Happ: New contract builds confidence

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher J.A. Happ delivers a pitch. AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

DUNEDIN, Fla. – J.A. Happ arrived at spring training with a mindset of staying positive amid the uncertainty over his roster status, and eventually it was rewarded with both a spot in the starting rotation and a contract extension from the Toronto Blue Jays.

Still, general manager Alex Anthopoulos noted Friday morning that the $8.9-million, two-year deal came with “no guarantees and no promises” to the left-hander, who opens the season as the No. 5 starter in place of the embattled Ricky Romero.

What that means when and if Romero is able to regain his all-star form of 2011 is uncertain, although what’s clear is that the Blue Jays are committed to fielding what they believe is the best team they can, hurt feelings or ruffled feathers be damned.

“J.A. has absolutely earned the spot in the rotation,” Anthopoulos told a news conference. “He deserves to be in there, he pitched well at the end of last year. Like we said, I thought we had six very capable starters. From a GM standpoint, you want every player to be performing to their ability … but rarely do things go the way you expect where everyone’s healthy, everyone’s performing well. Things seem to work themselves out.

“All five guys in that rotation right now … we’re set up to win, that’s our goal, we’re not going to do anything to take away from that. How things evolve going forward – bullpen, rotation, position players – it’s all going to be predicated on what’s the best team, what’s going to be the strongest club to help us win games and from there, the rest will take care of itself.”

The timing of the extension had nothing to do with Happ’s place in the rotation, as the idea was first floated during the off-season and things picked up last weekend.

For the first time since his acquisition from the Houston Astros last July, the left-hander finally has reason to feel better about his place with the Blue Jays. He arrived and was shunted off to the bullpen until either Aaron Laffey or Brett Cecil faltered to open a place in the rotation, performed well until a fractured foot required season-ending surgery, and then came to camp with an option to triple-A Buffalo on the table.

“It’s certainly been a great few days, there was a long time before that where it wasn’t quite as easy but this makes it all worth it,” said Happ. “We had agreed (on the extension) before I even found out that I would make the rotation … obviously there’s a lot of possibilities that could happen. I had faith and trust and confidence in myself, and I think this deal gives me more confidence that the organization believes in me, to an extent.”

All spring Happ chafed at the notion he was a depth arm and said Friday, “that’s not what I see myself as, and I certainly plan on showing them that they shouldn’t either. I want to be an established piece that makes a big contribution.”

And while the Blue Jays certainly hope that’s true, at minimum he’s a luxury that in years past they couldn’t afford.

He’ll make $5.7 million in 2014, his final year of arbitration eligibility, giving the club roughly $109 million in payroll commitments to 13 players, or just over half a roster. Happ also traded a year of free agency for a club option on 2015 worth $6.7 million or a $200,000 buyout.

The deal gives Anthopoulos both roster protection in case Romero struggles to regain his form or Josh Johnson isn’t re-signed after this season, and cost certainty.

“Our payroll is at a level now that we can afford to spend a little bit more money on that depth, whereas three or four years ago, we couldn’t have done something like this,” Anthopoulos explained. “It just made sense for us.”

FLORIDA FINALE: The Blue Jays fielded their opening day lineup Thursday as they wrapped up the Florida portion of their spring schedule with a 7-2 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies.

Brandon Morrow worked seven strong innings, allowing three runs, two earned on six hits and no walks. He struck out three and felt he got everything he wanted from an outing against the majority of the Phillies’ opening day lineup.

“Felt great, made one bad pitch really all day and (Chase Utley) happened to hit it out,” said Morrow. “Other than that I couldn’t be happier.”

Edwin Encarnacion returned to the lineup after jamming his right index finger during his final at-bat at the World Baseball Classic, and went 1-for-3 with an RBI single in the seventh off Roy Halladay. He scored right after on Adam Lind’s base hit and reported no wear on the finger beyond that.

Melky Cabrera was 0-for-2 with a pair of strikeouts against Halladay, including one on a pitch that hit him on the leg. The left-fielder came out in the fifth, but manager John Gibbons said there was no reason to have cause for concern.

“Doc was abusing him and I figured he’s had a good spring,” Gibbons said of the early exit. “It was probably going to be only a couple of at-bats anyway.”

Sergio Santos also had a rough day allowing four runs on three hits – one of them a Laynce Nix homer – and a walk.

Halladay was fortunate to have only allowed two runs in 4.1 innings of work, allowing eight hits and two walks, though he did help himself with six strikeouts.

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