BRADENTON, Florida - J.A. Happ was pummeled by the Pirates on Tuesday, leaving general manager Alex Anthopoulos with an unappealing conundrum: it's become easier for him to sell to the fan base the idea of having $12.7-million (Ricky Romero's and Happ's combined 2014 salaries) of dead or differently-allocated money than it is to sell the fan base on including the left-hander in the opening day starting rotation.
Happ faced 20 batters in three-plus innings. Twelve of them got hits, including Pittsburgh starter Wandy Rodriguez, who hit a wind-aided, opposite field, two-run home run to cap a four-run second inning. Rodriguez had never homered in 437 career major league at-bats.
Happ allowed seven earned runs, bloating his springtime ERA over four starts to 20.57.
The Blue Jays lost, wait for it, 22-5.
"It wasn't a good day for anybody, really," said manager John Gibbons. "We got pounded pretty good. They weren't missing 'em. We got hit around pretty good."
Meanwhile, back in Dunedin, Dustin McGowan, the sudden favourite for the final available rotation job, threw four innings of scoreless baseball in a Triple-A game. His fastball was clocked in the mid-90s; McGowan hit the 62-pitch mark.
"I thought he looked great," Anthopoulos told a pool reporter in Dunedin. "It's just trying to get him stretched out here. Every step is a step in the right direction, but we'll see how he feels tonight, tomorrow, all that kind of stuff. He got up to 62 today off of 48 the (outing) before. We'll take it outing by outing at this point."
The logical next step, provided McGowan's wonky shoulder feels good on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, is to have the right-hander throw another minor league game in Florida on Sunday.
"The big thing is that we don't get ahead of ourselves because we re-evaluate it almost daily to see how he feels," said Anthopoulos. "I always remind him as well, I keep reminding him that at any time any concerns, any tweaks, anything at all, he needs to tell us, and he said, 'Absolutely.' He's obviously a big part of wanting to do this as well. As I told him when were even exploring this, he needs to want to do this because we would never take chances with his career or with his health. He's the one who knows how he feels. He's been through this enough times. He has to communicate with us."
Happ has had a puzzling spring. He arrived in Dunedin under the impression he had a spot in the starting rotation locked up. After poor starts on February 26 and March 3, he missed game action due to a bad back. His two appearances since his return, on March 19 and on Tuesday, have gone no better.
"Yeah, that's not an issue," said Gibbons, when asked if Happ's back was still a concern.
Happ has an option remaining, meaning he could be sent to the minors without first passing through waivers. However, the fly in the ointment is significant: as a major league veteran with more than five years of service time, Happ has the right to refuse the assignment, at which point the Jays could keep him or release him while paying him full freight.
Would Happ be willing to move to the bullpen?
"I'm not thinking about that," he said. "I'll answer that question if someone else, one of the bosses, decides they need to ask that. We'll deal with that then. But that's not something that's on my mind."
The Blue Jays still have not officially named Drew Hutchison to their starting rotation although it's inconceivable he doesn't make the team. Hutchison has been the club's best pitcher this spring and Anthopoulos is on the record as saying he's taking the best 25 players north.
Assuming Hutchison joins R.A. Dickey, Brandon Morrow and Mark Buehrle in the rotation, Anthopoulos, Gibbons and pitching coach Pete Walker have to decide between McGowan, Happ and Todd Redmond for the final spot.
The idea of piggybacking McGowan, that is starting him on a strict pitch count and backfilling with Redmond, Esmil Rogers, maybe even Happ, behind him has been bandied about. It likely will be revisited during internal meetings ahead of Sunday's deadline to announce the opening day roster.
"When we announce the team, everybody will know who it is," said Gibbons.
REYES GOING TO MONTREAL?
The Blue Jays are encouraged by the MRI results on Jose Reyes' left hamstring, which revealed a minor strain.
"Hopefully he's in there the next couple of days, maybe at DH," said manager John Gibbons. "Let him run half-speed, three-quarter-speed. It actually made us feel pretty good after we heard the results."
When asked on Monday, before he had his MRI, whether he would play through the strain if the regular season already was underway, Reyes didn't answer. It behooves the Jays to be careful, though, especially considering the club plays 91 games (81 at home, 10 in Tampa Bay) of its 162 on artificial turf.
"With baseball, too, there can be a lot of dead time too before you actually get a ball," said Gibbons. "That quick movement will sometimes get you. We feel good about it and you hope it doesn't turn into anything down the road either."
Still, Gibbons says the plan is to bring Reyes to Montreal, where two games will be played on turf, if he's healthy enough to go.
"I'm sure everybody wants to see him play up there," said Gibbons.
THE SECOND CATCHER
R.A. Dickey is scheduled to start the Blue Jays final Grapefruit League home game on Wednesday. By game time, we should have a better idea of who will back up Dioner Navarro.
"I would say the guy who catches him (Wednesday) will be the backup catcher," said Gibbons. "I'll leave it at that."
Erik Kratz and Josh Thole are vying for the job.
Gibbons has repeatedly said that effectively catching Dickey is the job's number one priority. Thole, to the extent someone can be, is a master at it. He's also got the most experience. Dickey's pitched 565 innings to Thole over their time together with the Mets and Blue Jays.
Kratz, a 2002 Blue Jays' draft pick, returned to the organization in an offseason trade with the Phillies.
He's a threat to hit a home run, having gone deep 18 times in 375 at-bats over the last two seasons.
Thole posted a .175/.256/.242 line in limited action last season. If he makes the team it appears the club will have trouble generating offence from the eighth and ninth (Ryan Goins) spots in the lineup on the days he plays.