DUNEDIN, Fla. — While the Toronto Blue Jays originally said the only position up for grabs in the team’s 2014 rotation was the fifth and final spot, that situation appears to be changing.
Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos confirmed Wednesday afternoon that J.A. Happ’s back injury and performance have been concerning enough to cause the club to consider other options for the fourth spot in the rotation.
“There could be two [rotation spots available,]” Anthopoulos said. “We’re going to take the best team north. Especially right now with J.A. and his back and his performance—we have to get him on track and get him healthy.”
This is a notable change in tone from earlier in camp when the Blue Jays designated Happ as the team’s fourth starter, guaranteeing his spot in the rotation. Of course, that was before Happ took the mound this spring. In his two appearances thus far the 31-year-old has been completely ineffective, allowing six runs while recording just four outs. Happ has given up six hits and walked five as he has struggled to command his pitches and find the strike zone.
Anthopoulos believes the struggles could be injury-related. Happ has been suffering from inflammation in his back that began bothering him after his first start of the spring and flared up again after his second start in Fort Myers this past Monday. Team doctors have been unable to find anything structurally wrong with the left-hander’s back and don’t believe he needs to be shut down. Regardless, Anthopoulos said the team is considering pushing Happ’s next start back by two or three days to give him more time for treatment and rest.
“I don’t want to make excuses for him, but I wouldn’t say he’s been 100 percent,” Anthopoulos said. “If his back wasn’t bothering him the way it is, I think the command would be a lot better. But that’s my opinion.”
Happ feels he can pitch through the pain and is eager to take the mound for his next outing, especially after recording just one out in his last appearance. But if his back pain and performance both continue moving in the wrong direction, it appears his spot in the rotation on opening day could be in jeopardy.
“We expect J.A. to be in the rotation. But at the same time, right now his back has flared up on him twice. So, I just don’t know,” Anthopoulos said. “And look, if other guys perform well and they force our hand—we’ll take the best team.”
THE POTENTIAL HAPP FALLOUT
While these are unfortunate developments for Happ, they could provide an opportunity for another one of the pitchers currently in competition for the team’s fifth rotation spot to make the team.
The main group includes Todd Redmond, Esmil Rogers, Drew Hutchison and Marcus Stroman, while Kyle Drabek, Sean Nolin, Dustin McGowan and Ricky Romero all have long, outside shots of entering the conversation. Complicating matters is the fact that Redmond and Rogers are out of minor league options and would have to be exposed to waivers—another team would likely claim them—before being sent to the minors.
At the beginning of spring training Anthopoulos spoke to all of the rotation contenders and told those with options remaining that they would have to pitch far better than those without options in order to make the team. If two players are close in ability but one has options remaining and the other doesn’t, Anthopoulos will choose to send down the one with options in order to preserve the club’s depth.
“Those players that have options left, they have to be that much better than guys they’re competing against,” Anthopoulos said. “But those guys who are out of options, if they’re not performing and guys are clearly an upgrade over them and will make a big difference for us, then we’ll go with the best team.”
Thus far, Hutchison has been the most impressive of the four pitchers, allowing just one hit while striking out four in two innings of work. His velocity has been stronger than many expected it to be coming off Tommy John surgery and, unlike many Blue Jays pitchers of late, he has consistently been able to find the strike zone.
“He’s definitely opened some eyes,” Anthopoulos said. “He’s a strong candidate to make the rotation.”
Redmond and Rogers have been less impressive numbers-wise in their outings, with Redmond surrendering three runs in his four innings, while Rogers has given up three runs in three innings. Anthopoulos doesn’t weigh early spring numbers particularly heavily, however, and pays more attention to how their pitches look and move. Redmond and Rogers already having major league experience also works in their favour.
Meanwhile, the 22-year-old Stroman has been a hot topic around camp and has impressed Blue Jays talent evaluators with his composure and mettle on the mound. The right-hander, who often blows bubbles while he pitches, allowed four hits and two runs in his first two innings of the spring, while striking out four.
He’ll appear again on Thursday in Bradenton against the Pirates, an outing that could be very influential in how the team uses him for the rest of the spring.
“[Thursday] is a big day for him—I’m being honest,” Anthopoulos said. “Every outing for him is important.”
Anthopoulos believes that Stroman’s repertoire of pitches is ready for the majors, aside from his change up, which the 2012 first-round pick has been honing since last season in the Arizona Fall League and could use more development.
“For the most part, he’s ready to be up here,” Anthopoulos said. “There’s a reason he’s getting stretched out. There’s a reason we’re giving him the innings. We want to take a look. And if he can impress and really come on, he’s going to make it hard on us. Which is what we want.”
As things stand now, if Happ is forced to miss the start of the season due to his injury or is removed from the rotation for performance reasons, one of those four pitchers would likely take his place.
GOINS STILL FAVOURITE TO WIN SECOND BASE
Anthopoulos maintained that Ryan Goins is the front-runner to land the team’s starting job at second base, with Jonathan Diaz, Chris Getz, Steve Tolleson and Munenori Kawasaki forming a secondary pack behind him.
No one has ever faulted Goins for his defence, but the knock against him has been that he doesn’t contribute enough offensively. Goins has a career .706 OPS over five seasons in the minors and saw that number drop to .609 in a very brief 34-game audition at the major league level late last season. He struck out 28 times and walked just twice in that span, but did contribute eight multi-hit games.
Regardless, Anthopoulos feels Goins’ defence is so extraordinary that he can start at second base in spite of his bat.
“He has room to do less offensively because the defence is so elite,” Anthopoulos said. “And I don’t use that word lightly. I really think he’s elite. He’s got a chance to win a gold glove.”
At this point, it appears Maicer Izturis is not in the second base competition and is destined for a utility bench role with the club.
“I’ll just be ready to play and let the manger make the decisions,” Izturis said. “I’ve been in this situation before. I’m just here to help the team win. All I can do is prepare myself to be ready to play and help the team.”
TRADE FRONT QUIET FOR NOW
When asked about trade dialogue, Anthopoulos said he’s had periodic conversations with other teams throughout the spring but is not actively pursuing anything at this point. That doesn’t mean that something can’t come up unexpectedly, however.
On Monday night an executive from an MLB team contacted Anthopoulos to see if he would be interested in exploring a trade for a player that wasn’t going to make their major league squad.
“Some good players can become available at the end of spring training,” Anthopoulos said. “The last ten days of camp is when it’ll get interesting, especially with all the guys that we have who are out of options.”
Anthopoulos has also maintained contact with the representatives for some of the remaining free agents yet to sign this spring, but is refusing to budge on his valuations of those players. That said, if a player was willing to come down to Anthopoulos’ price, he wouldn’t hesitate to reopen contract discussions.
“I think the reason that some of the players are still out there is that both parties can’t agree on what the value should be,” Anthopoulos said.
Anthopoulos did not shed much light on which way the club is leaning in regards to the other loose ends left to tie up in Dunedin. That includes whether the team will break camp with a seven or eight man bullpen. Anthopoulos says his opinion has been swayed several times throughout the spring and he expects it to continue to do so.
As it stands now, having Redmond and Rogers without options looks like it could force the Blue Jays to carry eight relievers at the beginning of the season. Of course, injuries and performance throughout the rest of camp could alter that approach.
Anthopoulos also said he would consider extending some springtime competitions into the regular season to see how they play out. Last season Brett Cecil and Jeremy Jeffress were both out of options and in close competition for a bullpen job at the end of camp. The club decided to bring both of them north to give the pair more time to earn their spots. Cecil ended up pitching spectacularly and becoming an All-Star, while Jeffress was designated for assignment five days into the season.
“It kind of took care of itself. So, you could have a scenario like that as well [this year,]” Anthopoulos said. “But it can go both ways. A week from now the situation will probably change. Maybe some trades open up as well. We have the option to do both.”
Meanwhile, Erik Kratz and Josh Thole continue to be in direct competition for the back-up catcher’s job, which will mostly entail handling knuckleballer R.A. Dickey.
Kratz has caught both of Dickey’s appearances this spring simply to get practice. The club feels he’s improving with every appearance but also knows that Thole has hundreds of innings of experience catching Dickey in the past and handled the Blue Jays ace well when he was called up last year. What the club would like to see from Thole is more production at the plate.
Anthopoulos was non-committal when asked if Dickey’s input would be considered when making the final decision.
“It’s still early,” Anthopoulos said. “We just need to continue to watch it. It’s something that we haven’t made a determination on.”