Blue Jays enter spring with plenty of rotation options
Dickey, Buehrle to anchor starting staff; Hutchinson, Rogers in mix for final spot
TORONTO -- The Blue Jays aren't necessarily done with their offseason shopping, but regardless of what happens over the next couple of weeks, the competition for a spot in the starting rotation is about to begin.
Toronto's rotation was one of the worst in baseball last season and became the primary reason why the club was unable to live up to its preseason hype. With the exception of R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle, there weren't a lot of reliable options, and the end result was a last-place finish in the American League East.
The free-agent market for starting pitchers was slow to develop, but it has picked up a lot of steam in recent days. The only two high-profile arms still available on the open market are Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez, and both would be very nice fits in Toronto.
That situation will play itself out in the coming days, but here's a closer look at the starters who are already in the fold and set to report to Dunedin, Fla., on Sunday morning:
The sure bets
Dickey: The veteran knuckleballer got a lot of heat during his first season in Toronto but the numbers were never quite as bad as they might have seemed. Yes, there was a rather disappointing first half which included a lot of home runs, but this was still a pitcher who answered the call every fifth day despite a variety of injuries. Dickey finished the year second in the AL with 224 2/3 innings and had an impressive 3.57 ERA during the second half. Take away a couple of early rough starts and this is about what should have been expected from Dickey in the first place.
Brandon Morrow: The veteran righty has the potential to become a difference maker on this season's staff. Morrow has some of the best pure stuff in baseball, but now it's time for him to put everything together throughout the course of a full season. He'll want to forget all about an injury-plagued 2013 season, and there's no better way of doing that than becoming the missing piece Toronto so desperately needs.
Buehrle: The veteran southpaw has been one of the most consistent pitchers in baseball for well over a decade, and all the Blue Jays can do is hope that continues for at least a couple of more years. If there's one thing that needs to be changed, it's that Buehrle is a notoriously slow starter in April. He had an ERA north of seven on May 6 of last season, but he quickly settled into a groove and proved there was plenty left in the tank. More of the same will be expected again this year.
J.A. Happ: The Blue Jays are hoping that a change to Happ's mechanics will lead to better results in 2014. He lowered his arm slot last September, and it's an alteration that is expected to carry over into the upcoming year. Toronto feels the adjustment will help improve Happ's command and result in not having to throw as many pitches. He entered last season's Spring Training without a job, but that won't be the case this time around. Barring any last-minute changes, Happ is guaranteed to start the season in Toronto.
In the mix
Drew Hutchison: The young righty is finally back to full health after he was forced to miss the entire 2013 season following Tommy John surgery. The only real question here is whether the Blue Jays will want him to start the season in the big leagues or if they would prefer a more patient approach that could see Hutchison open the season with Triple-A Buffalo. Hutchison will have a big role at some point, but the only way to ensure his contributions begin in April will be with a strong Grapefruit League season. If he performs well this spring, it's going to be very hard for manager John Gibbons and general manager Alex Anthopoulos to keep him off the team.
Esmil Rogers: The righty finished the 2013 season in the rotation, and his expectation for the upcoming year is to have a similar role. There were glimpses of brilliance last season, but also plenty of inconsistency. With a lot more depth in the organization, Rogers' rope won't be nearly as long this season, and he'll need a strong camp to make the starting five. Otherwise, he's likely headed to the bullpen as a long reliever.
Todd Redmond: Redmond finds himself in almost the exact position as Rogers. He also finished last year in the rotation but could be on the outside looking in this spring. The danger here is that Redmond is out of options on his contract and cannot be sent to the Minor Leagues without being put on waivers. He's in the mix for a spot in either the rotation or bullpen but nothing is guaranteed despite a strong run in 2013.
Marcus Stroman: Though he appears likely to start the year in Buffalo, Stroman -- perhaps more than anyone on this list -- has the ability to drastically change his outlook this spring. The New York native is very close to being ready for the Major Leagues and could put plenty of pressure on the coaching staff with a strong Grapefruit League season. If Stroman doesn't head north at the end of Spring Training, it certainly won't be long before he finally gets that call.
Dustin McGowan: The oft-injured veteran righty finally found a way to stay healthy last season following years spent in baseball's purgatory. Yes, there was still a shoulder injury that cost him a month of action in 2013, but that was nothing compared to his previous issues. Now there's talk that McGowan will be stretched out in Spring Training, but the logical conclusion is that the Blue Jays will not want to mess with a good thing and will instead choose to keep him in the bullpen.
Jeremy Jeffress: His days in the Blue Jays organization could be nearing an end as Jeffress enters camp without any options remaining on his contract. Regardless of what happens next, Jeffress is in a much better position than he was a year ago. He has suffered a lot of seizures over the years, but it wasn't until 2013 that he was diagnosed with juvenile epilepsy. Jeffress is now properly medicated and it resulted in a strong showing during the second half. Whether or not it's enough to earn a spot on the big league roster remains to be seen, but either way, his career is back on track.
Kyle Drabek: He has an outside chance at a starting job, but Drabeck finished last year behind Hutchison on the depth chart. All signs point to the former top pick beginning the year in the Minor Leagues, but he could become a factor later in the year.
Sean Nolin: He made his big league debut in 2013, but like Drabek, Nolin is expected to begin the season in the Minors. His time is coming and he'll likely be up at some point this season, but it probably won't be at the start of the season.