Lefty Albers up, Norris sent to Buffalo
CLEVELAND _ Andrew Albers is a strike-thrower.
That is exactly why the Toronto Blue Jays signed the Canadian southpaw to a free-agent contract in December, and also one reason why the club called Albers up to join the major-league team on Friday after four starts with the Buffalo Bisons in Triple-A this season.
Through Thursday night’s matchups, Toronto ranked 28th in the majors with 83 walks, with only the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies behind them. Extra pitches have taken a toll on the staff, and the Blue Jays have gone to the bullpen on 67 different occasions. Albers joins the big-league team with the ability to start or to be a long reliever. Mark Buehrle starts Friday, however, the bullpen is overworked being forced to work six innings after Daniel Norris lasted only three innings Thursday.
“What appeals to me is this guy has always thrown strikes,” signing scout and assistant general manager Andrew Tinnish said during spring training. “One of the most frustrating things for a major-league manager or pitching coach is when somebody comes up from the minor leagues and they’re not throwing strikes. Obviously you accept if guys get hit, as long as they’re throwing strikes.
“When guys are consistently out of the zone and putting guys on base and forcing you to make another pitching move because of that, it becomes very frustrating. The one thing that Andrew has done consistently probably for his whole life is throw strikes. He’s gotten  walks in [570 1/3] innings in the minor leagues.
“Then the short big-league stint [with the Minnesota Twins] where he had 10 starts, he had seven walks in 60 innings. Even in Korea where he didn’t have a lot of success, the walk rate was still very good. He had 40 walks in 150 innings. So he’s left-handed and he throws strikes, and those things are not easy to find.”
The Blue Jays have followed the 29-year-old left-hander since his college days at the University of Kentucky, keeping an eye on him throughout this time in the minor leagues – including a stint with the independent Quebec Capitales early in his career – his brief two-month stay in the majors with the Twins two years ago, and last year when he joined the Hanwha Eagles in the Korean Baseball Organization.
“When we heard that he was coming back from Korea he definitely became a target for us,” Tinnish said.
Albers came into spring training in Dunedin, Fla., with a chance to compete. At the highest levels he’s played, the native of North Battleford, Sask., has been a starter, but he’s definitely not opposed to the bullpen, and was looking for whatever might provide him the best opportunity to land in Toronto.
“One of the reasons I signed with the Jays is because I felt like I had a chance to possibly break camp with them,” Albers said. “They decided to go another route with the two young guys [Daniel Norris and Aaron Sanchez in the rotation] and … their stuff is incredible. They’ve got a chance to be really good, but you just don’t know. I thought it was a place where I would get an opportunity and if I performed well I could get a chance.”
Albers was sent down to minor-league camp at the Bobby Mattick Training Center relatively early, eliminating hope of starting the regular season in the majors. Headed to Buffalo, the hurler needed to get stretched out and work in an environment where he could increase his innings.
“You always hold out hope that you might get that chance to open up on the roster, but I wasn’t shocked,” he said. “I was a little disappointed that it happened as early as it did, and I had pitched fairly well up there. I don’t think I had given up a run except in the game [against the Canadian Junior National Team].
“When they tell you that you’re competing for a spot and then you don’t give up a run, you feel like you deserve to stay, but they have decisions they’ve got to make. As you go through the game a little bit longer you understand that, and it’s just part of the game…I understand it and I had to get stretched out and there weren’t innings there. That’s just part of the deal.”
He broke camp with the Bisons and through his first four starts in the International League this year, the lefty posted a 3.09 ERA over 23 1/3 innings, walking six and striking out 12. Heading into what would have been Albers’ start day in Buffalo on Friday, the team sits atop the circuit standings with a 14-7 record.
“We have the makings of a really good team,” Albers said in Buffalo after his Opening Day start. “Now the question is of course, is everybody going to be here all year? Obviously not. There will be a lot of up and down, and the Blue Jays are infamous for claiming guys off of waivers and all that stuff, so the clubhouse is going to change throughout the year quite a bit. But right now, it’s a good group of guys and we have a chance to have a really good team.”
With his call up to Cleveland before the second game of Toronto’s four-game set against the Indians, Albers most certainly will not be in Buffalo all year. The Blue Jays were always confident in the pitcher’s ability to perform in the majors.
“The No. 1 priority is always, who do we think can help us in the major leagues, whether it’s April, June, September?” Tinnish said. “We don’t know when, we don’t know exactly how, we don’t know the situation or scenario, but the goal is who is going to be able to help us at the major-league level if the opportunity arises? Andrew has had success throughout his minor-league career. He’s shown that he can handle all levels there, and the limited opportunity he did get in the major leagues in 2013 was successful. He had 10 starts and he pitched 60 innings …
“At the end of the day, he did show he has the ability to pitch at the major-league level. This isn’t a situation where it’s someone who is at the tail end of their career and they’ve had a bunch of major-league innings and we should just sign him because he has eight years of service and he’s done this or that. This guy just got his first opportunity and he did well in that opportunity. Hopefully if the opportunity presents itself again he can perform similarly.”