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‘Star-liever’: Blue Jays’ Biagini happy to play, regardless of role

Blue Jays reliever Joe Biagini looks out of the club house during the team’s spring training in Dunedin, Fla., on Tuesday. Biagini excelled as a reliever last season, and there’s talk that he could be converted to a starting pitcher this year.

Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Joe Biagini is Major League Baseball's quirkiest player, and he was up to his usual antics here Tuesday while greeting teammates he had not seen since the end of last season.

"You smell as good as I remember," he remarked to the slightly bemused Marco Estrada after giving his fellow pitcher a big bear hug in the middle of the Toronto Blue Jays clubhouse at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium.

"Hey, Danny Barnes is here," Biagini would remark a bit later to no one in particular after spotting the reliever who hopes to earn a spot in the Toronto bullpen this season.

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Biagini walked over, clasped Barnes's hands and planted a big kiss on his fingers.

There is no such thing as personal space when Biagini is around.

Last season, when he found himself alone on an elevator with a TSN television reporter at Rogers Centre, Biagini moved in and gave the startled journalist an affectionate squeeze.

To talk with him is not so much an interview as a game of verbal Ping-Pong in which you are never sure where the conversation is going to bounce.

There is talk of converting him from a reliever, a job in which he excelled last year with the Blue Jays, into a starter, where the club is thin and could use the ballast to protect against injury.

Biagini was asked which role he would prefer, starter or reliever.

"Star-liever," came his deadpan response. "What do you think I should do?"

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"Whatever makes you happiest."

"That's very thoughtful," Biagini said. "I appreciate that. There's not a lot of that going around these days."

And on it goes.

He was asked how much different training camp feels this year than last – his first season with the team.

"You're standing closer to me than you used to," he retorted.

After the riotous laughter died down, he continued. "I feel older – almost exactly one year older."

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He did allow, though, that he was much more comfortable in the company of his teammates heading into this season – to the point where he was thinking of decorating one of the clubhouse walls with his finger painting.

He was asked if the Toronto bullpen might not be a little thin without him should the Blue Jays convert him into a starter. "Are you calling me fat," he said. "Unbelievable – public shaming."

The California-born Biagini is sort of a Will Ferrell character, and his shtick is not just something he puts on when members of the media are on his doorstep. His teammates will tell you he is the same behind the clubhouse doors.

"He's exactly the same," Estrada said. "He doesn't change for anybody – and that's a good thing. You never want to change for anybody and you don't want to put on acts, which I don't think he does.

"If he is, he's putting on a great act. But it's 24/7 with him."

It all might be a bit much to take were it not for the fact that Biagini proved himself to be a valuable asset for the Blue Jays last season, coming out of nowhere to become a trusted right arm for manager John Gibbons.

Utilized primarily in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings to help get the ball to closer Roberto Osuna, Biagini posted a 4-3 record on the season with a 3.06 earned-run average. He struck out 62 over 67.2 innings pitched.

He did not allow a home run until his 50th appearance, on Sept. 1. And he continued his strong run into the playoffs, pitching in six postseason games and allowing three hits and one walk to go with six strikeouts in 7.1 innings.

Despite those solid numbers, the Blue Jays have said they will tinker at spring training – which officially gets under way on Wednesday for pitchers and catchers – to see if Biagini's stuff might also play out in a starter's role.

Deep down, Biagini has always wanted a crack at starting, and the club could certainly use the help. After Estrada, J.A. Happ, Marcus Stroman, Francisco Liriano and Aaron Sanchez, the Blue Jays have limited options in a starting role should any of them get injured.

"I think a lot of pitchers want [starting] to be their goal," Biagini said in a rare moment of semi-seriousness. "It's kind of like the thing people long for. But some guys enjoy relieving better, closing.

"My goal was just to get to the big leagues, and I really do appreciate the opportunity that was given to me here. But it's not going to be any sort of disappointment if I never have the opportunity to start because I'm just happy to be in this position and try to help this team."

As the pitchers and catchers were undergoing their physicals Tuesday, the medical staff may have noticed that Stroman's heart was beating a bit faster. Earlier in the day, the 25-year-old learned that he had won his salary arbitration, with a panel agreeing that his salary for this season should be $3.4-million (U.S.). The Blue Jays, who paid him $525,000 last season, had argued for $3.1-million.

When approached by reporters for comment on Tuesday at the stadium, Stroman said he did not want to discuss his windfall.

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