Estrada progressing; backup plan in place

Righty could make Grapefruit League debut next week, be ready for season

Estrada progressing; backup plan in place

TAMPA, Fla. -- Blue Jays right-hander Marco Estrada appears to be turning a corner in his return from a lower-back injury, and he's expected to pitch in a simulated game Saturday morning.

Estrada threw a bullpen session at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium on Wednesday, and according to manager John Gibbons on Thursday, everything went according to plan. The veteran starter will throw again Saturday and then likely will receive clearance to pitch in a Spring Training game at some point next week.

The timing of Estrada's return to the mound doesn't leave much leeway to get ready for the start of the regular season, but the club still expects it will be enough to begin the year with the big league team.

"He felt great," Gibbons said. "Saturday he'll throw a simulated game, and then the next step is probably a [Grapefruit League] game. ... I would say it's pretty close to what we envisioned anyways, but he needs to keep moving in the right direction, that's for sure."

Even though the Blue Jays expect to have Estrada ready for Opening Day, they do have a backup plan in case that scenario falls through. Toronto will begin the season with four road games against the Rays, which will be followed by an off-day before the home opener on April 8.

Toronto held internal talks about what would happen in case Estrada needs a little bit more time to get ready. The most likely course of action would see the club go without a fifth starter for the first week of the season, and instead have Marcus Stroman ready on normal rest for the home opener against Boston.

Outlook: Stroman, SP, TOR

The Blue Jays remain optimistic the extra time will not be required, but they do have options if Estrada suffers a setback with soreness in his lower back, or if he simply needs another Minor League outing to build up endurance.

"Worst-case scenario, if he's not quite ready or what have you, with four games down in here Tampa to start the season and then an off-day, we don't need a fifth starter that first go around," Gibbons said. "You could have a guy like Stro, if he's starting Opening Day, he could come back opening night at home too. That's a fall back if we got into a jam."

Estrada, who signed a two-year contract worth $26 million during the offseason, is coming off a career year that saw him go 13-8 with a 3.13 ERA in 34 outings.

Gregor Chisholm is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB and Facebook, and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.