The 2014 Toronto Blue Jays: Lowered Expectations…

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“Banners fly forever.”

That was the popular response I received upon questioning the mindset behind trading two top prospects for a near forty year old “novelty pitch” pitcher. Even though I had my doubts, it was hard not to “drink” the proverbial kool-aid about the upcoming 2013 Toronto Blue Jays season.

The 2013 season was one of the worst in recent memories for Blue Jays fans. It had us clamouring for the days of Corey Koskie and Shea Hillenbrand. The biggest cause for the disappointment was the monumental expectations and hype that was heaped upon the Blue Jays heading into the offseason. I remember being at the first weekend series of the season against John Farrell and the hated Red Sox. I remember the joy of reigning boos and shouting vile at the former Blue Jays manager whom has spurned us for his “Dream Job.” I remember the chants of “F**k You Farrell” and thinking that this could finally be our year.

Maybe I was wrong, maybe banners do fly forever.

As it turns out, the only thing I was wrong about was the idea that the Blue Jays had any chance of winning in 2013. Seeing John Farrell raise the World Series trophy in Fenway Park was an absolute shot to the gut. I suppose he who laughs last…

World Series - St Louis Cardinals v Boston Red Sox - Game Six

Heading into the season though… we were the ones who were laughing as Blue Jays fans.

2013 jays

Not only had the Blue Jays managed to trade for the reigning Cy Young winner (R.A Dickey) but they had also managed to “fleece” the Miami Marlins in a blockbuster trade. In that trade, the Blue Jays had acquired All-Star SS Jose Reyes, one-time ERA champ Josh Johnson, perennial 200 inning workhorse Mark Buehrle, versatile utility player Emilio Bonifacio, and catcher John Buck, in exchange for Henderson Alvarez, Jeff Mathis, Adeiny Hecchavarria, and three top prospects (OF Jake Marisnick, LHP Justin Nicolino, and RHP Anthony DeScalafini).

The consensus from around the baseball world was that the Blue Jays had swindled the Marlins, so much so that rumours swirled that MLB commissioner Bud Selig would block the trade; he did not.

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In addition to these two high profile trades, the Blue Jays had also managed to sign free agents Macier Izturis and Melky Cabrera. The signing of Cabrera was widely criticized because Melky was coming off of a 50 game suspension for PED use. That suspension had not only tarnished Cabrera’s reputation, but it also kept him from the Giants World Series roster, and prevented him from claiming the 2012 NL Batting title. Despite it being an unpopular move, The Blue Jays were willing to take the risk in the hopes that the switch hitting Cabrera would return to his All-Star level of play; especially at the bargain rate of $8 million per season.

Toronto at Kansas City

Despite being the consensus “winner” of the offseason, the Toronto Blue Jays stumbled out of the gate to begin the 2013 season and were never able to recover. The players brought in during the big offseason spending spree were a disappointment to say the least. Jose Reyes was lost for 2+ months after badly spraining his ankle on an awkward slide into 2B. When he did return, you could clearly see that his speed was suffering from that ankle injury. R.A Dickey and Mark Buehrle both finished with records above .500 and pitched 200+ innings. Great numbers for mid rotation starters but these guys were brought in to be front of the rotation pitchers.

The biggest disappointments were Cabrera, Josh Johnson, and Emilio Bonifacio. Bonifacio was a virtual “throw-in” in the blockbuster and was believed to have the inside shot at the starting 2B job. His poor defensive play and lacklustre plate appearances led to him being shipped to Kansas City before the trade deadline. Melky gets the benefit of the doubt because of having played through the season with a tumour in his back.

JJ

Josh Johnson however, was one of the biggest disappointments in recent history. With free agent looming at the end of the season, many thought that the 6’7 RHP would have a dominant season; we couldn’t have been more wrong. JJ posted a 2-8 record to go along with a 6.20 ERA and looked genuinely lost during his starts. Johnson was shut down for the season in August and signed a 1yr deal with the Padres in the offseason. The Blue Jays didn’t even qualify him.

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Injuries were another big factor for the dismal 2013 campaign. Brandon Morrow was lost for the season with a nerve issues in his right forearm. JA Happ took a line drive to the head and suffered a knee injury when he collapsed to the field. Brett Lawrie suffered an injury during the World Baseball Classic and missed the first couple weeks. Slugger Jose Bautista was shut down early for a second straight season with a bruised hip. Catcher JP Arencibia played so poorly that he might as well have been injured. In fact, the “Dream Team” that was assembled in the offseason played a grand total of 3 games together all season.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Toronto Blue Jays

The belief going into the 2013 offseason was that the Blue Jays would once again be one of the more active teams during free agency. Despite being linked to every big name pitcher on the market and even checking in on the trade market, the Blue Jays decided to stay pat and go with their in house options. The Jays were rumoured to have signed Ervin Santana to a 1yr deal but later lost him to the Atlanta Braves. In fact their only noteworthy free agent signing was Catcher Dioner Navarro; a catcher who has never caught more than 130 games in a season.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Chicago Cubs

Yet here we are again. On the eve of another Toronto Blue Jays season. Despite the lack of offseason moves and hype, this is a team that is pretty much the EXACT same team that was pegged to do so well a year ago. Sports are full of clichés and baseball is no different. Although it may not be a “true” cliché, this is the one that I would go with to describe the upcoming 2014 Toronto Blue Jays season:

Rotation:

The 2014 Blue Jay season is going to be decided by the quality and quantity of starts from their starting rotation. That’s the short version of the story. The long version is one full of hope and optimism but is equally as shrouded in doubt and question marks. The 2013 Blue Jays rotation was decimated by injuries and ineffectiveness and further hampered by lack of depth. When pitchers like Morrow, Happ, and JJ went down with injuries they were replaced by the likes of Ramon Ortiz, Chien-Ming Wang, Aaron Laffey, and Chad Jenkins. This season, despite the lack of offseason moves, the Jays have more starting depth at their disposal. Pitchers like Kyle Drabek, Esmil Rogers, JA Happ, Todd Redmond, Marcus Stroman, and Sean Nolin will be available to jump into the rotation if one of the starters goes down with an injury.

Cleveland Indians v Toronto Blue Jays

R.A Dickey and his pitching face return for a second year in a Blue Jays jersey. The 39 year old knuckleballer will look to improve on his 14-13/4.21 ERA debut. Dickey never looked 100% comfortable in 2013 and was plagued by nagging injuries to his neck and back. The Blue Jays will need Dickey to look more like the 2012 winner and less than a Tim Wakefield 2.0 if they have any thoughts of playing meaningful baseball in September. Mark Buehrle did exactly what he was suppose to do for the Blue Jays in 2013; make starts and eat innings. Buehrle made 33 starts for the Jays and pitched in 203.2 innings, marking the 13th year in a row that he made 30+ starts and threw 200+ innings. Both the 35 year old, and the Jays, will hope that 2014 will be his 14th straight season of doing so. Buehrle was arguably the Jays best pitcher in 2013 and a repeat of his 2013 numbers could pay dividends.

The big question marks in the rotation revolve around the health and durability of the other three starters: Brandon Morrow, Drew Hutchison, and Dustin McGowan.

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Morrow has the stuff to be a front of the rotation starter and has offered glimpses of it – like the one hitter he tossed against the Rays. However, a series of injuries to his oblique and forearm have prevented him from reaching his true potential. His most recent injury – a nerve entrapped in his forearm – ended his 2013 campaign and had people worried about his long term future. So far Morrow has looked impressive in his spring training outings and has shown no signs lingering issues from offseason surgery. A full, 30 start campaign from Morrow (no matter how unlikely) could be the biggest key to the Blue Jays successes in 2014.

Hutch and McGowan are both interesting cases. Hutch looked impressive during his rookie campaign in 2012 before requiring Tommy John surgery and missing the entire 2013 season. Since coming back from TJ, Hutch has been one of the better pitchers in the Jays system. Going into spring training Hutch was considered an outside candidate for the 5th rotation spot. His performance during the spring however, immediately won him the 4th spot in the rotation. Hutch, along with Aaron Sanchez, was hands-down the Blue Jays best pitcher(s) in the spring. It’s hard to put a lot of expectations on a kid who is not only coming off TJ surgery, but also has never pitched a full season in the majors. But if Hutch can keep progressing and pitching the way he does; the Jays may have a BIG TIME sleeper on their hands.

Speaking of pitchers with HUGE potential and HUGE injury risks…

Toronto Blue Jays

Originally thought to be headed to the bullpen or Buffalo, an injury to JA Happ and ineffectiveness by Marcus Stroman allowed Dustin McGowan to grab the 5th and last spot in the Jays rotation. McGowan, who is 32, has less than 400 innings pitched in the majors despite having been drafted at the start of this millennium. There has never been any doubt of what Dustin can do on the mound. The only doubt has been his ability to stay on that mound. McGowan is by far the biggest question mark on the Jays roster and it is near impossible to get a pulse on what he is capable of. If he can stay healthy, and that’s a HUGE if, then the Jays could have a 5th starter with the stuff of an ace on their hands. Here’s hoping…

Bullpen:

One of the lone bright spots in 2013, the bullpen returns pretty much intact for the 2014 campaign. The Blue Jays relievers were among the best in the MLB for most of the 2013 season. The downside to that was the amount of work that the bullpen was exposed to. With the ineffectiveness of the Blue Jays rotation and their starting pitchers inability to pitch into the 6th and 7th innings, the Blue Jays bullpen was overworked and broke down late in the season. Steve Delabar and Brett Cecil were among the best relievers in the game and both were rewarded with selections to the All Star game. However all those early appearances eventually caught up with both Cecil and Delabar forcing both to the DL late in the season.

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Casey Janssen returns as the incumbent closer for a 3rd straight season. Janssen saved a career high 34 games in 2013 and, despite not being considered an “elite” closer, still has the stuff to close the door in the 9th innings. With Janssen slated to start the season on the DL, look for Sergio Santos to get the call in the 9th. The Blue Jays will be carrying eight arms in the bullpen to start the season. I expect that has to do with the potential of starters only pitching 5 or 6 innings. Last year’s starting pitchers Todd Redmond and Esmil Rogers will join Jeremy Jeffress and Aaron Loup in the pen to start the season.

Lineup:

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The 2012 blockbuster with the Marlins brought Jose Reyes to the Blue Jays and gave them something they hadn’t had since the days of Devon White; a legitimate leadoff hitter. Reyes gave Jays fans a glimpse of his explosiveness before sustaining an ankle injury in mid April. Even though he did return to bat leadoff by mid season Reyes would be hampered by that injury. A full season of Reyes on the base paths and ahead of the big bats could be a nightmare scenario for oppositions. Here’s hoping that his oft injured hamstring can hold up to another season on the Rogers Centre’s turf.

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Bautista and Encarnacion are among the best 3 and 4 hitters that there are in the game today. Both sluggers are more than capable of hitting 40+ home runs and driving in 100+ RBI – if they can manage to stay in the lineup. The main knock against both Encarnacion and Bautista has been durability. Bautista has had both his last two seasons ended prematurely with an array of injuries, and Edwin had offseason wrist surgery on his oft-injured wrist. If the two of them can manage to stay healthy for 130+ games, the Blue Jays offense could have a legit chance to slug them into contention.

Blue Jays - Dicke

Colby Rasmus had (arguably) the best season of his career in 2013. Rasmus hit .276/22/66 in only 118 games. Rasmus, like so many other Blue Jays, made a few trips to the Disabled List in 2013. The last, summed up the 2013 season to a tee. On September 20th, Rasmus was hit in the face – during warm ups – by a ball thrown by Anthony Gose; ending his season prematurely. If Rasmus can hit like he did in 2013 – and stay healthy – the Blue Jays will have a potent LH bat in the middle of their lineup. Rasmus’ inability to hit leftys could keep him on the bench against elite LHP.

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The baseball world has been waiting for the breakout season from Brett Lawrie since he hit .293/9/25 in 150 AB sample size in 2011. The consensus during spring training has been that this could be that season. The biggest knock against Lawrie has been his inability to stay healthy (shocking) for an entire season. He played in just 125 games in 2012 and only 107 in 2013. Even with the questions about his durability, Lawrie still has the ability to put up a career year. Lawrie has the ability to hit for both power and average and his speed should help him in the extra base hit department. A refined approach at the plate could also yield wonders for the 24 year old.

Bench:

There really isn’t a whole lot of sexiness here. Moises Sierra is here because he is out of options. Josh Thole is here because R.A Dickey wants him to be his catcher. Maicier Izturis is here because the Blue Jays still haven’t realized that Muni Kawasaki and his chemistry is more important that Izturis. Erik Kratz will be here until Casey Janssen comes off the DL. As I said, not a whole lot of sexy going on here…

Possible Breakout:

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As mentioned above, most baseball writers have already submitted Brett Lawrie as their breakout candidate for the 2014 season. I too also believe that the Red Bull fuelled Lawrie will FINALLY enjoy his breakout campaign, but that’s not who I am writing about here. Personally, I am on the Drew Hutchison bandwagon heading into the season. When he came up in 2012, Hutch was enjoying a 5-3 start to his rookie season before he blew out his UCL, resulting in the dreaded visit to Dr. James Andrews. After missing all of last season Hutch has looked damn impressive this spring. Yes I know it is spring training, but his 19 strikeouts in 15 innings is very attractive. Hutch has been throwing the ball very well and I believe that he will carry that into the season. It’s hard to predict what he will do in his first full year back from Tommy John but I think he is capable of an 11-8 season if he gets in 160 innings. Nothing earth shattering but still a great season for a pitching starved team.

Player(s) I’m Done With:

adam lind

I have never been a fan of Adam Lind. I couldn’t give you an honest answer why. I just don’t like him. Maybe it’s the fact that he has NEVER lived up to his one BIG season back in 2009. Maybe it’s the fact that people keep talking about him like he’s capable of doing it again. He’s not. Maybe it’s the fact that he is a below average fielder. Maybe it’s the fact that he stole Jim “the Anvil” Neidhart’s facial hair without asking permission.

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Maybe it’s the fact that he has the foot speed of John Goodman. Maybe it’s the fact that YOU KNOW he is going to get GUNNED DOWN at home EVERY TIME he gets the wave around 3B. Maybe it’s the fact he can’t hit LHP or draw a walk to save his life. Either way, I’m not 100% sure why, but I am DONE with Adam Lind. I honestly don’t think we can win with this guy getting 500+ AB a season. I’m so sick of hearing Toronto sports beat writers start speculating at a potential “big season” for Lind every time he has a decent spring outing. I’m sick of them assuming that this could be the year that he regains his 2009 stroke. It’s gone, it’s never coming back! GET OVER IT! I can’t wait for the impending trip to the DL with a back issue. That I guarantee… just like him striking out 100+ times again.

Blue Jays - Dickey

R.A Dickey, on the other hand, is hanging on by a thread from making this list. I can’t take another season of mediocre starts followed by comments about how “that game wasn’t about results… it was about how I felt..” NO!!! IT IS ABOUT RESULTS!!! To quote the great Herm Edwards:

“YOU PLAY TO WIN THE GAME…”

It also doesn’t help Dickey’s cause that Travis d’Arnaud already looks fantastic behind the dish… as a Met. Or that Noah Syndergaard is drawing comparisons to Dwight Gooden. I got my eye on you Wakefield 2.0.

What Could Happen:

Toronto Blue Jays players Brett Lawrie  Emillio Bonafacio and Melky Cabrera run on to the field to celebrate with team mate Munenori Kawasaki who hit a game winning double in Toronto.

As mentioned previously, this is pretty much the EXACT same lineup that was pegged for October baseball in 2013. If perennial injury risks Bautista, Lawrie, Reyes, and Morrow can stay on the field for 75-80% of the season; this could give the Jays a slim chance at playing meaningful baseball in September. Health risks aside, this is a team that will live and die by the performance of their starting pitching. The rotations struggles and inability to pitch out of the 5th inning throughout 2013 led to the Blue Jays prized bullpen becoming exhausted by mid-August. Although the Jays were reluctant to add any arms via free agency this offseason the starting depth at their current disposal is already a million times better than what they had in 2013.

This is a make or break season for Brandon Morrow in Tororto. Morrow has shown FLASHES of BRILLIANCE but has also shown that he has the durability of a baking soufflé. Morrow will HAVE TO prove that he is capable of shouldering a full season workload. If not, this could be his last season in a Jays uniform. Speaking of pitchers who need to step it up – R.A Dickey looked more like a 38 year old journeyman than the reigning Cy Young winner in 2013. The pressure will be dialed up on the Knuckleman for 2014. I’m not too sure how many more “tune up” games Jays fans and management can stand to
watch from their so-called “ace.”

All the bitterness aside… If, and that’s a big if, their lineup remains healthy and their starting pitching doesn’t collapse, than this could be a team that could be in the middle of a Wild Card race down the stretch. With that being said, if the Blue Jays do struggle and stumble to start the season as they did in 2013; there is a GOOD CHANCE that both Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion could be moved by the trade deadline. This is a worst case scenario of sorts… but it is still a scenario none-the-less.

What Will Happen:

2013 jays1

Unless the Blue Jays pull of some serious “Boston Strong” team chemistry, this is a team that is most likely destined for another season of below .500 baseball; followed by another year without making the playoffs. As depressing as that is, it is what will most like happen. Realistically the Blue Jays have a slim to nil chance of winning the division so there only path into Postseason play will be via the Wild Card. In order to that, they will have to be as good or better than the likes of the Yankees, Red Sox, Orioles, Indians, Royals, Athletics, Angels, and even Mariners. It’s definitely not IMPOSSIBLE, it is just highly unlikely. In a city that is starved for a winner of any kind (I see you Raptors and TFC) even being in the thick of a Wild Card race and playing important games late in the season will (sadly) be a big enough achievement for the 2014 edition of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Final Prediction: 4th in the AL East

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Risk or Reward?

Toronto Blue Jays

For Dustin McGowan, his career has been the tale of two completely different pitchers. The first is a power pitcher with a blistering, upper 90’s fastball, and some of the best all around “stuff” in the game. This pitcher once had a campaign where he posted a 12-10 record, to go along with a 144 punch outs, in 170 innings. In fact, in that same season, this pitcher took a no-hitter into the 9th inning before surrendering the first hit of the game, and struck out a career high 12 batters in another contest. For this pitcher, the sky was the limit as far as what he was capable
of.

http://m.mlb.com/video/v19502731/laator-mcgowan-strikes-out-eight-over-five-frames

The second tale is one of an oft-injured RHP, who has struggled to appear in 50 innings in the past five seasons, and has only 400 career innings in the MLB; despite being a 1st round pick back in 2000. To say that this pitcher is unlucky or “snake bitten” is a bit of an understatement. I mean how unlucky does one have to be to tear their ACL while rehabbing from surgery to fix a frayed labrum? Not to mention that the “frayed” labrum would later become torn, resulting in another surgery, and another lost season.

This has been the story of Dustin McGowan’s career. A story of risk and reward, of tremendous upside and tremendous durability concerns. There has never been any doubt of McGowan’s tools, his drive, or his desire to compete. The only doubt has been if he is capable of staying healthy long enough to use those tools on the mound, and so far, that has been a resounding no. Luckily for McGowan he’s use to overcoming the odds.

Dustin McGowan

The Blue Jays selected McGowan, out of high school, with the 33rd pick in the 2000 Amateur draft. 2005 would be a big year for McGowan, as he was named the Blue Jays top prospect by Baseball America, and he made his MLB debut in July against the Texas Rangers. In his debut, McGowan gave up 1 run over 5 innings, struck out 6, and got a no-decision. His 6 strikeouts would stand as a Blue Jay rookie record until Marc Rzepczynski struck out 7 in 2009.

However, in the offseason, McGowan’s name was mentioned in trade rumours, as the Blue Jays management was getting impatient with McGowan’s slow development, and lack of control. In fact, going into the 2007 season, McGowan would have been exposed to waivers if the Blue Jays did not put him on their 25 man roster. Luckily for both the Jays and McGowan, MLB granted the Jays an extra minor league option year on Dustin, allowing him to begin the season in AAA.

After his breakout campaign in 2007, Dustin was poised to become the permanent #3 in the Blue Jays rotation heading into the 2008 season. Sadly, the 2008 season would be the season in which McGowan would experience “pain in his shoulder” for the first, and certainly not the last time. Heading into the ’08 All Star break, McGowan was 6-7 with 85 strikeouts in 19 starts. On the 10th of July, the Blue Jays put McGowan on the 15 day DL with Shoulder Inflammation. Sixteen days later it was announced that McGowan would be undergoing season ending surgery to repair an apparent fray in his labrum.

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Although he was expected to pitch in 2009, McGowan would eventually miss the entire season after he was forced to have surgery to repair damage to an ACL that he injured while rehabbing his shoulder. 2010 brought more heartache as it was discovered that the “frayed” labrum had become torn, and would require a 2nd surgery on his labrum. McGowan finally made it back to the big leagues in 2011 and was able to appear in 21 innings for the Blue Jays. The Blue Jays brass rewarded McGowan by signing him to a contract extension through 2015. McGowan’s right shoulder rewarded all parties involved by requiring exploratory arthroscopic surgery late in the season.

Things FINALLY started to look up for McGowan in 2013. Despite stating the season on the 15 day DL, McGowan made his season debut with the Jays in June and pitched very effectively, in a relief role, for them in 21 innings. Unfortunately, for Dustin, he would be forced to the DL in August with an oblique strain, but was able to return in September, once the rosters had expanded. Despite spending more time on the DL in his career than on an MLB mound, McGowan continued to remain optimistic, stating that it was his intentions to compete for a starting job in 2014.

Pretty bold statement for a guy who has only made 60 starts in his ENTIRE career.

That was at the end of 2013. Skip ahead to today when the Blue Jays finalized their 25 man roster for Opening Day 2014, and named Dustin McGowan as their 5th starter in the rotation. In fact, his first start of the season is looking to be the 2014 Home Opener at the Rogers Centre versus Masahiro Tanaka and the New York Yankees. It’s hard not to smile.

The proverbial elephant in the room now becomes a lingering question… “How long will it last this time?” A reasonable question to say the least, I mean we’ve gone down this road a few times before… But here is where the age old question of risk versus reward comes into play. Does the potential reward of a “full” season of McGowan, outweigh the potential risk of another, perhaps career ending, injury? As scary as that is, it is a possibility that exists every time that McGowan takes the mound.

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But McGowan isn’t the twenty-something year old prospect that he once was, and the time is now to find out exactly what he is capable of. It’s fair to assume that both the Blue Jays and McGowan are WELL AWARE of the risks associated with having him pitch every 5+ innings every fifth day, and both parties are okay with the potential consequences. McGowan has spent the past offseason working with Steve Delabar and using his weighted ball strength training regime. Delabar, who had to overcome his own health concerns to return to the MLB, introduced the weighted ball to the Jays pitchers in 2012 and those who have used it, mainly Brett Cecil, have had resounding success. Here’s hoping that McGowan can catch lightning in a bottle with it like Cecil did.

The “safe” option would be to start McGowan in the bullpen, but the Blue Jays have other pitchers who are out of options who are better suited for the pen, and they have a pressing need for starting pitching. The Blue Jays, the big spender of the 2013 offseason, were content to sit and do nothing on the free agency market as their competition loaded up on arms and bats. The mindset being that they had enough in-house options to fortify their stagnant rotation. Unfortunately, most of those in-house options (Stroman, Rogers, Drabek, and Romero), looked spectacularly awful this spring, or were destined for the DL, as is the case with JA Happ. Cue Dustin McGowan’s entrance music…

McGowan being slotted in as our fifth starter gives us a power arm and potential strike out artist to go up against other teams’ 4th and 5th starters, a pretty good mismatch in the Jays favour. Even if the Blue Jays cap McGowan at 5 or 6 inning outings, his tools and pure stuff alone make him a much more attractive option than JA Happ and Todd Redmond. Regardless of how “good” Todd Redmond looked in Spring Training, he is still Todd EFFING Redmond, and has the pitching “sex appeal” of Glenn Close in the Natural.

glenn close natural

Health and durability risks aside, as a fan, I am ECSTATIC to see McGowan back in the rotation. Not just because of what his potential could be, but because he made it back period. This is a guy who has had to overcome more obstacles thrown at him than anything else. I bet there were times when he thought it would be easier to call it a career and hang up the cleats, but he kept at it, and eventually his hard work and perseverance paid off.

I have always been amazed at how incredibly patient the Blue Jays organization has been with Dustin, especially in those dark days when it looked like he would never make it back. I suppose it has to do with them losing faith and releasing Chris Carpenter all those years ago when he was battling shoulder problems. Carpenter, famously, would go on to become one of the best RHP in the past decade, and the Jays would look to what could have been.

Chris carpenter

Lesson learned.

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