Towers named Jays' No. 5 starter
Zambrano to pitch out of bullpen; Thomson placed on DL
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The Blue Jays announced Saturday that Josh Towers will be the No. 5 starter, with Victor Zambrano moving to the bullpen.
"I'm definitely happy," said Towers, who was informed by manager John Gibbons prior to his start on Saturday against the Reds in the Blue Jays' last Spring Training game. "Making the team is really nice after last year, but I'm real excited to be starting. Everybody's been real supportive and it's comforting to know that I have the chance to start."
It was assumed that the decision would be made following Towers' sixth Spring Training start on Saturday, but Gibbons ended the suspense when he told the media during batting practice that the pitching staff was finalized.
"Yeah, we went back and forth, but we thought Victor would be stronger down there [in the bullpen]," said Gibbons. "If you look at it, they've all pitched very, very good. Victor's just more suited, especially in the role we're looking for -- maybe going a couple innings here and there in a big part of the game."
Earlier this week, general manager J.P. Ricciardi, while praising Towers for his production in 2005, when the 30-year-old righty won 13 games, mentioned that Towers might be on a short leash. But Gibbons said that it would be unfair to place Towers, who is 32-32 with a 4.83 ERA in four seasons with the Jays, in a "do-or-die situation" in spite of his 2006 season, in which he went 2-10 with a 8.42 ERA.
"I don't think it would be fair to say to put him in that type of situation," said Gibbons. "He's won a lot of games for us in the past. It would be hard to forget what Josh has done for us, aside from last year. Everybody in this game has off-years. And, [this spring], Josh did everything we expected him to do. There can be something for saying a job's up for grabs and a guy goes and does something."
Towers, who entered Saturday's game against the Reds with a 3.20 spring ERA in six appearances, tossed six scoreless innings and looked sharp after beginning the game a bit shaky. The 30-year-old right-hander gave up four hits and one walk in the first three innings before retiring 15 of his last 16 batters. Towers, who tossed 77 pitches, 54 strikes, finished with five strikeouts.
"I was way more nervous today after he told me [I'd be the fifth starter] before the game," said Towers, who isn't scheduled to pitch again until next Sunday at Tampa Bay. "But with the season, I have to get off to a good start regardless. I can imagine I'm going to be on a semi-short leash. I understand the situation completely, but it's not something I'm going to think about. I know what I'm capable of doing, and it's time to stay within myself when the game starts."
With Brandon League, who had been tabbed as the setup man coming into camp, going to Triple-A Syracuse and John Thomson being placed on the DL, the Jays needed some insurance in the relief corps, and Gibbons said Zambrano fit the bill more so than Towers.
"They're a different style of pitchers," said Gibbons. "We're stronger in the bullpen with Victor adding to it. You can see him pitching in the middle of the game. He's got strikeout ability and he's got big guts. He always has. So the situation doesn't faze him."
Gibbons said, though, that the rotation is not set in stone, which allows for some variability down the road. The Blue Jays skipper said Zambrano has proven that his arm strength is fully recovered from the Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery he had in the offseason and that he has the chance to assume a starting spot sometime during the season.
"He's bounced back and he's pitched extremely well," said Gibbons. "He's done everything we've asked him to do. Before it's all said and done, he could be in the rotation somehow, anyway."
Zambrano expressed gratitude, more than anything else.
"I'm happy for the opportunity," said Zambrano, who had elbow ligament replacement surgery for the second time in his career last season. "The main thing coming in was to be with the team. I wanted to be healthy and show what I am capable of."
Zambrano proved that throughout spring, compiling a 2.29 ERA with 14 strikeouts and 10 walks in six appearances. Toronto signed Zambrano to a Minor League deal thinking that he may be available by May or June at the earliest.
But the 6-foot, 203-pound pitcher exhibited he had fully recovered from the Tommy John surgery performed by Mets medical director Dr. David Altcheck on May 15, 2006.
"I was able to come back a lot sooner than expected," said Zambrano, who went 1-2 in five starts for the Mets last year before leaving in the second inning of a Mets game against the Braves last May. "Once I started throwing, I threw every day to build up my arm strength. When I came into camp, I was confident about what I could do because I knew I was healthy."
Ironically, the rehabilitation program may have helped Zambrano prepare for the different grind as a reliever.
"Yeah, since I've been used to throwing on a consistent basis, it might make it easier," said Zambrano.
Either way, whatever role he assumes, both he and the Jays are ecstatic about his progress. After he had been informed of the decision, Zambrano stood at his locker answering questions from a reporter when pitching coach Brad Arnsberg walked by and offered a congratulatory handshake.
"I just wanted to tell you, 'Good job,'" a smiling Arnsberg said. "I'm real proud of you."
As are the Jays.
Chris Girandola is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.