DUNEDIN, Florida – The Blue Jays are on the record with the club's plan to start Brandon Morrow in the season's fifth game, the home opener on April 4th against the New York Yankees.
"Right now we're kind of looking at him at the end of the rotation right now," said pitching coach Pete Walker. "Not indicative of how he's doing or how he's feeling. It's just, it seems like the spot we want him right now."
Morrow's final outing last season came on May 28. He was suffering from pain and stiffness in his right forearm. The diagnosis was an entrapped radial nerve. When rest and treatment didn't solve the problem, Morrow was shut down for the year in late July.
Now, with just more than two weeks left until opening day, Morrow's high count for the spring is 47 pitches. His last outing came last Tuesday, March 11, against the Baseball Canada junior team, during which he threw only fastballs and splitters. He has struggled to command his fastball, which the club and Morrow insist isn't worrisome due to his long layoff.
"We're looking at the way guys are throwing and Brandon, right now, we want to make sure he's healthy, we want to make sure he gets through the season healthy," said Walker. "We need him to be a big part of this rotation and right now it's just where he fits in."
Morrow has been throwing relatively consistently since November. The Jays have brought him along carefully this spring but with the regular season looming, Morrow is running out of time to build up to go deeper into games.
With too few innings to spread among all of their rotation hopefuls, the Jays are giving minor league games to rotation certainties like R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle. Morrow is included in that bunch. The plan is for Morrow to pitch four or five innings against the Yankees' Scranton affiliate on Tuesday in Tampa.
Tuesday's start will come a full week after Morrow's last appearance. Walker says there's no concern about Morrow's health.
"No, no, but just past history we want to make sure we take care of him as best we can," he said.
"Tuesday will be a good outing for him," continued Walker. "He's going to get some good work on Tuesday and he'll still have two outings after that."
The Blue Jays have off days on three consecutive Mondays in April: April 7, 14 and 21. The club will require a fifth starter on four occasions during the first month of the season, although Walker and manager John Gibbons will be able to make adjustments as they see fit.
"It depends on who you're playing, how you line up sometimes as you look at the first couple of weeks of the season," said Walker. "We can always slot him back in where we want to put him but, right now, this is how things look right now. Things could change."
Meanwhile, Gibbons reiterated on Sunday morning that, in his mind, there is one spot open in the starting rotation.
Neither the manager nor anyone on his coaching staff will publicly confirm Drew Hutchison has a big league job. However, the 23-year-old has been the best starter in camp. It would be a hard sell, barring the unforeseen, to keep Hutchison off the opening day roster.
That leaves J.A. Happ, Esmil Rogers, Todd Redmond and Ricky Romero fighting for the final spot.
"I'm a big Happ fan," said Gibbons. "I think he's going to have a heck of a year for us. All indications the other day, his back's fine, he threw very well and that was a big question. Now, if his back flares up, it may be a different story."
Casey Janssen, Steve Delabar, Sergio Santos, Aaron Loup and Brett Cecil are assured bullpen jobs. What isn't yet decided is whether there will be a seven reliever contingent or an eight-man bullpen heading north.
An eight-man bullpen would shorten Gibbons' bench but with much uncertainty about the group of starters, Gibbons wouldn't rule out taking an extra arm. There is also the business matter of options – who has them and who doesn't – to factor in. The Jays may have no choice but to put one of their pitchers through waivers but the club is loathe to lose the bodies.
"What makes the team the strongest," said Gibbons. "Do we feel we need to carry that extra guy to help the rotation out? Because they're all really good; I mean, we're not going to keep a guy just to keep a guy unless they're valuable and we think everybody we have is valuable."
The Blue Jays optioned pitchers Kyle Drabek, Sean Nolin and Chad Jenkins to Triple-A Buffalo prior to Sunday's 4-3, 10-inning win over the Orioles.
Drabek, 26, struggled to command his repertoire this spring, giving up eight earned runs, 10 hits and six walks over eight innings.
"Go down there and start pitching," said manager John Gibbons. "We're running out of time. He's not going to make the team. He needs to go down there and get his work in."
Jenkins, 26, allowed three runs over 6 2/3 spring innings, including one each in his final two appearances. He was a contributor as a call up last season, both as a starter and as a reliever, but he has options remaining. The Blue Jays can get Jenkins to Buffalo without first passing him through waivers.
"He should be pitching in the big leagues," said Gibbons. "They're not far away. If somebody falters, if we keep somebody in the bullpen and they falter and we feel like they can help us more, they'll be right back up. That's just the way the game works."
Nolin, a 24-year-old lefthander, appeared in four spring games, starting one. He made his big league debut last May in a loss to Baltimore, was quickly demoted and not recalled the remainder of the season.
He's an option for the Blue Jays if the rotation suffers from underperformance or an injury.