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Jays searching for eighth-inning man

Jays searching for eighth-inning man

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Blue Jays pitching coach Brad Arnsberg couldn't believe his eyes.

Brandon League was firing his typical hard fastballs in the bullpen, but everything about that first mound session of the spring looked off. The young pitcher's mechanics were out of whack, and worse, he appeared to be guarding some type of injury.

"It just didn't look right to me, and I shut him down," Arnsberg said. "It really was odd. I had never seen anything quite like it, to be honest with you. It was almost like he had forgotten how to throw."

League entered Spring Training as the top candidate to be Toronto's setup man for All-Star closer B.J. Ryan. After League's first few pitches, though, that spot in the bullpen instantly became a crucial question mark.

An MRI revealed that the injury was an over-developed right lat muscle, believed to be caused by League's offseason weight training program. The stiffness in the muscle was hindering the flexibility in League's shoulder, resulting in an unintended lower release point.

League is on the mend -- he was able to finally work off a mound earlier this week -- but he still has a long way to go before Toronto will even think about slotting him into Grapefruit League games. The righty still has to throw at 100 percent in a few more bullpen sessions, pitch to hitters in batting practice and maybe throw a similated game.

It's a disappointing development, especially since League made such major strides in 2006, when he posted a 2.53 ERA in relief and finally had his mechanics to Toronto's liking.

"This kid is so fun to watch pitch," Arnsberg said. "We were all really excited about seeing him come in and picking up where he left off. Then, to watch what we were seeing was almost like, 'No, this can't be happening.'"

With League's status for Opening Day up in the air, the Blue Jays have started to explore their other options.

"We're in Plan B right now," Arnsberg said matter-of-factly.

Toronto doesn't want to use Ryan, who led the Majors with 13 multi-inning saves last year, for more than one inning at a time this season. In order to do that, the Jays need some stability out of the bullpen for the seventh and eighth innings.

"We need [Ryan] for the whole year," Toronto manager John Gibbons said. "If you [use him for more than an inning] too often, it catches up with you. That's the thing. And, if you're going to be as good as you hope you can be, somebody else has to fill those other roles, too, and get some big outs."

Last year, Toronto had 33-year-old veteran Justin Speier to fill that role, but he signed a four-year deal worth $18 million to pitch for the Angels over the winter. Now, the Jays are forced to consider some younger, less-experienced options.

League, 23, is the first choice, considering his blazing fastball and ability to induce grounders. Another plus with League is his ability to last for more than an inning. The right-hander began his professional career as a starter, so isn't limited to being solely an eighth-inning arm. There's always a risk using a young pitcher in such a pressure-filled role, though.

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"We knew what we had in Speier," Arnsberg said. "[A poor outing] just rolled off his shoulders. That's what experience brings. Veterans know it's just a bad day, where the younger guy takes it to heart a little more, and now they're looking over their shoulder."

That's one reason why 29-year-old right-hander Jason Frasor is a possible option, too. Frasor led Toronto with 17 saves in 2004 and posted a 3.25 ERA in relief in '05. Last year, he moved beyond some early-season woes by posting a 2.68 over his last 18 games.

"You look at past numbers, and [with] the seasons that Jason's had over the last three years, he'd probably be the most likely candidate," Arnsberg said. "He's got experience. He's closed games, and he's shown the ability to go out there and not be overly intimidated."

"Logically, you'd say, 'Well, that should be Frasor's job,'" Gibbons agreed. "But I don't know how that's going to work out yet. It's too early to tell that."

Another intriguing possibility is veteran right-hander Victor Zambrano, who signed a Minor League deal with the Jays over the offseason. The 31-year-old righty is still recovering from reconstructive surgery on his elbow, but he could potentially be available by Opening Day if Toronto utilized him as a reliever.

Gibbons said recently that the Blue Jays also might not rule out looking outside the organization to add a new setup man. Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi indicated that the problem was more likely to be solved internally, though.

There's always the possibility of using more than one pitcher in that role, buying time for League to get back to full strength. Toronto also has right-hander Jeremy Accardo and lefties Brian Tallet and Scott Downs as potential fill-ins. Last season, Downs posted a 2.77 ERA out of the 'pen and, with runners in scoring position, he limited hitters to a .134 batting average, which ranked second among American League relievers.

"It could be a bullpen by committee, too," Arnsberg said. "We don't even know who the team is going to include yet. It's probably going to be a little bit of everybody if Brandon's not ready."

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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