Now official thanks to MLB.com’s Alden Gonzalez, the Blue Jays have optioned Jesse Litsch to Triple-A Las Vegas to make room for Frank Francisco, who was activated from the 15-day disabled list. The move puts an end to the questions surrounding who out of Litsch and Jo-Jo Reyes was going to be sent to the minors when Francisco or Morrow returned to action.
Reyes impressed this spring and pitched better than Litsch, but Litsch has clearly pitched better than Reyes in the regular season when things actually matter. It seems Litsch’s demotion is a touchy topic among Jays fans given Reyes’ struggles in two of his three starts, and the rest of this article is certainly not going help that.
No matter how bad Reyes pitched in his three starts or how good Litsch pitched in his, it was the plan all along to send Litsch down and keep Reyes around for a few more starts, and here’s why.
The sticking point in the Yunel Escobar deal
If your first reaction to reading those eight words was laughter, you’re not alone. I too was skeptical when I first read that Reyes played a part in the Jays acquiring Yunel Escobar.
When the Braves came to Rogers Centre for a three game series back in 2008, Reyes hurled seven innings of one run ball against the Blue Jays en route to a hard luck loss. Apparently Reyes did enough to catch then-Assistant General Manager Alex Anthopoulos’ eye, though, and Anthopoulos has been interested in acquiring Reyes ever since.
He finally managed to do just that when Reyes was included in the glorious deal that robbed the Braves of Escobar and, according to a great article by John Lott of the National Post, the deal might not have happened at all if Reyes wasn’t included in it.
"“We were haggling over players and Jo-Jo was the piece to put it over the top,” Anthopoulos told The National Post. “They finally said yes. Prior to him being involved, we didn’t have a deal.”"
It’s understandably very hard to wrap your head around the fact that Reyes was the deciding factor in Anthopoulos’ deal with the Braves. But, if he was so determined to acquire Reyes for such a long period of time, it’s also hard to think that Anthopoulos would cut ties with Reyes after a strong spring and just three Major League starts.
Reyes’ knee, Anthopoulos love, and the southpaw factor
Another aspect of Jo-Jo Reyes that went under the radar was the fact that the Jays opted to shut him down and surgically repair his knee last year after he made just two minor league starts with Double-A New Hampshire.
"“I was shocked,” Reyes told The National Post. “I’d been throwing off of it for 2½ months. But I understood. It showed that they cared and wanted me here for a while.”"
Reyes’ comments, particularly the one about the Jays showing they want him here for a while, are intriguing, but hardly guarantee that he’ll be in the Jays organization for a long time. Anthopoulos, however, has publicly stated his interest in Reyes, and he also justified the knee surgery in the same National Post article.
"“There’s a lot of upside to Jo-Jo -his stuff, the years of control, his age, the fact that he’s left-handed,” Anthopoulos said. “And he’s a great kid as we’ve gotten to know him. Obviously, there are no guarantees, but we’ll take chances on a guy like this any day of the week.”“So I thought, why not get it cleaned up now so he’s 100% for spring training?” Anthopoulos said about Reyes’ knee. “Ultimately, even though Jo-Jo thought he could pitch with it . why not be the best that you can be?”"
So, once again, it seems hard to believe that after a strong spring and just three Major League starts, Anthopoulos would give up on Reyes and cut him loose. His comments about age and years of control are also interesting, because Reyes is only three months older than Litsch and actually under club control for a longer period of time.
It also seems “the fact he’s left-handed”, as Anthopoulos put it, is working out to Reyes’ advantage as well, meaning the Jays might give him a longer leash than expected. There’s a feeling that southpaws sometimes take longer to mature than right-handers somehow, and John Farrell reiterated that in Spring Training.
"“There’s a lot of left-handers that have come through this game, and for whatever reasons, sometimes they mature a little bit later than others. They find their command a little bit later,” Farrell said."
Saving the most obvious reason for last, the fact Reyes was out of options continued to work to his advantage. Litsch still had options remaining and could be sent to the minors without the risk of being put on waivers and being claimed by another team. That was something the Jays weren’t willing to try with Reyes, at least right now, given the time and effort they’ve invested in him up to this point.
I’m not proclaiming that Reyes is going to be the next Cliff Lee or a left-handed version of Roy Halladay, but rather that there are enough reasons to see why the Jays are going to keep Reyes around for at least a few more starts to see exactly what they have in him.
If Reyes continues to struggle, the Jays certainly aren’t just going to keep him around. Simply put, the Jays want to make sure they have seen enough of Reyes before making a move on him, if necessary.
If Reyes improves on the mound, great. If not, the Jays can try and work out a trade with another team. If Anthopoulos can manage to get something serviceable in return for Dana Eveland (Double-A starter/reliever Ronald Uviedo), there’s no reason why he wouldn’t be able to do the same with Reyes.
Even if Reyes’ next few starts are horrific, the Jays could be in a better position after that to try and pass him through waivers and keep him in the organization in the minors.