Race for roster spots underway for Blue Jays

Shi Davidi joins Barry Davis to discuss whether J.A. Happ can take the next step to be a regular in the starting rotation and the evaluation of the rest of the bullpen.

DUNEDIN, Fla. – Though the more meaningful evaluations are still to come, the Toronto Blue Jays’ intrasquad game Tuesday offered a chance to watch Drew Hutchison and Marcus Stroman face off on the mound, and to imagine the conversation a few weeks from now.

Should it be Hutchison breaking camp with his ability to cut up the plate and induce weak contact, or Stroman with the big velocity and personality to match? How will Esmil Rogers and Todd Redmond fit into the puzzle? Are Sean Nolin and Aaron Sanchez coming along fast enough? What on earth is happening with the 25th man on the roster?

All that was in the backdrop as the Blue Jays played the Blue Jays at the Bobby Mattick Training Center, the third-base dugout beating the first-base dugout 1-0 on Maicer Izturis’s RBI single in the second. The game, a relatively well played one, is a beginning and the competition for spots gets real now—and the judgments will start becoming more acute with Wednesday’s Grapefruit League opener against the host Philadelphia Phillies.

The pressure for those eyeing the rotation now increases day by day. “You give them a couple of outings,” manager John Gibbons said. “They’re trying to get a feel, especially a feel for their breaking pitches, and working on their location. We’re always evaluating, but I don’t think it’s fair if one of them goes out there in his first outing and gets pounded, to write him off.”

No one got pounded in the intrasquad game, Hutchison allowing a bunt single to Anthony Gose and a walk to Jose Bautista before escaping unscathed, while Stroman surrendered a two-out walk to Edwin Encarnacion in an otherwise unblemished frame. “It could have gone a little better—for the first day it was fine,” said the 23-year-old Hutchison, who’s coming off Tommy John surgery. “I made some good pitches when I was behind, the pickoff [of Gose at second] was good.”

Hutchison was pleased with his command but lamented the inconsistency of his changeup. He threw one for a strike at 2-0 to Bautista, but the next one missed for ball three, leading to the walk. Afterwards he asked the slugger how the changeup looked coming out and was told the first one was good, the second he pulled off on. Such feedback “is very helpful,” Hutchison said.

Stroman was excited to face hitters and was pleased with both his fastball and changeup, but struggled to put spin on the ball, something he plans to work on in his next bullpen session. “The arm felt good, delivery felt good, there are a couple things to work on here and there,” said the full-of-promise 22-year-old.

Hutchison and Stroman will be focal points this spring. They’re two of the reasons GM Alex Anthopoulos felt he didn’t have to add another starting pitcher during the off-season. Rogers and Redmond are more known commodities, while Kyle Drabek, who is also coming off Tommy John surgery, is in the mix as well. “They’ll start weeding themselves out midway through,” said Gibbons. “But we’ll give them a little bit of a break first, early on anyway.”

The whole audition process at big-league camp, “is hard, man,” according to Stroman. “I’m new to this. I just try to go out there and compete and whatever happens, happens. Every time I go out there I’m trying to do my best, and I let everything else take care of itself.”

Hutchison and Stroman next see action Saturday when the Blue Jays visit the Baltimore Orioles. For those inclined to search for the hidden meaning in everything, Hutchison gets the start. Both he and Stroman are due to throw two innings, with Ricky Romero slotted for 1 or 2 frames between them.

For his part, Hutchison isn’t reading into things at all. “I’m worried about myself, about pitching, and taking care of what I need to take care of,” he said.

A sound approach to take now that the race for jobs is finally on.

NOTES: Crown-jewel pitching prospect Aaron Sanchez surrendered the game’s only run, one of four hits he gave up. He’s in big-league camp for the first time. “I might have some nerves come Friday when I’m in a stadium and facing (the Pirates),” he said. “But it’s a lot different when it’s your own teammates, you know the guys. We’ll see how it goes Friday.” … Sean Nolin allowed two hits but induced five groundballs during his scoreless inning. “I threw every pitch, different looks, slide-step, stuff like that, so I definitely tried to work on a little bit of everything.” … Deck McGuire, the right-hander picked 11th overall in 2010, tossed a three-up, three-down fourth. The Blue Jays are thinking of converting him into a reliever at triple-A Buffalo this season. … Knuckleballer Tomo Ohka needed just eight pitches to get through his inning of work, but a running catch against the wall by Kevin Pillar on a Dioner Navarro smash helped his cause. … J.A. Happ is set to start followed by Todd Redmond and each is slated to throw two innings against the Phillies, while Kyle Drabek is set to go 1-2 frames. … Munenori Kawasaki played some left field and manager John Gibbons said to expect some more of that. “If he can do it, it just makes his opportunities better on the team,” he said… With games on verge of starting, Gibbons likes where the Blue Jays are. “We’re ready to go but I feel good about it,” he said. “It has been a nice crisp pace, guys are focused.” … Aside from working in the new rules on home-plate collisions, Major League Baseball will also be implementing instant replay during certain spring games and managers are being encouraged to challenge calls. “They want the umpires to practice everything, like they did out in the Arizona Fall League,” said Gibbons.

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