Blue Jays, McGowan playing Russian Roulette

Alex Anthopoulos discusses the Blue Jays' starting rotation on PTS. Did they anticipate Dustin McGowan would make a push as a starter? What does he think of Brandon Morrow’s spring?

At the start of spring training, Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons would often say that when players are vying for a spot on a team, there’s sometimes a candidate who jumps out early on and proceeds to separate himself throughout camp.

In the race to become his club’s fifth starter, that man was Drew Hutchison, the 23-year-old right-hander who’s been impressive from the word go and will open as No. 2 in the rotation. When a team sets up internal competition, they’re hoping for someone to emerge the way he did. Good on him for that.

The problem for the Blue Jays, however, is that along the way this spring, one vacancy in the rotation became two, and rather than have someone seize the new opportunity, Gibbons and GM Alex Anthopoulos instead were left to sift through a muddled mess.

On Wednesday morning they settled on Dustin McGowan, the right-hander who still possesses a tantalizing upside despite his checkered injury past, amid worries about his durability and ability to sustain the demands of starting long-term.

J.A. Happ, expected to win the job but in disarray all spring, will open the season on the disabled list with lower back tightness, while the maddeningly inconsistent Esmil Rogers and unspectacular Todd Redmond are headed to the bullpen. Remember The Simpsons episode when Homer Simpson proclaims “De” and “Fault” as the two greatest words in the English language after Barney Gumble’s flake-out allows him to win a NASA astronaut competition? That pretty much sums it up.

An inanimate carbon rod wielded by Homer Simpson saved the day in that show, and the Blue Jays now must hope McGowan, whose last start in the majors came on Sept. 26, 2011, can solve their rotation dilemma just as effectively. If you have the sense they’re making things on the fly, well, you’re probably right.

Really, this was Happ’s job to lose and with a dreadful spring perhaps rooted in his back problems, he did just that. Tuesday’s thumping from the Pittsburgh Pirates, in which he allowed seven runs on 12 hits in three innings, was particularly troubling because the good of him finally being able to consistently find the strike zone was negated by how hard he was hit.

At the same time, McGowan tipped the scales with four shutout innings against triple-A Toledo in a minor-league game Tuesday – he allowed just three hits with four strikeouts. Given the disparity between what he might be able to do and what the others offer, how could you not look at his line, repress the memory of all his injuries, and run with him in the rotation?

That it’s come to relying on someone yet to exceed 62 pitches in a start this spring and who’s unsure how his body will react to the heavier workload speaks to the desperation of the moment. Let’s remember that the last time McGowan was scheduled to be in the Blue Jays rotation, in the spring of 2012, he didn’t make it out of camp and ended up having shoulder surgery.

Also keep in mind that just last week Gibbons seemed to rule McGowan out of the starting mix and relegate him back to the bullpen, only to backtrack a couple of days later while chiding the media for jumping to conclusions.

Yet he’s the best option the Blue Jays have until either Aaron Sanchez or Marcus Stroman is ready for promotion, and before you go down that road, Anthopoulos did the right thing in not rushing either of his prized prospects for both developmental and service time/club control reasons.

Happ, in theory, should have offered the Blue Jays more dependability at the expense of upside but that hasn’t been the case, while Rogers and Redmond project more as long reliever/swingman types.

Rogers showed flashes of brilliance as a starter last season, but toward the end of the campaign was as likely to go three frames as six. It’s been more of the same this spring, as he followed up a strong one-run over 4.2-inning outing last Thursday by allowing 10 runs, nine earned, over 2.2 innings in relief of Happ on Tuesday.

Redmond, meanwhile, has been steadier without the extremes between high and low, but it’s unclear how long his contact-inducing approach will play. Worth noting is that in his 14 starts last year, opposing batters posted a .581 OPS against him the first time through the order, .961 the second time and .813 the third time – a trend not very conducive to starting.

Both are probably in the roles that suit them best.

As for McGowan, it’s impossible not to root for him after all he’s endured. A first-round pick in 2000, he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2004, had shoulder operations in 2008, 2010 and 2011 plus knee surgery in 2009 for good measure. Former Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi once said, “He’s like John Travolta, Bubble Boy, you know? Poor kid. He can’t stay healthy.”

McGowan looked to have turned the corner as a reliever last season, and his future seemed safe in the bullpen even though he harboured ambitions to start again.

Still, you can’t help but wonder if he and the Blue Jays are playing a game of Russian Roulette with his career by putting him into the rotation after a stomach virus truncated his buildup this spring. But for McGowan, this might be the last chance he’s going to get, and without any better options, the Blue Jays had little choice but to give it to him.

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