Mailbag: Is Lilly hurt?

Mailbag: Is Lilly hurt?

The Mailbag is back, after an extended absence brought on by the beginning of the season. This week, we deal with questions centering on Ted Lilly, Gabe Gross and Brandon League. Keep those questions coming, and we'll keep feeding them into the processor.

Is Ted Lilly hurt? When will he start pitching up to his capabilities?
-- Jim B., New York

Lilly may be hiding a little bit of discomfort, but he's told the media that his shoulder is completely healed and that his early pitching returns have nothing to do with the tendinitis he dealt with for most of Spring Training. Assuming he's telling the truth, there are a few potential reasons for his struggles.

One is that he just tried to come back too quickly. Lilly wasn't able to pitch in any genuine exhibition games -- he was stuck working in simulated games and against Minor League opponents while his teammates were getting the legitimate Grapefruit League experience. In that respect, his first few starts of the season are actually his Spring Training. Lilly went through the same thing in 2004, and he didn't gain all his strength back until mid-May or early June.

No. 2 deals with his mental state of mind. Lilly may have all his stuff without being able to use it correctly. The southpaw likes to mix his pitches in random fashion and get the hitters thinking, a style of pitching that requires consistent mechanics and dead-solid precision. If he's off -- even by a few inches or a few decisions -- it can throw the rest of his game out of whack. If he's unable to find his rhythm, it doesn't really matter what kind of stuff he has that day.

The final theory is also the least exotic. Lilly may be perfectly fine, despite the fact that he hasn't pitched well. His only positive start was his debut, when he tamed the Boston bats largely on adrenaline. Since then, he's had two largely forgettable starts -- against Texas and New York, teams that boast two of the league's most potent offensive lineups. Lilly may not have been at his best, but those batters can make you look that way.

Why bring Gabe Gross up for four days and then send him back to Triple-A? What does that accomplish?
-- Sammy T., Tallahassee, Fla.

That decision gave Gross a reward for his Spring Training hot streak, but it also showed the veterans that they wouldn't lose their job every time a rookie gets hot for a few weeks. The Blue Jays went into Spring Training with their outfield set: Frank Catalanotto and Reed Johnson would platoon in left field, complementing everyday starters Vernon Wells and Alex Rios.

Temporarily, Gross made the team question that alignment by leading the Grapefruit League in homers and tying a franchise record set by Carlos Delgado. Plenty of people expected him to earn a job based on those facts, combined with prior success at Triple-A Syracuse. The Jays stuck to their hand, though, sending Gross back to Syracuse for a final dash of seasoning. But before they could do that, they needed to show him that they appreciated all the work he did over the winter.

Voila. Lilly's roster spot allowed them to do it without upsetting the rest of the lineup's delicate balance. When Lilly opened the season on the disabled list, Gross filled his slot for a week. The outfielder even got to start on Opening Day for the first time in his career, but he got demoted with the understanding that he'd be back relatively soon.

How will that happen? There are a wide variety of possibilities. A long-term injury to any of the four outfielders would likely bring Gross back, as would a trade. He can also hit his way back onto the roster -- the Jays want him to "force their hand," and the only way he can do that is by dominating Triple-A competition. If Gross gets ridiculous for a few weeks and Toronto still needs a power bat, the solution might be found in-house.

Otherwise, expect him to graduate to the big leagues by September with a starting role planned for next April.

How do you see Brandon League fitting into the team's plans? Starting when?
-- Hector D., Brampton, Ontario

That's a good question, Hector -- and one that doesn't have a clear resolution. The Jays started League off on the big league roster in the hopes that he would nail down a relief slot and learn on the job. Unfortunately, they didn't think he was ready now and they didn't think he was learning quick enough. Toronto decided that if League was only going to pitch the sixth inning, he'd be better off getting more experience in the Minor Leagues.

Now he's at Syracuse, slotted into the starting rotation to make sure he gets regular innings. The Blue Jays did that with League last year, too -- he started for half the season, despite the organization's belief that he'd eventually fit best as a hard-throwing relief option. Now, the Jays seem unsure as to which role the youngster will fill best. And they don't seem to be in a rush to find out. League will be back in the big leagues this season, but it remains to be seen how he'll be used.

This reporter doesn't think you'll see League wind up in the starting rotation. He may stretch his arm out there for a few weeks, but when he comes back, he'll likely be used in a short situation where he can really air things out. League is a potential dominator at the back of the pen. He could be a major difference-maker within a season or two, if the Jays make up their mind somewhat quickly.

One thing is clear: Toronto can't afford to vacillate. The team's braintrust needs to decide where League fits best and let him work on filling that role without interruptions. Kelvim Escobar showed what can happen when a player is yanked back-and-forth too many times between starting and relief. When he finally got comfortable, he did so in a different uniform. League has the same kind of potential and slots in as the same exact kind of project.

Think the Jays learned their lesson? You'll find out soon enough.

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