Blue Jays starting rotation: And then there were three?

Blue Jays starting rotation
J.A. Happ’s struggles this spring are cause for concern. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

I think it’s an understatement to say this is what every Toronto Blue Jays fan was afraid of throughout the offseason.

From November to the beginning of February, when pitchers and catchers reported to Toronto’s spring training camp, a cloud of question marks hovered over the club’s vacant spot in the starting rotation. R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Brandon Morrow and J.A. Happ were essentially guaranteed the first four appearances to start the regular season, followed by the best arm to emerge out of a large crop of internal candidates. However, as things far too often have a way of unfolding with this ballclub’s pitching staff, there are more questions than answers after Happ’s glaring issues on the mound and back flare ups have played out throughout his time in Florida.

GM Alex Anthopoulos now admits “there could be two” spots open in the Toronto rotation, while skipper John Gibbons, on the other hand, sees things differently. “I’m a big Happ fan,” he stated while adding that as long as the left-hander’s back holds up, he still has his spot in the final five. Before Wednesday’s start against the Phillies, Gibby’s support was backed-up by pitching coach Pete Walker when he recognized that Happ was “someone we’re counting on, no question about it.”

Well, after his brief and cringe-worthy appearance in the game that followed those statements, we need to hope question will most definitely arise.

Happ’s day at the office against the Phillies? An inferior 2.2 IP, 3 H, 3 ER, 4 BB and 2 K on 71 pitches, with only 34 for strikes.

To rub salt on the wound, our maybe/maybe not (depending on who you ask) guaranteed starter has retired only 12 batters in three starts this spring over four innings. After posting these numbers, you would assume there would be more clarity regarding Happ’s role as a starter, but you would be wrong.

“It was a battle for him,” Gibby told reporters after his latest outing. “His stuff was good. He was popping the ball today. The thing is throwing it over the plate … I’m looking forward to his next start.”

I think it’s safe to say he might be alone on that one.

Another comment following Wednesday’s game that left media and fans scratching their heads came from Walker when asked what seems like the now obvious question: Does Drew Hutchison have the green light now?

“No, not ready to say that,” the pitching coach said.

Hutchison has excelled during his appearances this spring training, clearly putting the Tommy John surgery that kept him away from the big leagues for the end of 2012 and all of 2013. He is consistent and in control, throwing a fastball in the 92-94mph range while allowing only three runs on seven hits, striking out 16 batters in over 9.2 innings.

If Blue Jays fans have been promised over and over that they will see the “best team” travel north, then why hesitate on Hutchison’s strong case for a guaranteed starting job come April?

Here is a scenario I hope plays out: Todd Redmond versus Happ. I lingered on Esmil Rogers for a while as a remaining potential candidate, but last year’s starter is much better suited as a long reliever; a role the Jays had intended for him when he came over from Cleveland last winter.

Redmond has pitched three solid outings this spring, struggling in two others. On Sunday against the Orioles, he worked five innings, wavering in the second and forth, but he was effective when he kept the ball down and away from the middle of the plate.

An ideal candidate? No. But when both Happ and Redmond are compared to the 23-year-old Hutchison, it seems clear these two should be battling it out during the last days in Dunedin for a final slot with the other taking up a post in the bullpen.

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