Gausman making strides, not going to rush things as regular season nears

March 20th, 2024

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- With or without him, is confident in the Blue Jays’ rotation to start the 2024 season.

Gausman, who’s building back up after dealing with right shoulder fatigue earlier in the spring, took a big step forward on Wednesday when he threw two innings and 36 pitches in a simulated game at the Blue Jays’ Player Development Complex. There are still more hurdles to clear before Gausman can return to the rotation, but he came out of the sim game feeling “pretty good,” which will allow him to continue building up his pitch count ahead of Opening Day.

He doesn’t see the need to rush things, though.

“It’s definitely frustrating … but these are things that are going to happen,” said Gausman. “As of right now, it’s more about getting me right and making sure that I’m trending up going into the season as opposed to just monitoring things and getting through things.”

An important part of a starter’s physical and mental work is what Gausman refers to as “up-downs,” the act of sitting in the dugout in between innings and then returning to the mound several times over. On Wednesday, he needed 26 pitches to retire the side in the first inning and 10 to close out the second.

The next step will be a return to game atmosphere, with a three-inning start likely on tap for Monday against the Pirates -- the Blue Jays’ last Spring Training game of 2024. Gausman expects to raise his pitch count to 60 or 65 pitches, and the club will re-evaluate his timetable after that.

“We still have to build him up quite a bit,” manager John Schneider said of Gausman earlier this week. “[We’ll see] whether he lands at the end of camp at 60 pitches, and then he can pitch without overworking and overtaxing our bullpen at the beginning of the year. If it’s at the end of the rotation, that’s probably the best-case scenario.”

The goal is to build up to around 75 pitches before Gausman can make his regular-season debut, so that might mean he will stay back at the PDC rather than clock in as the No. 5 starter once the Blue Jays break camp.

Still, a successful sim game is encouraging news for a pitching staff that really needed it.

With Alek Manoah recovering from right shoulder soreness and high-leverage relievers Jordan Romano and Erik Swanson dealing with ailments as well, the Blue Jays will likely need to dive into their pitching depth out of camp. Bowden Francis seems like a safe bet to slide into a rotation spot. Mitch White and Wes Parsons are also candidates for either a starting role or a long-relief job.

Gausman feels particularly good about that group.

“As you saw last year, our pitching staff is one of the best in baseball,” said Gausman. “The young guys that needed to make that jump [to full-time big league contributors] have. They've shown that they're a lot more professional in the way they go about their business. If Bowden needs to cover for me for a couple of starts, I feel pretty confident with him or Mitch White. Wes Parsons, same thing.

“We’re at a luxury of having a lot of options.”

Some of that luxury was on display at CoolToday Park in North Port, Fla., where Francis pitched 4 2/3 innings and allowed four runs with three strikeouts, two walks and four hits (one home run) in Toronto's 10-9 loss to the Braves. Before Wednesday, Francis had allowed just one run over 12 innings through three Grapefruit League appearances in March.

Those numbers are a continuation of Francis’ 2023 performance in the Majors. The 27-year-old right-hander emerged as a reliable long reliever for Toronto, pitching to a 1.73 ERA and 35 strikeouts over 36 1/3 innings. Some added velocity and regular starting reps should also help with solidifying the “jump” Gausman spoke about.

Parsons and White, meanwhile, are still looking for consistent command -- which will be key for a Major League role with the Blue Jays -- but they’ve made significant strides since the start of camp and are both rostered players who are built up as starters should Gausman need more time to get ready.

But no one is making firm statements about that yet.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” Gausman said.