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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.