"It's almost like you're kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop," general manager J.P. Ricciardi said on Thursday. "You're sitting here saying, 'This guy's defying a lot of odds.' "
Now the odds may be swinging in Zambrano's favor. On Friday, the right-hander will take the mound against Cleveland for his final start of Spring Training. If he can last five or six innings, he may just clinch the fifth spot in Toronto's rotation.
"He's pitched well enough to make our team," Ricciardi said. "We'd like to see him get to that fifth or sixth inning. If we can get him there, we'll make a decision based on that.
"He's pretty much a grinder, and that doesn't surprise me," he added. "Medically, I check with the trainers, and they keep saying he's got no complaints. He's bouncing back real well and doing his work. We'll ride it."
So the race for the final starting job has been narrowed down to Zambrano (1.98 ERA this spring) and right-hander Josh Towers (3.20 ERA). Ricciardi confirmed that right-hander Tomo Ohka will begin the year as the fourth starter, making his Toronto debut on April 6 on the road against Tampa Bay.
Towers, who went 2-10 with an 8.42 ERA last season, has had an impressive spring, and is expected to be on the Opening Day roster. But should Zambrano win the fifth spot, Ricciardi said he wouldn't hesitate to put Towers in the bullpen as a long reliever, and vice versa.
"In all fairness to [Towers], as bad as he was last year, he was as good the year before," said Ricciardi, citing Towers' 13 wins in 2005. "For us to forget that would be foolish on our part. But we also have to be realistic in that, if he is a starter, it's probably not a long leash."
The Blue Jays would only need their fifth starter four times during April -- the first time being on April 8. That would mean a long period of time off for either Zambrano or Towers, who is slated to start in Toronto's final Grapefruit League game on Saturday.
Ricciardi said that the fifth starter could use Tuesday's off-day to get "stretched out a little more" in a simulated game. That would certainly benefit Zambrano, who signed a Minor League deal with Toronto in January that includes a $4 million option for 2008.
In his last start, against the Yankees, the 31-year-old Zambrano pitched four innings. He gave up two runs on four hits and was fatigued by the fourth inning. He threw 38 pitches across the first three innings, but needed another 38 to get through the fourth.
Thomson headed to DL: Toronto plans on placing right-hander John Thomson on the 15-day disabled list to start the season. Thomson, who signed a one-year deal with the Jays this winter, has been slowed this spring by discomfort in his throwing shoulder.
"It'll just allow him to keep strengthening his arm," said Ricciardi, referring to the DL stint. "A little more time will allow him to keep building up and getting where he was. So we'll just have more time to watch him -- more time to get him ready."
On Wednesday, Thomson pitched in a Minor League game and gave up no runs in one inning of work. Ricciardi called the outing "encouraging," especially because the pitcher was hitting 87-88 mph with his fastball.
The Jays signed Thomson with the hope that he'd be in the running for a rotation spot. A string of poor performances and the shoulder issue cost him that chance this spring. Thomson also missed time with a shoulder injury last year, when he was with the Braves.
"Right now, he didn't make the team," said Ricciardi, who added that he wasn't sure if Thomson would accept a Minor League assignment when he's ready to be activated from the DL.
Ryan cruises: Closer B.J. Ryan breezed through his first game appearance since March 11. The left-hander, who had been bothered by a sore lower back, needed just eight pitches to dispose of three hitters in a one-inning outing against Double-A Reading at Toronto's Minor League complex.
"I kind of didn't know what it was going to be like," Ryan said. "I hoped it would turn out to be good. I felt comfortable out there, and I felt like I stayed in control. I didn't really jump out and miss very bad. I moved it around pretty good and made some pitches. It was a good day."
Ryan threw another 12 pitches in the bullpen and will make one more appearance before Opening Day. He's scheduled to pitch again on Saturday, when the Jays host the Reds at Knology Park.
Burnett, too: One field over from where Ryan worked, A.J. Burnett turned in his final Spring Training start, giving up no runs on three hits with nine strikeouts and one walk in seven innings against Triple-A Ottawa. The righty threw 94 pitches, including 64 strikes. He is scheduled to start against the Tigers on Wednesday at Comerica Park.
Wells sits: Center fielder Vernon Wells was a late scratch from Thursday night's lineup after experiencing stiffness in his left shoulder. Alex Rios moved to center, and Matt Stairs played right field against the Yankees.
Roster moves: Prior to Thursday night's game against the Yankees, Toronto outrighted left-hander Brian Tallet to Triple-A Syracuse. Tallet, who was out of options, cleared waivers and can either accept or decline the assignment. This spring, Tallet posted a 9.00 ERA in six games. The southpaw had a 3.81 ERA in 44 games out of the Jays' bullpen in 2006. The Jays also reassigned right-hander Geremi Gonzalez to Minor League camp.
Quotable: "All I could do was admire it." -- Phillies Minor Leaguer Jim Rushford, after striking out looking on a curveball from Burnett
Coming up: Zambrano is scheduled to take the mound for the Jays in a 1:05 p.m. ET tilt against the Indians on Friday at Chain of Lakes Park in Winter Haven, Fla. Ohka is slated to start in a Minor League game versus the Yankees' Triple-A affiliate at 1 p.m. in Tampa, Fla.
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.