Final rotation slot Jays' top spring issue
Club to watch Litsch, Janssen and Chacin in competition
TORONTO -- The row of pitching mounds at the Blue Jays' Spring Training complex will be a popular destination for onlookers in a couple of weeks. That's where the battle for the fifth spot in Toronto's rotation will begin.
The race for that job will represent the most pressing issue when the Blue Jays flock to their sun-soaked facility in Dunedin, Fla. The leading candidates for the final starting role are Jesse Litsch, Casey Janssen and Gustavo Chacin, but each will head to camp with question marks in tow.
Litsch is coming off an impressive rookie campaign, but how he'll follow that performance remains to be seen. Janssen helped anchor Toronto's injury-plagued bullpen a year ago, so the Jays are trying to decide if the rotation is where he belongs. Chacin is returning from left shoulder surgery, and Toronto's not sure what to expect from him this spring.
"We like our club," Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi said. "But there are some questions that have to be answered going into Spring Training and by the time we break camp."
Heading into this season, the Blue Jays boast a pitching staff that was one of the top groups in baseball in 2007. Toronto cycled through 11 different starters, but injuries and inconsistency early on led to a rotation that eventually consisted of ace Roy Halladay, A.J. Burnett, Dustin McGowan, Shaun Marcum and Litsch.
Those five pitchers combined to make 128 starts, posting a 56-38 record with a 3.85 ERA over that span. A majority of Litsch's 20 starts came in the second half, when the Jays' pitching staff as a whole ranked second in baseball with a 3.61 ERA. Litsch, who was promoted from Double-A last year, finished 7-9 with a 3.81 ERA.
Litsch's showing as a 22-year-old fresh from the Minors impressed Blue Jays manager John Gibbons. The young pitcher's effort, which included a 3.29 ERA after he was recalled from Triple-A on July 3, has Toronto's skipper convinced that Litsch deserves the chance to reclaim the rotation's fifth spot as his own.
"Litsch made a big impression on me last year and on the team," Gibbons said. "He was up there and he pitched good, struggled a little bit, and then came back and pitched great. I think he's earned the right to claim that spot."
Janssen, who was a starter throughout the Minors and briefly with the Jays in 2006, thrived in his role as a late-inning reliever, posting a 2.35 ERA with 24 holds in 70 appearances last year. If Ryan's comeback lasts into the season, Toronto may elect to keep Janssen in the bullpen, but the club will prepare him this spring as if he's going to be a starter.
"We patched it together pretty well," said Ricciardi, referring to the bullpen's success in 2007. "That's why you just try to use Spring Training to build up as much depth as you can. Having Janssen stretched out at that point may enable us to be prepared to make him a starter at some point."
It's a contingency plan that will make sure there are a handful of pitchers pushing each other in the competition. Janssen, who made 17 starts for the Jays in 2006, was preparing to compete for a rotation job last spring, too. It'll be a similar situation for Janssen this time around.
"Everything's going to revolve around Ryan," Gibbons said. "[Janssen] pitched some out of that [bullpen] role, and we like him there, but one way or the other, we've got a ton of confidence in the kid. So whatever role we put him in, we're going to stick with it."
As many questions as there are revolving around Litsch and Janssen, Chacin's status might be the bigger uncertainty heading into Spring Training. The 27-year-old left-hander has made just 22 starts over the past two seasons, thanks to arm injuries that have hit his elbow, forearm and shoulder.
Last season, Chacin's left shoulder was the culprit, limiting him to five April starts and leading to season-ending surgery in August. Still, Chacin has a good history as a starter for Toronto -- he owns a 25-15 record in 58 big league outings for the Jays -- so he'll be given consideration this spring.
"Gussy, we don't know what to expect out of his shoulder," Gibbons said. "We think it's fine. Gus has done a lot for us in the last couple years as well. Those are three legitimate guys. They're guys who you know they all deserve to be in the big leagues."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.