ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Only now is the full impact of last year’s elbow surgeries on Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison being felt by the Toronto Blue Jays, who having already had one season stalled by their absences, can only long for them as troubles mount in their rotation once again.
Scrambling for starters the way they did in 2012 wasn’t supposed to be a problem for this team, yet just over a week into May that’s exactly what’s happening, with Josh Johnson at least two weeks away from a return, J.A. Happ at best looking at a 3-4 week absence, and Ricky Romero an unknown commodity who could be ready in 10 days or 10 weeks.
How bad are things? The Blue Jays won’t need a fifth starter until May 21 but are TBA for next Wednesday, waiting to see how things go for Ramon Ortiz, who is tentatively slated to start Friday at Fenway Park but must earn each additional outing beyond that.
Ortiz earned the start because he’d been pitching relatively well for triple-A Buffalo, but it could have been any of the other four-A arms in the Bisons rotation if it had happened to be their day.
So thinned out are they that 2012 first-rounder Marcus Stroman -- due to join double-A New Hampshire on May 19 once the 42 games left on a doping ban are served -- is a real possibility to be starting in Toronto by early June if he makes a couple of strong starts out of the gate and there's an immediate need.
Technically, he could pitch right now because his minor-league ban wouldn't apply if he was on the 40-man roster, but the Blue Jays don't think he's ready yet so it's a moot point.
Double-A prospects Chad Jenkins and Sean Nolin (whom GM Alex Anthopoulos watched pitch Tuesday in New Hampshire) are both fresh off the DL and right now the club doesn't want to rush them, while Deck McGuire has made some recent gains in velocity and command but remains too inconsistent.
The Blue Jays have also kicked around using Brett Cecil and Brad Lincoln in a bullpen game, but fear disrupting what's been a very solid relief core.
All that is why the continuing absences of Drabek and Hutchison -- who underwent ligament-replacement surgeries June 19 and Aug. 9, and won't return until at least a year from the surgery due to organizational policy -- are so damaging.
The vision the Blue Jays have for their system includes a strong big-league rotation supported immediately at triple-A by a starter or two on the verge of breaking through, waiting for their chance.
Instead, Drabek and Hutchison are rehabbing, Jenkins, Nolin and McGuire have been hurt or haven't progressed as expected and the Bisons have a rotation that can win the International League but of dubious ability to help out in the majors.
If you're looking for cracks in the Blue Jays foundation, start right there.
"You don't know how anyone is going to perform," Anthopoulos said Thursday. "I think any time you lose members of your rotation, you can never replace those guys otherwise those guys would be in the rotation to begin with. You know you're not the first team to go through it, you know you're not going to go through a season using five starters, that's just reality.
"Looking at it glass half full, last year we lost all of these starters for pretty much 12 months. They were going to be out the year, Brandon (Morrow) was the only one we knew was going to be 2-3 months. The other guys that are hurt right now should be back within 3-4 weeks. The fact that we don't expect it to be a prolonged absence for these guys certainly helps so we need to get through it these next few weeks. Hopefully with the offence starting to swing the bats a little bit more, like we did last season, we can stay in games and win some games."
Still, that the Blue Jays are in such a situation is troubling, particularly given how their slow start has eroded their margin for error from here on out.
Treading water for a month while they wait for their starters to get healthy -- Johnson played catch Wednesday and is slated for a rehab game May 21, the first of two he'll likely need; Happ is out indefinitely with his sprained right knee; and Romero needs to win back some trust -- will only leave more heavy lifting for later, when the stakes are higher and games get tougher.
Really what the Blue Jays need is someone to deliver a pleasant surprise contribution to help push them along -- to this point no one other than Cecil and Munenori Kawasaki has provided more than expected -- and perhaps that's Stroman.
The diminutive right-hander with electric stuff has been throwing three or four innings at a time in extended spring training games and the Blue Jays intend to keep him a starter for now. Considered the 2012 draft's most likely to first reach the majors last summer, he's an option to give the team a jolt in some form.
"We think he could be a guy that could come quickly in the bullpen, the fact that we're able to see him get extended innings, it doesn't mean that he can't come up here and be a long guy at some point," said Anthopoulos. "But if he has some success as a starter we can give him a look. At least knowing he's gone four or five innings, if we wanted to have that option, we know he can come up and pitch three innings if he needed to."
Aside from the obvious need to win games, the Blue Jays need to find someone to give them innings to save their relievers, who have already done yeoman's work sopping up work left behind by the rotation's inconsistencies.
If things continue at this pace, Steve Delabar (20 innings in 16 games before Thursday), Aaron Loup (18.1 in 14), Cecil (18 in 16) and Esmil Rogers (18 in 17) will either break down or wear out by the trade deadline.
That's what happened to Luis Perez last summer, leading to Tommy John surgery last July, and concerns over workload contributed to Romero's short leash -- the Blue Jays simply can't be sure what they're going to get from him right now.
Right now they feel Ortiz, or whatever other underwhelming retread gets thrown up in his place, is a better bet to give them innings than Romero right now. Chew on that.