Book Closes on Steve Delabar's Feel-Good Story with Blue Jays

Delabar made his big-league debut at 28, and was an all-star two years later. He's now looking for work. Relievers are a volatile commodity.

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Mar 29 2016, 4:55pm

Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports​

Steve Delabar was a classic feel-good story when he arrived in Toronto in 2012. The story got better in 2013. Here was a pitcher who had nine screws and a plate in his elbow, representing the Blue Jays in the All-Star Game and striking out Buster Posey, the only batter he faced. Shortly thereafter, in Oakland, Delabar struck out three batters on nine pitches—a foul ball on the first pitch, then eight straight strikes without bat touching ball.

The Delabar saga took a downward turn after that, and on Tuesday, his career with the Blue Jays came to an end. Technically, they placed him on release waivers for the purpose of giving him his unconditional release. In short, they cut him. They don't want him any more.

Delabar has always been a class act, but this had to hurt, especially since he had allowed only two earned runs in 7.2 innings in eight spring games, with eight strikeouts and three walks. But he seemed at peace when he met the media outside the Blue Jays clubhouse in Dunedin, Florida.

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"They just told me I was not going to make the team and that I was going to be put on release waivers, and best of luck," he said in a matter-of-fact tone. "I thanked them for the opportunity. The last year and a half of so hasn't been as smooth as possible, but I thanked them for bringing me in and giving me the opportunity to at least get innings and get myself back out there.

"I felt like I had a good enough spring that I could've made this team. But they didn't see it that way, and I'm OK with it because I feel like my body's where I need it to be and my stuff's back and I might be able to get an opportunity with another team."

In 2012 and 2013, Delabar compiled a 3.27 ERA. Over the past two years, his ERA was 5.07 and he spent about half of that period in Triple-A Buffalo.

Almost exactly a year ago, when he had minor-league options left, the Jays sent him to Buffalo. He was angry then. This time was different.

"Last year, it kind of caught me off guard because I thought I was having a decent spring last year, too, and then they came in and said that," he said. "And last year there really weren't any lockdown guys in the open, and I felt like I was going to be a big part of that. But it didn't end up being that way.

"But this year I knew there was a possibility that this would happen. You accept it and whatever happens, happens."

It happens all the time, and especially with relievers. They are notoriously the most volatile commodity in baseball, and there are countless stories documenting their roller-coaster careers. Often, their careers are short and quickly forgotten.

Against all odds, Delabar reached the majors and was an all-star in 2013.–Photo by John Lott

Delabar's story is particularly remarkable because he was out of baseball in 2010, recovering from surgery to fix a broken elbow and doing supply teaching back home in Kentucky. He started throwing batting practice to a high school team and felt the old velocity returning. The Mariners took a look at a 28-year-old teacher who had never pitched above Class A and decided to give him a shot.

He started at Class A in the Seattle system in 2011 and by the end of the season he was pitching in the majors. The next year, he came to Toronto in a trade for Eric Thames.

Now he's job-hunting again. He'll consider all offers.

"I'm a baseball player and my job is to just play baseball, whether it's in the minor leagues or the major leagues," he said. "Obviously, everybody wants to be in the big leagues and play for 25 years and all that. But my job is to play baseball and get an opportunity and put myself in a position to play in the big leagues. So if that means going to the minor leagues, that's something I've got to do. I don't plan on stopping playing anytime soon."

Manager John Gibbons always says it's "a tough day" when he has to release a player, especially one he has known so long and so well, and who has made an important contribution to the team.

"Stevie's the ultimate pro," Gibbons said. "He's just a class act. This way, hopefully he gets that break [and] he's in the big leagues."

Looking back on his time with Toronto, Delabar did not talk about his all-star season or the three strikeouts on nine pitches, or that time in 2012, two weeks after joining the Jays, when he struck out four batters in the 10th inning in Chicago and got the win after the Jays scored in the top of the 11th.

No, what he talked about was the team, and the people.

"I had a lot of fun," he said. "I played with a lot of veteran guys that have retired now, a lot of teammates that have gone elsewhere. It's just been a lot of fun, and to see where the team was when I got here and to where it is now, and the future of this team, you wish nothing but the best of luck to these guys and the future that they're going to have. And even the young guys coming up, you like to give them good words of wisdom like I got when I came over."

On Tuesday morning, his teammates were searching for words of wisdom as they came by his locker and embraced him, one after another.

Yes, this happens all the time in baseball, especially at this time of year. Players disappear, sometimes for good, and are often forgotten or denigrated by the masses. But the guessing here is that Steve Delabar will pitch again somewhere, and soon, and that his good-guy legacy will serve him well wherever he lands, be it clubhouse or classroom.

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After Tuesday's final home exhibition game was rained out, Gibbons said he would announce the final roster decisions early Wednesday morning. By then, Drew Storen and Roberto Osuna will know which one has been picked as the closer. Gibbons will also tell the media who will fill the final bullpen spots and who has won the fourth outfielder's job.

READ MORE: Picking a Closer: The Blue Jays Have a Good Problem on Their Hands

The Blue Jays will open the season Sunday in Tampa with eight relievers—one above the norm—because starter Marco Estrada will be placed on the 15-day disabled list, retroactive to March 26. Estrada's spring routine started late because of back problems and management believes he would benefit from one more start in minor-league camp in Florida.

That plan would put Estrada on schedule to start Sunday, April 10, in the series finale against Boston in Toronto. With a day off the previous Thursday, that means Marcus Stroman would start both the season opener against the Rays and the home opener against the Red Sox. Also starting in the Tampa Bay series will be R.A. Dickey, Aaron Sanchez and J.A. Happ.

Gibbons left little doubt that right-hander Joe Biagini will make the opening-day roster. Because he's a Rule 5 pickup, Biagini must stay on the big-league roster all season or be returned to the San Francisco Giants.

"He's got a great arm," Gibbons said. "We think he's just coming into his own. You don't want to keep him all spring and not take a chance and look at him, see what you got."

Others competing for the remaining bullpen spots are Ryan Tepera, Pat Venditte and Arnold Leon.

The candidates for the fourth outfielder's job are Ezequiel Carrera and Junior Lake, who are both out of minor-league options, and Darrell Ceciliani. He has options left but also had the best spring of the three, by far. Ceciliani has batted .417, led the club with 15 hits and tied for the team lead in homers (four) and RBI (10).