TORONTO - Come hell or high water, the Toronto Blue Jays pitching staff, especially the starting rotation, will be better in 2012.
It simply has to be if this franchise is going to be able to live up to its manager’s expectations.
“Innings pitched by the rotation is a cornerstone for any contending team,” said Jays manager John Farrell, prior to Wednesday’s 7-2 defeat at the hands of the Los Angeles Angels.
Ricky Romero has established himself not only as the staff ace but the staff bulldog on his way to a 230-inning campaign.
But behind him, the progress has been slower than hoped.
There is little doubt the Jays are counting on Brandon Morrow to harness his outrageous natural stuff and become more and more consistent.
Brett Cecil has been in and out all season, though better since he came back from exile in Las Vegas.
Henderson Alvarez has all the promise in the world and has been given a long look these past two months, but is he ready to step into the kind of rotation Farrell wants next year?
And then there’s Dustin McGowan, in the process of making the most improbable comeback after more than three years trying to overcome various injuries and two major surgeries.
Wednesday, McGowan made his fourth appearance and third start since rejoining the Jays in September. He tossed five innings, threw 79 pitches (50 for strikes), gave up a pair of runs and struck out eight. He left the game trailing 2-0 and looking like he had plenty left in the tank.
While still being handled with care, McGowan has ceased to be simply a medical phenomenon. He is once again being looked at as a big-leaguer who might just be able to be the kind of pitcher that Farrell would happily include in his plans for 2012.
“I’ve got to keep building off each of these outings,” said McGowan. “I’ve got one more start and I hope that goes well, get a little bit of confidence, and then I’ll have a whole off-season to rest and build some strength back.
“The last three years, it’s been steady go-go-go, trying to get better. Now I know I can pitch again. The past couple years it’s been trying to get back to pitching. This will be a little more relaxing for me.”
As effective as McGowan was, Peter Bourjos was a thorn in his side. Leading off the third inning, the speedy Angels centrefielder roped a ball to the wall in left-centre field, legging out a triple. He came home on a Maicer Izturis single moments later.
With one out in the fifth, Bourjos looked at two balls then smashed the next pitch over the wall in left for his 12th homer of the season.
Those were the only two runs McGowan allowed. He didn’t walk a man, pitching ahead in the count most of the evening.
“He’s going to get a well-earned rest and a well-earned normal off-season,” said Farrell. “Once we get into spring training, he’s a guy who will compete for our club.”
Meanwhile, the Jays didn’t get much going against Angels veteran starter Dan Haren.
Toronto loaded the bases with two out in the fourth but couldn’t push a run across.
Eric Thames belted his 11th homer, a solo shot, in the sixth for Toronto’s first run. The Jays scored one more in the ninth.
Former Jays outfielder Vernon Wells managed to rub some more salt in old wounds, belting his 24th homer, a two-run shot in the eighth, and drilling a two-run single in the sixth.
In his 31 starts for Toronto this year, Romero has averaged exactly seven innings per start. Eleven other pitchers have started games for Toronto with considerably less overall success and that has meant stress on the bullpen and stress on the position players.
As a result of that uncertainty in the rotation, the Jays had an eight-man bullpen for much of the season. That used up manpower that, with a more stable rotation, might have helped out the offence.
“What really showed up was that we couldn’t have a regular rotation with bench guys into the lineup,” said Farrell, who often only had two or three players on his bench. “Our position players paid the price for that physically. That might have been some of the reason for the (poor) daytime performance, when you don’t have the ability to rotate people through and keep the legs fresh.
“It would be great if we could pencil five guys in at 200 innings, but we’re also realistic,” said Farrell.
Rotation innings don’t have to come from just five pitchers. What is important is pitching depth that allows you to bring a competent arm into the mix when injury or poor performance forces a change.
In 2008, the Jays starting rotation featured Roy Halladay, A.J. Burnett, Jesse Litsch, Shaun Marcum and McGowan, but supplemented by John Parrish, David Purcey and Scott Richmond, Toronto starters tossed 1,021 innings.
In that season, the Jays had one of the top bullpens in all of baseball, a veteran collection of relievers who were only called upon to pitch 425 innings, or less than three innings per game, on average. The ability of the starters to routinely pitch into the seventh inning gave the relievers enough rest to be effective when called upon.
Through the latter part of this season, several pitchers have gotten a chance to audition for the starting rotation next spring. In the fall, after the season ends, organizational meetings will mull over the inventory of arms and decide whether it’s necessary to go outside the current internal talent pool for the answers to some of the club’s puzzling questions.
But one thing is clear: McGowan has emerged from the darkness as a candidate for the club's rotation in 2012.