TORONTO — The temptation for the Toronto Blue Jays in their rotation’s latest hour of need is to view the resurgent Dustin McGowan as an Esmil Rogers in waiting, a quick two or three game buildup away from becoming another electric-armed starter.
Popping 97s and 98s on the radar gun again, recovering well on the days after he pitches, and with few palatable internal options — Todd Redmond is scheduled Sunday to become the club’s 13th different starting pitcher this season — the 31-year-old right-hander is easy to dream on.
Right now, however, it’s just too soon.
“I have given thought to it, but for me it’s more next year,” McGowan said in an interview Friday, shortly before manager John Gibbons revealed the right-hander will be given more responsibility in the bullpen. “I’d love to get a year under my belt of a full season where I feel good and build off that. Plus I think I need a full off-season to change my routine and my strengthening schedule and stuff like that to start.
“Relieving is what I’ve been geared up to do this year, and for me I think it could be a mistake to jump out into (starting) again because I don’t really know how my shoulder is going to react to that.”
That’s yet another cruel rub in a half-season full of them for the Blue Jays, who are facing at least a month of grey zone in the rotation’s fifth spot after Chien-Ming Wang’s abrupt return to Earth because so many of their quality arms just aren’t ready yet.
Brandon Morrow (forearm) and J.A. Happ (knee) won’t be back until August at the earliest, Kyle Drabek (optioned to single-A Dunedin) and Drew Hutchison (on the verge of a rehab assignment) are still working their way back from Tommy John surgery, while Ricky Romero continues to seek consistency.
Chad Jenkins recently landed on the triple-A DL with a right lat strain, while the only other prospect making noise is double-A right-hander Marcus Stroman, although the Blue Jays are wary of going so young again after the Sean Nolin experience in May.
Help may come in the form of a trade — GM Alex Anthopoulos is conducting a tour of the minor-league affiliates the way he did last year before he made three July deals — but until the Blue Jays settle into a more consistent team, the proper course of action will be difficult to chart.
McGowan, once described as having better pure stuff than Roy Halladay, may have been the perfect bridge. But with the potential to be another impact late-inning reliever — he pitched a clean ninth to close out Friday’s 4-0 victory over the Minnesota Twins — it makes no sense to jeopardize what they have in hand right now.
“You see 97, 98 and your eyes pop out a little again, but the key is to keep everything within reason and to keep him on a normal workload to keep him feeling good,” said pitching coach Pete Walker.
“Obviously we’d love to have a guy like that in the rotation down the road, but right now he’s doing a great job in the ‘pen, he’s trying to re-establish himself at the major-league level after not being able to compete here over the last few years, so it’s good for him to get back into that frame of mind.”
Beyond rebuilding his confidence, McGowan can also consolidate his physical gains with a season of steady work before trying to up the workload next year.
Worth remembering is that when he returned in September 2011, he made four starts to close out the campaign and then was slated for the rotation out of camp the following spring before a bout with plantar fasciitis led to a shoulder problem that led to surgery.
He’s pitched in only eight games so far since his activation from the DL, but isn’t having the difficulty bouncing back that plagued him in the past.
“So far it’s been good but it seems like I pitch once every four or five days, that’s what I’m averaging out to,” said McGowan. “Recovery has plenty of time to build. If there’s a chance I start going back-to-back, we’ll see as the year progresses how I feel.”
The opportunity is likely to come soon with McGowan’s promotion to a more important slot in the bullpen, one that’s going to get him into higher leverage situations.
In explaining the decision, Gibbons said “I think he’s earned that right to be in a tougher role now. … The approach we took is to ease him into it instead of throwing him right into the fire. That’s fair to him and fair to us, too.”
McGowan’s two previous outings before Friday likely sealed that, throwing two shutout innings against the Boston Red Sox last Sunday and then striking out Torii Hunter, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder in a clean ninth against the Detroit Tigers on Wednesday.
Though he topped out at 96 on Friday, he was 97, 98 on both those days.
“It’s a little new but it’s always been in there, it just took a while to come back out,” McGowan said. “It does surprise me a little bit, but I know I’ve worked hard, I’ve always thought I could come back the way I was. It’s getting close.”
One of several Blue Jays relievers using the weighted ball program introduced by Steve Delabar, McGowan isn’t certain if the extra jump on his fastball is a result of the new routine he started in May. But the boost in recovery has been the true boon.
“It’s helped out a tonne,” he said. “It may have helped out with the velocity, I just know it’s helped my shoulder feel good, and that’s all I’ve cared about.”
The same goes for the Blue Jays, who have refused to move on from McGowan despite years of disappointment and frustration as he’s slogged through injury after injury after injury.
Anthopoulos gambled last spring by giving him a $3-million, two-year contract extension with a $4-million option on 2015, and the payoff is only beginning now.
“I was excited for him and excited for us seeing those kind of numbers again,” said Walker. “Knowing what he’s been through, to be out there throwing the ball 97, 98 miles an hour again is a testament to all the work he’s put in, and physically, he’s just in such a better place right now.”
The Blue Jays want to keep him there, which is why no matter how alluring the thought of McGowan in the rotation is at the moment, staying the course probably makes the most sense.