In 2010, power-armed lefty Brett Cecil appeared to have a golden future as a member of the Blue Jays starting rotation, only to find himself dropped all the way down to Double-A New Hampshire to begin the 2012 season.
Little wonder Cecil felt "humbled" to be chosen to the American League all-star team by Detroit manager Jim Leyland on Saturday, following successful lobbying by Jays manager John Gibbons, one of Leyland's coaches, for the game to be played at Citi Field in New York a week from Tuesday.
Cecil is joined by outfielder Jose Bautista and first baseman/DH Edwin Encarnacion on the AL roster. Bautista (.264, 20 homers, 52 RBIs) was voted-in by fans while Encarnacion (.266, 23, 66) made the team on a vote by peers.
Right-hander Steve Delabar, leading AL relievers in strikeouts, is also under consideration. Fans have until Thursday to vote one of five players into the final roster spot, at mlb.com.
Pitching exclusively in relief for the first time, Cecil (3-0, 1.43 ERA) has been virtually unhittable this season, holding opponents to a .153 batting average, .220 on-base percentage, .240 slugging percentage and 0.92 WHIP (walks and hits per inning). In June, he allowed four hits in 41 at-bats. On the season, hitters have a .105 average against him with runners in scoring position, left-handed batters are averaging .111 overall. He's struck out 50 in 44 innings.
"Having success as a young guy, then a couple of rough seasons, it's been a learning process how to deal with that," said Cecil, characterized by a serene manner, recognized by his thick black-framed eyeglasses. "It's definitely much easier to deal with in the bullpen because you can be out there and ready to pitch the next day instead of having to wait four days and dwell on the bad stuff."
Cecil went 15-7 for the Jays in 2010. One season later, he spent time between Triple-A Las Vegas and Toronto; at the major league level, he tumbled to a 4-11 record in 20 starts while prey to walks (42) and homers (22).
Last year, the club wasn't sure what to do with him. He made nine Double-A starts, got re-promoted to the big leagues only to go 2-4 with a 5.72 ERA in a starting role, was sent to Triple-A to start games, then brought back to finish the season with the Jays in the bullpen.
Cecil, who turned 27 last Tuesday, prides himself on being coachable. While some young players think they know it all, Cecil has tapped into the wisdom of Jays veteran left-handers Mark Buehrle and Darren Oliver.
"A big part that plays into it is the willingness to learn," said Cecil. "You've got to want to listen to them, got to want to ask them questions. It's not that I grill them every day but the conversations here and there have made a difference. Mark's not going to come up and express his feelings about this and that, but he definitely makes it very easy to go up and ask him -- if you want to."
During the off-season, he worked on a weighted-ball program that is championed by Delabar, in order to develop arm strength and endurance. With off-season deals to acquire Buehrle, Josh Johnson and R.A. Dickey for the rotation, Cecil went into spring training with only one option, to make the team as a reliever.
"It speaks highly of our organizational people that they saw in me what they were hoping to get," Cecil said. "And I think they're getting it."
A first-round draft choice in 2007, Cecil had planned to spend the all-star break at his parents' house in Annapolis, Maryland. Instead, his wife and daughter will join him in New York. He told reporters on Saturday that he's proud to represent a bullpen that is entirely deserving of all-star nominations. Deemed a possible weakness prior to the season, the bullpen became the club's most reliable component in the first half, arguably performing best in the league.
Encarnacion, snubbed last year, will play in the game despite strained hamstrings, but is unlikely to take part in the derby. Obtained from the Cincinnati Reds in 2009 and placed on waivers in 2010 when he played third base, Encarnacion began to blossom in 2011 with a gradual move away from third to first base and DH.
In 2012, he finished fourth among AL hitters with 42 homers, third in RBIs with 110, and third with a .941 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage). He's following similar paces this season despite a slow start.
Bautista intends to participate in the home-run derby, if invited. Also reputed for his laser arm in right field, Bautista hit for low average in June but delivered a number of critical home runs during the month.