TORONTO – They’re not “scrambling” yet, as manager John Gibbons is fond of saying, but the Toronto Blue Jays are quickly getting there with their starting rotation.
Thursday’s decision to put Dustin McGowan back in the bullpen was the right thing to do, both as a common-sense precaution for the right-hander with the lengthy injury history, and for a bullpen that can use the help and more consistent innings from his spot on the staff.
Still, top prospect Marcus Stroman and veteran swingman Todd Redmond are the leading candidates to replace McGowan, and neither is money in the bank to provide more consistency on an outing to outing basis.
Stroman has been hit hard in his last two outings, and may need to experience more growing pains before realizing his potential, while Redmond traditionally struggles to get through lineups on the second and third turns.
The options thin in a hurry beyond them – especially after left-handed prospect Sean Nolin hit the triple-A disabled list with a left groin strain Thursday – and that’s before we’ve even raised the subject of J.A. Happ, who allowed one run over six strong innings in Thursday’s 4-2 win over the Cleveland Indians.
Very suddenly, the next few turns of the rotation feel like a potential tipping point in the season.
"We’ve got a couple of different options," Gibbons said during his pre-game scrum when pressed on who joins the staff. "Truthfully, we don’t know yet."
The Blue Jays are set through the weekend with Drew Hutchison, Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey slated to pitch against the Rangers in Texas, and Monday’s off-day provides them with some options.
McGowan’s next spot falls on Tuesday, but they can simply slide everyone up a day and keep them on normal rest, and have Stroman or Redmond start at home two Saturdays from now against the Oakland Athletics.
That would give them Happ, Hutchison and Buehrle for the three-game series against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park next week, which makes sense. Another option would be to slot in the new starter between Buehrle and Dickey, separating the club’s two reliable inning-eaters and building some potential bullpen downtime into the rotation.
Or they can keep things as they were, and have whoever replaces McGowan start Tuesday against Boston.
There are pros and cons to each of the different permutations, but ultimately making the right call on who steps in is most crucial. The Blue Jays have a playoff-quality lineup, but if they don’t stabilize their rotation enough to prevent regular short starts from killing the bullpen, they’ll fail to capitalize on a terrific offence.
"I think it makes us stronger," Gibbons said of McGowan back to the bullpen. "I’ve always thought that, but I was also on board about the other thing because we were looking for starters. …
"It’d be a shame for him to end up getting hurt out there again, and his career’s over. That’s part of my thinking. We’re not talking about some average Joe out there. He was better than that last year. I think he’ll be a top-notch reliever for a few more years."
McGowan deserves credit for getting this far in a comeback from three shoulder surgeries and a knee operation between his stints as a starter in the big-leagues. But after failing to average five innings over his eight outings while posting a 5.08 ERA, it was clear that change was needed, especially when the 32-year-old began to sense that his recovery time was slowing.
"After the Pittsburgh start (May 4), I just noticed it was getting more and more sore after every start,"he said. "When I started noticing stuff out of the normal, I knew it was time to probably say something to them about it. … I just didn’t want it to lead to something worse."
McGowan provides a battered bullpen with another late-inning, power-arm option. In 25.2 innings over 25 games last season, he pitched to a 2.45 ERA with a WHIP of 1.208 and 26 strikeouts, making him a weapon in relief.
While he would have liked a couple more starts to see if his body would have adapted, his past experiences told him not to risk things and allowed him to come to terms with leaving starting behind.
"I’m at the point in my career where it’s time to make my mind up, stick with it and go about my business that way," he said, adding later: "That was one thing when I left the office today, I felt like it was a weight lifted off my shoulder, like now I know what I can go do, and what I need to do."
If only the Blue Jays could say the same thing about their starting rotation.
Stroman seems the most logical choice, given his dominance on his way up the big-leagues and how his stuff offers the possibility of a major upgrade. But the lack of crispness on his off-speed pitches in his past two relief appearances – when the Los Angeles Angels and Cleveland Indians whacked him around a little bit – may be giving some in the organization pause.
"He’s kind of caught in between right now," said Gibbons. "He’s been a starter at Buffalo, so he’s using those four or five pitches he’s got. Now you come out of the bullpen and he’s trying to narrow it down. It’s a little different there. As a starter, you’ve got some innings to work with. As a reliever, you’re just coming in there trying to get out after out."
That, of course, is the problem. The Blue Jays have lots of starter innings to work with, and no sure bet to come in and provide the outs they need.