for anyone who makes his living throwing a baseball, but when they continue to occur, even the slightest tingle must be looked at as the beginning of a potentially bigger problem.

“Through my throwing program I was feeling pretty good, but I didn’t feel 100 per cent so I just let them know, ‘Hey, I’m not feeling 100 per cent’ and it’s basically just minor tightness,” said Borucki, who posted a 3.87 ERA in 17 starts during his 2018 rookie season. “They just wanted to knock out all that tightness before I really started ramping up for games.

“So basically all precautionary, not like last year. It’s nothing like last year, I know the difference between those kinds of things, and it’s just going to be one of those things where it’s just going to be five, six days’ rest and ramp back up. It should be pretty minor.”

Borucki’s injury leaves right-handers Trent Thornton and Shun Yamaguchi as the favourites to win the final spot in the rotation. Other options include T.J. Zeuch, Anthony Kay and Jacob Waguespack. Hyun-Jin Ryu, Tanner Roark, Matt Shoemaker and Chase Anderson will form the top four. At some point midway through the year, No. 1 prospect Nate Pearson will be considered as well.

It’s a much different situation than last year when Borucki, Clayton Richard and Clay Buchholz went down with injuries in the spring. Three weeks into the season, Shoemaker got hurt as well. The Jays lacked enough depth to overcome the setbacks and the next several weeks saw a long list of retreads on the mound.

Edwin Jackson struggled to get anybody out in five starts, Buchholz was equally poor in 12 outings, while others such as Thomas Pannone and Sean Reid-Foley were not up to the task as starters. It got so bad at one point that even minor-league knuckleballer Ryan Feierabend, who hadn’t pitched in the majors since 2014, got a couple of turns.

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The quality of the backup arms should be much better this time around. Kay, Zeuch and Waguespack were exposed to the majors during the second half of last season and enjoyed some success. At least two of the three are expected to open the year at triple-A Buffalo and, alongside other developing prospects, it offers the type of protection this organization hasn’t enjoyed in years. It’s fair to question the upside, but the depth is impressive.

“That makes me feel good coming into camp,” Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said. “It feels like we’re covered. Last year, that was one of the lowest points for me as a manager, when Borucki went down and then Shoemaker. Like you know, you can never have enough pitching. We just didn’t have enough ’cause a lot of guys got hurt. I feel like this year we have enough people competing for jobs that we should have enough to compete if somebody goes down.”
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