DUNEDIN, Florida – If Jose Bautista ends the season on the baseball field, it'll mark the first time since 2011 but the Blue Jays slugger bristles at the suggestion he isn't a durable ballplayer.
"It's not because I was neglecting my training regime or anything like that," Bautista said of his injuries. "It is disappointing and it is upsetting that I don't get to go out there and finish the season with the team and finish strong. That's been the case in the last two years so hopefully it doesn't happen again."
Bautista tore the tendon sheath in his wrist while taking a swing in a game at Yankee Stadium on July 16, 2012. The injury essentially cost him the remainder of the season, save for five plate appearances over two games in late August.
Last year, Bautista jammed his hip while running the bases in July. He played with pain for about a month and then removed himself from a game at Yankee Stadium on August 20. He wouldn't set foot on the field for the rest of the year.
Bautista continues to hit home runs at a prodigious pace. He went deep on 6.2 per cent of his at-bats in 2013, a trend that has steadily declined since his career-high 54 home run breakout season in 2010 (8.4 per cent in 2011, 8.1 per cent in 2012) when he rounded the bases in 9.5 per cent of his at-bats. Considering he was recovering from serious wrist surgery, a body part that when injured can sap sluggers of their power, his numbers remain impressive.
The 33-year-old describes as "great" his just-getting-to-know-you relationship with new hitting coach Kevin Seitzer. The two have spoken briefly in Dunedin and had a couple of phone conversations during the offseason. Broadly put, Seitzer's modus operandi is to encourage his hitters to use the entire field. Bautista is among a number of Jays, Edwin Encarnacion and Colby Rasmus included, who are almost dead pull hitters.
"You just watch the way they throw the shift on him," said manager John Gibbons. "They leave some big holes (on the right side) for him. There are some cheap RBIs that way. I mean, the way I look at it, you get 500 at-bats in a season and say you hit 50 home runs, which is an unbelievable year. That's still a lot of at-bats without home runs. If you're more of a complete hitter and you'll take some hits (to the right side) to get a rally going or drive in a big run or something, that can only help."
Leadership and its role on a baseball team continue to be topics of debate among those who follow the game closely. The consensus amongst players is that winning breeds camaraderie, something directly reflected in the success of last year's world champion Boston Red Sox. The Jays buried themselves with a 10-17 April last season, injuries mounted and not even an 11-game winning streak in June could salvage the year. As a result, the clubhouse, while it didn't have any crippling divisions, wasn't a tight-knit unit. Players on winning teams, with something to play for, may be more willing to push a single through the opposite side to score a run instead of being concerned primarily with their own stats.
"I think if everybody does as well as they're capable of doing, with some leadership – and hopefully I get to help out in that area – I think we can be a much better team than we were last year and a closer team than we showed last year that we were," said Bautista.
The slugger doesn't share fans' angst over Toronto's relatively quiet offseason.
"Not at all," said Bautista. "I think we have a good group of guys. We're very competitive. We're really talented and I think if we remain healthy and everybody plays up to their capabilities, nobody needs to go do anything outstanding or hit 60 home runs or have a sub-1.00 ERA, we just need to play up to our capabilities."
The Blue Jays announced on Friday they've claimed RHP Liam Hendriks off waivers from Baltimore. To make room for Hendriks on the 40-man roster, the team designated infielder Brent Morel for assignment.
Hendriks, 25, was born and raised in Perth, Australia. He's struggled in limited big league action over three seasons, all with Minnesota, compiling a record of 2-13, an ERA of 6.06 and a WHIP of 1.590.
Morel is a former third round pick of the White Sox, selected off waivers from Chicago on December 23. A right-handed bat, there was thought that Morel would compete for a job off the bench.
Understanding the Business
Reliever Neil Wagner, 30, is caught in the middle of a numbers game and he knows it.
"Taken in the 21st round in the middle of nowhere, you're forced to prove yourself and that's how I've done it my whole career," said Wagner. "I plan on doing that in camp as well."
The Blue Jays will consider going with an eight-man bullpen out of camp but that still won't guarantee Wagner a big league job.
Casey Janssen, Sergio Santos, Brett Cecil, Aaron Loup and Steve Delabar are guaranteed spots. Dustin McGowan will be stretched out this spring but it seems more likely he will be a reliever. Wagner has an option remaining, whereas Jeremy Jeffress, Esmil Rogers and Todd Redmond do not, which doesn't bode well for his chances to make the team.
"They haven't told me anything," said Wagner. "I'm expecting that I'll be here until I'm not. I plan on going out and pitching well and pitching my way onto the team and if things don't work out that way, then I'll go down to Buffalo and do the same thing."
Wagner has a live arm, his fastball routinely clocking in the mid to high 90s and can touch 100 miles per hour. He allowed only one run, earned, in his first 12 appearances with the Blue Jays last season. He ended the season with a 3.79 ERA over 36 appearances, striking out 7.8 batters over nine innings while walking 3.1 hitters per nine innings. He had a 1.368 WHIP over what, to this point, was his longest stint in the majors.
"I feel like I proved that I can pitch at the big league level but in this game, nothing is given to you, nothing's owed to you, so anything could happen at any time and I'm perfectly okay with that."
Nickeas Can't Lose
Catcher Mike Nickeas kept an eye on the Canada-USA semi-final hockey game in Sochi.
"I'm a winner today, either way," he joked in passing.
Nickeas was born in Vancouver in 1983, while his father, who's English, was playing for the Vancouver Whitecaps of the now-defunct North American Soccer League.
His mother is American and Nickeas grew up in California, which explains his allegiances to both sides.
Guess is he'll be cheering for Canada in Sunday's gold medal game against Sweden.
Gibbons Talks Haircuts
Manager John Gibbons, himself sporting a new, shorter haircut this spring, didn't appreciate my efforts to update my 'do.
"It looks like a duck's ass," Gibbons joked before starting his daily scrum with the media.
Well, I can't change the haircut now. My pride won't allow it.