Gaston obliged, starting Encarnacion at third base and giving McCoy the nod in the leadoff spot and at second base for Thursday's 5-1 loss to the Tigers at Joker Marchant Stadium. For Encarnacion, who has battled a left wrist issue, it was his first game appearance of the spring. McCoy's return came after a minor right shoulder injury sidelined him for nearly two weeks.
"They weren't scheduled to play," Gaston said. "But they want to play the rest of the way -- they want to make the trips and play. That tells you that they care about getting themselves ready. They could drag it out and take it easy and maybe start the season on the disabled list, but they don't want to do that. They want to play."
A healthy Encarnacion would have a domino effect on the rest of the Blue Jays' starting lineup come Opening Day, but Toronto will make sure his surgically repaired wrist is completely recovered before putting him on the roster. McCoy is simply trying to earn his way onto Toronto's bench.
As things currently stand, Toronto's backup third baseman is Jose Bautista, who projects as the team's leadoff man and right fielder if Encarnacion is healthy. Should Encarnacion need to open the season on the 15-day DL, Bautista would then shift to third base, opening right field for either Travis Snider or roster hopefuls Jeremy Reed or Joey Gathright.
Under that scenario, Adam Lind would likely move to left field -- Snider's projected position -- vacating the regular designated-hitter role for Randy Ruiz. If Encarnacion is healthy, though, Lind would open as the full-time DH and Ruiz would wind up on the bench as a part-time first baseman and DH. Gaston added that Ruiz and Lyle Overbay would not be in a platoon situation at first.
"Overbay will be out there full-time," Gaston said.
Encarnacion, who was acquired from the Reds in the four-player trade that sent Scott Rolen to Cincinnati on July 31 last season, believes he has enough time to get ready for Opening Day. Encarnacion played in a Minor League game on Monday and Wednesday, garnering 10 at-bats, and said he typically needs around 30 at-bats to get his timing down each spring.
"Right now, I'm healthy. I'm 100 percent," Encarnacion said. "I'm going to take all the at-bats I can take and I think I'm going to be ready for Opening Day."
Beyond the makeup of the starting lineup and defensive alignment, Encarnacion's status will also impact the bench situation.
With Encarnacion at third base on Opening Day, the Blue Jays' bench would consist of a backup catcher (Jose Molina or Raul Chavez), veteran infielder John McDonald, Ruiz and room for one of McCoy, Reed and Gathright. Right now, Toronto appears to be leaning toward breaking camp with McCoy, even though Thursday's start was his first Grapefruit League game since March 13.
Reed and Gathright's chances of making the Opening Day roster would increase dramatically if Encarnacion opens the season on the disabled list, or if McCoy's right shoulder does not recover as fast as the club hopes. McCoy -- claimed off waivers from the Rockies in November -- seems to be the front-runner to earn the 25th roster spot for the Jays.
The Blue Jays like McCoy's versatility (he can play multiple positions in the infield and outfield) and the fact that he brings an element of speed to the club. Gaston has also been impressed with McCoy's ability to get on base this spring. It didn't hurt that McCoy hit at a .615 clip before being temporarily sidelined, either.
"He was fortunate he played well before he got hurt," Gaston said. "We got to see some of what he can do. That didn't hurt him at all. Normally, if you're trying to make a team and you haven't played that much, you might not have much of a chance. He certainly has a great chance."
McCoy, who also played in two Minor League games earlier this week, went 0-for-2 with a walk and one run scored in his first game back with the Blue Jays. He said he felt a little off with his timing at the plate, but believes there is plenty of time to correct the issue and continue to make a push for a big league job.
"I'm just happy to be back out there," McCoy said. "It's painful to sit, doing nothing. I was feeling like I was doing something wrong by not playing. I've still got a week left, so hopefully I can open some eyes a little bit more and convince them to keep me on this team."
Encarnacion finished 1-for-2 with one walk, one strikeout and a delayed steal of second base in the fourth inning against the Tigers. Gaston said he will closely monitor Encarnacion's status through the remainder of the spring, handing him a few innings each game before asking the third baseman to play full games next week.
After speaking with Encarnacion on Thursday, Gaston came away confident that the third baseman could be ready in time for Opening Day.
"Right now, I think he's got a chance to be in there," Gaston said.
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.