DUNEDIN, Florida – On Wednesday, it was J.A. Happ's turn to play in the ongoing game of hot potato, better known as the competition to determine who will comprise the back end of the Blue Jays' starting rotation.
When the figurative music stops on March 31, Opening Day, general manager Alex Anthopoulos, manager John Gibbons and pitching coach Pete Walker will make what's becoming an increasingly difficult decision thanks to consistently mediocre to subpar performances by the candidates.
Walker said before Wednesday's 11-6 win over the Phillies that the game was a "big start" for Happ. He needed to pitch in the strike zone. Happ needed to force Philadephia's hitters to make contact.
He was scheduled to pitch four or five innings with a pitch count of 70, give or take a few.
Turns out Happ threw 71 pitches but did so in only 2 2/3 innings. Only 34 of those pitches were strikes. He laboured, to be generous, allowing three runs on three hits and four walks.
Afterward, Happ saw his afternoon in a positive light.
"It was good," he said. "I felt strong out there. Maybe a little too good but everything was good. Health was good."
The health to which Happ refers is his back, an ailment which has kept him out of Grapefruit League action since he was pulled in the first inning of a March 3 start against the Twins.
Happ intends to focus on developing his rhythm, interrupted due to injury, next time out. He's looking to more consistently harness the new arm slot he employed in the final month of last season. Happ watched video of his start and noticed he'd reverted to an over-the-top angle.
It's all in the name of better efficiency.
"That's the same story for everybody," said Gibbons. "To be successful in the big leagues you've got to throw a lot of strikes. You've got to throw that strike one. You fall behind guys, it turns everything in the hitter's favour and just the opposite for the pitcher. He's capable of doing that."
Two weeks ago, the 31-year-old was bothered by Anthopoulos' suggestion that his spot in the starting rotation was in question. Happ isn't dwelling on it now, saying he can't worry about what he can't control. It's apparent he will be on the team, as will Esmil Rogers and Todd Redmond, his competitors for a final rotation job. The question is who will be the starter and which two will work out of a bullpen which is expected to feature eight relievers.
It's believed Happ is in the driver's seat, partly because Rogers doesn't throw enough of his repertoire for strikes and Redmond tends to struggle once the opposition's lineup turns over. Remember, too, that Happ is owed $5.2 million this year on an extension signed the day Ricky Romero was cut from camp last spring. The idea of having $12.7 million on the books for Happ and Romero, with neither in the starting rotation, can't be a pleasant one.
"I don't feel like I'm far," said Happ. "You guys, you're going to take that outing for what it was and it doesn't look pretty. Pitch-wise, like I said, I'm up to 70 and next time be 85-90 and still feel strong that'll be a good thing. I'm close."
"I'm looking forward to his next start," said Gibbons. "That's all I've got to say."
The game of hot potato continues on Thursday when the Blue Jays visit the Phillies. Another back end of the rotation candidate gets the start.
Over to you, Esmil Rogers.
ROMERO AND STROMAN REASSIGNED
Ricky Romero and Marcus Stroman shipped out to minor league camp on Wednesday morning.
Both were outsiders, at best, to crack the opening day roster but both impressed at times during Grapefruit League play.
"We just feel they both need more work," said manager John Gibbons. "As far as Ricky, he's moving in the right direction. We really like what he did this camp. Just go down there and polish it up. Stro, he's kind of the odd man out. He had trouble throwing strikes (Tuesday). He's got to do that. They both need more work."
After two down years the bar wasn't set high for Romero. With that as a consideration, it's fair to say he exceeded expectations. He had two positive outings before he cratered against the Tigers on Tuesday, reverting to his wild ways.
"He showed us enough in the previous two outings before (Tuesday) that you know what, hey, it's coming," said Gibbons. "It's a long road and you never really know whether a guy is going to make it back or not but he was starting to show the signs of it."
Stroman showed flashes of the pitcher the Blue Jays believe he will become but he was inconsistent all spring, culminating with an ugly performance on Tuesday. The Tigers knocked him around for seven runs on five hits in one-third of an inning.
"We brought Stroman in, he pitched in Double-A for us and he had a legitimate shot (at making the club,") said Gibbons. "We don't think he's quite ready. He's not polished yet so he's got to go down there and work on some things."
The Jays still need to add two to a rotation which features R.A. Dickey, Brandon Morrow and Mark Buehrle. While the pitching coach offers praise to Drew Hutchison, Pete Walker won't yet guarantee him a spot.
"Not ready to say that," said Walker. "Obviously, we're extremely pleased with the way he's thrown the ball. He's certainly shown he's capable of getting major league hitters out. His velocity, his strength, his bounce back, right now, after outings has been fantastic. He's shown poise on the mound. He's done everything you need to do to earn a spot, there's no question, but we're just in a position right now, we're sorting through some things to make sure we make the right decision."
SANCHEZ AROUND FOR EXPERIENCE
Aaron Sanchez is getting plenty of opportunity to pitch in Grapefruit League games, often the back end of a starters' piggyback. He's thrown as many as four innings in a game and is scheduled to work in relief of Todd Redmond against the Rays on Friday.
"He won't make the team," said manager John Gibbons. "We want to keep him around, pitching in some of these games for the experience factor."
Sanchez, 21, is considered the Jays' top pitching prospect. He threw 109 2/3 innings combined with High-A Dunedin and in the Arizona Fall League last season. It's expected he will begin the year at Double-A New Hampshire.