DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The highest praise a pitcher receives in Spring Training is a crowd of his peers.
Tuesday in Dunedin, when right-hander Yosver Zulueta climbed onto Mound No. 1 in a long line of 10 at the Blue Jays’ complex, that’s exactly what he got. They were there to watch “Zulu,” the still-mysterious flamethrower who makes it all look so easy.
At this point last spring, Zulueta was quickly emerging as one of the most interesting names in camp. Signed in 2019 for an even $1 million, the native of Remedios, Cuba, had fully recovered from the Tommy John surgery he’d underwent shortly after joining the organization and was touching 99 mph. His control showed the rust at times, but Zulueta had the building blocks you can’t coach.
Then, facing the first batter of his first game back on May 5, it all returned to zero. Zulueta got himself an 0-2 count, but while trying to cover first base on a ground ball, he tore his ACL. His season was over within one minute of it starting.
“It’s hard. I’m not going to lie to you,” Zulueta said Wednesday through club interpreter Hector Lebron. “Two years after I got my Tommy John and then feeling the way I felt last year in spring, when everything was good, then my knee injury. It was tough. Very tough. But what do you do? You keep working hard.”
That knee is almost 100 percent now, and Zulueta could face live hitters for the first time on Friday. The true measurement of Zulueta being “back,” though, will be his trademark fastball, and that’s already been touching 96 mph in bullpen sessions, which is a very encouraging sign for the organization that his 98-99 mph standard -- and that magic number of 100 -- could be coming again.
“The fastball is right there like last year. The velo is there,” Zulueta said. “I’m feeling good right now.”
No fastball can live on its own, of course. When Zulueta came back from surgery, his changeup started showing a better tailing action, and even though that won’t be a headlining pitch for him, it’s valuable to keep in a hitter’s mind. His curveball can be inconsistent while it flashes real potential, but his primary focus since the end of last year’s camp has been a slider. This is a new pitch for Zulueta, but an important one.
“Last year, he had the big curveball and we were working on a tighter slider,” said Cory Popham, the Blue Jays’ pitching development coordinator. “It looks like he might have a feel for a bit of a bigger slider now, just working with his curveball grip and trying to make it go a little more lateral than up and down. The hope there is to give him a breaking pitch he feels confident to throw in the zone, because his changeup and fastball are really good.”
Zulueta’s development case is a unique one. He’s 24, but has now missed two significant chunks of time and faced only one batter in pro ball. Once he’s on a mound and healthy, though, Zulueta should be able to move quickly, especially in a short relief role.
“Talent wise, I think he could really go wherever,” Popham said. “It’s just about making sure we’re putting him in a good spot where he doesn’t feel rushed and get him ready to go. Most likely, it’s between [Low-A] Dunedin and [High-A] Vancouver, but ultimately we’ll have that conversation with him and the pitching coaches to put him in the best spot possible.”
Toronto’s system is now producing more arms like Zulueta, a needed change after it trailed behind the league’s velocity surge several years ago. The Major League bullpen now features fewer 92 mph fastballs and more pitchers who look like closer Jordan Romano, but even amid this growing group, Zulueta stands out. There’s still plenty of work to be done with his control and secondary pitches, but there’s a reason Zulueta stops other pitchers in their tracks when he picks up the ball.