Wilner on Jays: Happ in a tough spot

J.A. Happ.

DUNEDIN, Fla. – J.A. Happ is a frustrated man. With 96 big-league starts to his credit over the past four seasons, Happ thought he had reached the point in his career where he would easily be able to find a role in a major-league starting rotation every year. He went into this off-season ticketed for a spot in the bottom of a Blue Jays’ fivesome that was looking for significant help.

The problem for Happ is that the help Alex Anthopoulos went out and got over the winter was too significant, pushing the lefty out of a big-league job.

To his credit, Happ has gone out and had a strong spring so far, shutting out the Yankees on three separate occasions and allowing just two runs on ten hits over 9 2/3 innings, walking one and striking out five. He knows, though, that no matter how well he pitches, the five members of the Blue Jays’ starting rotation will be R.A. Dickey, Brandon Morrow, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson and Ricky Romero.

“It’s very frustrating,” Happ told the assembled media about his situation after Sunday afternoon’s outing. “I told myself a couple things before going into camp, that I would try to stay as positive as I could and sort of let things play out, so I’m trying to do that. I know there are other people in the stands as well (scouts for other teams that could be interested in trading for him), so I’m trying to just keep my routine and see what happens.”

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While he’s buoyed by his positive results so far this spring, he knows that his strong efforts aren’t really opening any eyes. “It’s not like they don’t know what I’m capable of doing,” Happ said, “I don’t feel a huge amount of pressure on every outing, I want to do well and continue to be sharp, I think that’s what everybody’s trying to do. But I don’t think I’m a complete unknown as far as every outing kind of hanging in the balance of the results.”

Mark DeRosa has seen Happ from the other side a few times, going 1-for-6 against him with a couple of strikeouts. DeRosa was brought over for his clubhouse influence, to be the leadership glue that helps bond what is supposed to be a contending team, but even he has no answer to make Happ feel any better about his predicament.

“There’s really nothing you can tell him,” says DeRosa. “I think he’s handled it great. Obviously we all know that he’s a big-league pitcher, he knows that, and the stuff and the reputation says that he deserves to be on the team. Unfortunately he comes into a situation where there’s kind of a logjam and some really great pitchers in front of him but the season has a way of working itself out, it always does. You never like to see guys go down with any injuries or anything like that, but the 25 guys you break camp with has a tendency to change as the season progresses and I know he’ll play an integral part in our success.”

That’s small comfort to Happ. As he stayed in the post-game scrum and questions continued to come about his situation and how he’s really powerless to change it, there were times when Happ got emotional, but he held his tongue and censored himself well. Asked if he’d prefer to start the season in the AAA rotation in Buffalo or in the big-league bullpen with the Jays, Happ simply said: “I’m a major-league starting pitcher. I guess I’ll leave it at that for right now.”

And he is.

He’s not a fantastic major-league starting pitcher, having put together an ERA of 4.70 and a 1.450 WHIP in the three seasons since his breakout 2008 with the Phillies, but he’s certainly a good enough pitcher to legitimately compete for a job in a big-league rotation. One hopes that no matter how frustrated he is with his lot in life at the moment, he realizes that the Blue Jays consider him to be a very important piece to their success this season, albeit as an insurance policy against injury to one of the current five starters.

According to DeRosa, Happ isn’t just any insurance policy: “He’s probably the best in the game.”

The Blue Jays hope they never have to find out, but they’re awfully glad to have him, just in case.

As far as the loss to the Yankees went, Emilio Bonifacio (leaping grab) and Anthony Gose (diving stab) each made a spectacular play on defence, as did DeRosa, whose backhand pick-up and laser-like throw across the diamond got Brett Cecil out of a bases-loaded jam (2/3 of which was created by Happ) in the fourth. Cecil couldn’t pitch out of trouble in the fifth, though, walking a pair around a double-play ball that was booted by Mike McCoy, then giving up a three-run double to right-centre by Juan Rivera which scored all the game’s runs.

The Blue Jays will take the day off Monday, then try to get their Spring Training record back to .500 when they visit the Boston Red Sox at Fort Myers on Tuesday afternoon. It’s Brandon Morrow’s day to start, but he won’t be taking the three-hour bus trip, instead starting a minor-league game and letting Justin Germano take the ball down south. The only starting position players the Blue Jays are scheduled to take will be Maicer Izturis and Colby Rasmus.

Dirk Hayhurst and I will have the call of the game for you, starting at 1:30 p.m. ET on sportsnet590.ca – be sure to join us!

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