DUNEDIN, Fla. — On almost every other big-league team, the uncomfortable state of limbo J.A. Happ finds himself in this spring would not be an issue.
The 30-year-old left-hander is a proven pitcher with a 4.17 career earned-run average over 96 starts and 116 appearances, and there’s no doubt he belongs in the majors. But as he prepares for the 2013 season this spring with the Toronto Blue Jays, he is at the moment destined to be the odd man out.
The off-season additions of R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle to a rotation that already included Brandon Morrow and Rick Romero pushed Happ into no-man’s land, and barring an injury the two likeliest outcomes for him are a spot in the bullpen or front of the rotation at triple-A Buffalo.
Welcome to life as the No. 6 starter, insurance in case the best-laid plans go awry.
“That’s not where I view myself but that kind of stuff always happens,” Happ said Thursday. “I’m trying not to focus too much on that, but that is kind of the reality. So, it is kind of an interesting thing. I guess I’m being positive with it for the time being.”
There’s certainly been lots for Happ to wrap his mind around since the Blue Jays acquired him from the Houston Astros in a 10-player trade last July.
Exclusively a starter in the big-leagues since his promotion into the Philadelphia Phillies rotation in May 2009, to his chagrin Happ was immediately inserted into the bullpen upon joining Toronto, while the team waited for one of Aaron Laffey or Brett Cecil to falter.
Eventually he took Cecil’s spot in the rotation and went 3-2 with a 4.59 ERA over six starts before a fractured navicular bone atop his right foot required season-ending surgery.
Still, a spot in the rotation seemed assured until Dickey’s acquisition in December, and GM Alex Anthopoulos in January said he had spoken to Happ about his status and that an option to Buffalo was a possibility.
“We didn’t touch a whole lot on that specific idea,” Happ said of that conversation. “That’s not something I’m thinking about right now. We’ll just see when the time comes.”
Brad Lincoln, expected to be a key part of the bullpen, finds himself in a similar spot, as the Blue Jays plan to stretch him out as a starter during spring training with an eye toward using him in the Bisons rotation as further injury protection.
Manager John Gibbons pointed to the importance of having such depth but admitted, “it’s not always good for the individual, but it’s good for the team.”
“We’ll see what happens,” Gibbons said of Happ. “He deserves a chance to start in the major-leagues in some rotation, he’s that good, but he’s the odd man out here because we’ve got five really good ones. Over the course of a season, things work out, he could become very valuable to us.
“In the past when I was here, we were scrambling to find those kind of guys, if God forbid something happens and we need somebody, we’ve got a pretty good one right there. In time it will all work itself out, whether it’s bullpen or what he’s doing, we’ll have to see.”
Happ chafed working out of the bullpen last summer, at one point meeting with Anthopoulos and former manager John Farrell to try and ascertain how the club envisioned his future. Things are even murkier now.
“I prepare like I do every off-season and that’s to be a starting pitcher in the big-leagues,” said Happ. “My main focus was getting ready. Obviously that type of stuff is out of my control. We’ll see what ends up happening, but for right now I’m just going to try to maintain my health and we’ll see what happens.”
Adding to a trying winter was that Happ spent the majority of it rehabbing the foot fracture that was far more complicated than one would think. His surgeons told him that if his rehabilitation wasn’t handled correctly the injury could be pretty significant, so he spent much of his off-season being unable to walk.
Happ only started running in January, but he was able to begin throwing in November.
“They think it started as a stress fracture,” said Happ. “Then that one game against New York (Aug. 29 at Yankee Stadium, when he jammed his foot covering first base and pitched four innings with his foot taped up), it looked like it might have split open wide, it was 90 per cent fractured through.
“I was feeling some stuff going that way (beforehand), and I think that one play it separated it a little bit more.”
The foot is fine now, and his arm is catching up. He’s ready to go, but to where and in what role is uncertain.
“It wasn’t fun but it was necessary and I knew that,” he said of his rehab. “It took patience but I think it has paid off because it has felt great. … I wasn’t able to get off the mound (before the spring) but I started throwing in November, started my long toss, so I feel like my arm is pretty close to where it should be.”