BRADENTON, Florida – J.A. Happ's hold on a spot in the Blue Jays' starting rotation is in question.
The tall lefthander's sore back and poor performance this spring, combined with the emergence of Drew Hutchison and the sense that Marcus Stroman is almost ready to contribute to a successful major league club, has cast doubt on his role with the team.
"I think we're going to take the best team north," said general manager Alex Anthopoulos. "Especially right now, we have J.A. and the back, the performance, things like that, we have to get him on track, stay healthy. Obviously R.A., Mark and Brandon. Again, we expect J.A. to be in the rotation but at the same time, the back's flared up on him twice. I just don't know. Look, if guys perform well and they force our hand, we'll take the best team."
Hutchison has stood out. Members of the Blue Jays brass caution against overvaluing spring training performance. However, it isn't just about results. How's a pitcher's "stuff?" Is he locating his pitches, especially his fastball? Hutchison was dominant in two innings against the Orioles last Saturday, striking out four. The park's radar gun had his four-seam fastball clocked at 94 miles per hour while Jays' scouts say it hit 96 on three or four occasions. The command was there, too.
"We saw that velocity at the end of his time in 2012 before he got hurt," said Anthopoulos. "When I went to the Arizona Fall League, it was so encouraging to see him pitch that way. He really started to come into his own in 2012 before he got hurt so I'm not surprised. I think I said it before. He's a guy I expected to really impress. He's off to a great start, he's definitely opened some eyes, he's a strong candidate to make the rotation but he's got to make it. But I love what I see."
The Jays are enamoured with the makeup of both Hutchison and Stroman. Coaches say both men have come to camp on a mission – to make the team – and say neither will be satisfied with simply being a major leaguer and collecting a healthy paycheck. Both are driven to be front end of the rotation pitchers. Both expect to be the ace of a big league staff. About Stroman, the general manager jokes he's never seen a guy chomping gum in the middle of his delivery.
Stroman was scheduled to throw three innings in Bradenton on Thursday. Due to rain, the outing has been rescheduled for Friday. To use Anthopoulos' words, it's a "big day" for the 22-year-old.
"I'm saying it more tongue-in-cheek. It's not like the decision gets made tomorrow but I think every outing for him is important."
"He has a chance. I don't know what the chances are, the percentages, but there's a reason he's getting stretched out, there's a reason we're giving him the innings. We want to take a look. If he can impress and really come on, he's going to make it hard on us, which is what we want."
Happ was scheduled to pitch on Saturday but has been pushed back in the wake of the rainout. Tests have revealed no structural damage in Happ's back, the Blue Jays say, just inflammation. This isn't the first time Happ's battled the problem in his career.
Anthopoulos remains willing to consider external options to add to the roster. He's in periodic touch with representatives of free agents and is open-minded to a deal if the prices drop. A trade between now and opening day seems more likely and he'll try to deal from a position of strength.
"We do have inventory in the bullpen and we talk about it daily but we know how quickly that inventory can vanish," said Anthopoulos. "Guys get hurt. I think as we get to the last 10 days of camp is when things will ramp up a little bit ... I'd say the last 10 days of camp or so is when you're expecting guys to stay healthy and it'll be interesting, especially with all the guys we have who are out of options."
Innings limits for the kids?
Some in the organization would prefer Hutchison and Stroman begin at Triple-A Buffalo, to the extent there is debate it is healthy, not confrontational.
Given that jobs could be at stake this season, it behooves the front office and coaching staff to take the best team to St. Petersburg on March 31.
If that team includes both Hutchison and Stroman and they stick for the season, Anthopoulos says their innings will not be monitored.
"Someone said Marcus threw 126 innings and 25 in the Fall League, well he threw more than that because he was being stretched out as a starter last year in extended and no one has those innings," said Anthopoulos. "The year before he was around 160 or something. He has no restrictions at all. He was a pretty high number last year."
"Drew, the same way," Anthopoulos continued. "I think Drew, I think I've said this before, reminds me a lot of a similar scenario with Shaun Marcum. Marcum was more than a year removed from Tommy John. He had it in August the year before, didn't come up in September on the one-year anniversary date, came into spring training, pitched great, was our opening day starter and had a three and a half ERA and pitched 195 innings, I think. Drew's got no restrictions. I think it would be the same type of thing. I could see him, if he makes this team, going wire to wire."
On second base
Anthopoulos continues to be effusive in his praise of Ryan Goins.
"Defensively, the more you watch him, the more you realize how good he is defensively, just his actions, the way he moves," said Anthopoulos. "You know, the bat, that's something we're going to watch in spring training. The tough part is, you realize it's two at-bats a game, three at-bats a game, the competition level varies. I would say, again, the competition is still there. We're going to value the defence because it's that good. He has room to do less offensively because the defence is so elite. I don't use that word lightly. I really think he's elite and he's got a chance to win a gold glove there."
Chris Getz, Jonathan Diaz, Munenori Kawasaki and Steve Tolleson are on minor league deals and are getting looks.
"Goins is the front-runner because of the defence that he showed but he still has to earn that job," said Anthopoulos.
Jays rained out Thursday
The Blue Jays and Pirates were rained out in Bradenton on Thursday, forcing manager John Gibbons to adjust his pitching lineup.
Mark Buehrle, scheduled to start on Thursday, will instead start Friday's home game against the Rays. Marcus Stroman and Ricky Romero will also appear.
Drew Hutchison will make the start, at home, on Saturday against Minnesota.
R.A. Dickey will take his knuckleball to Kissimmee on Sunday for a date with the Astros.