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Happ deals with sore back, new rotation contenders

Injury puts roster in flux as Hutchison, rookie Stroman make bids to start

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- It appears as though the competition for jobs at Spring Training has just gotten a whole lot more interesting after general manager Alex Anthopoulos admitted for the first time that two spots in the starting rotation could be up for grabs.

Toronto previously stated that there were four pitchers locked into the starting five: R.A. Dickey, Brandon Morrow, Mark Buehrle and J.A. Happ. That stance has now changed, with Happ battling a sore back and having struggled during his first two outings this spring.

The news paves the way for a whole slew of candidates to be considered for a job and has rookie Marcus Stroman all of a sudden jumping to the forefront of that discussion.

"There could be two," Anthopoulos conceded during a scrum with a group of reporters. "I think we're going to take the best team north. Especially right now, we have J.A. and the back, the performance, things like that; we have to get him on track, stay healthy.

"Obviously R.A., Mark and Brandon. Again, we expect J.A. to be in the rotation, but at the same time, the back's flared up on him twice. I just don't know. Look, if guys perform well and they force our hand, we'll take the best team."

Happ's back issues were first revealed to the public by manager John Gibbons on Tuesday afternoon. That came just one day after Happ was unable to pitch his way out of the first inning during a start against the Twins. In that outing, Happ allowed four runs on two hits while struggling to find the strike zone and issuing four walks.

There was no mention of an injury from Happ following the start and it appears as though he is loath to use it as an excuse for his rough pair of outings this spring. But the narrative has been set and in order to secure a spot in the starting rotation, Happ will now not only have to prove he's healthy, but that he can start throwing strikes on a more consistent basis.

Command has always been Happ's Achilles' heel as a big league starter. He tends to get into deep counts on a regular basis and throw a lot of pitches. The hope was that a lowered arm slot would improve his control this spring, but so far that hasn't come to pass.

"Velocity is great -- he's up to 93, 94 mph. It's just command," Anthopoulos said. "I just wonder if his back wasn't bothering him the way it is, I think the command would be a lot better. That's my opinion. He hasn't said it, he hasn't made any excuses, I just don't think we're seeing him at 100 percent even though he'll tell you up and down he can get through it.

"We'll watch him, we'll evaluate it. Right now, I don't think he's on schedule to miss any time. Maybe he gets moved back a day or two, but from what I understand, it would be no more than two or three days that he would be moved back, if that happens."

Right-hander Drew Hutchison previously emerged as a frontrunner for the final spot in Toronto's rotation. He has been one of the biggest storylines in camp and appears to be showing no ill effects from his 2012 Tommy John surgery. Hutchison velocity has been consistently hitting the mid-90s on the radar gun, and Anthopoulos has given him nothing but rave reviews.

Stroman previously was considered by many to be a long shot to head north with the Blue Jays at the end of spring. He has yet to appear in the Major Leagues and seemed probable to start the year with Triple-A Buffalo, but Anthopoulos also went out of his way to praise the 22-year-old.

If the Blue Jays delayed the start of Stroman's tenure in the big leagues, it would buy them a seventh year of service time before he was eligible for free agency. That's something the club would have strongly considered in the past, but with Toronto looking to contend this year it's not something that is going to factor into its decision.

Stroman is now competing against Happ, while out-of-options pitchers Todd Redmond and Esmil Rogers also will receive at least some consideration.

"No doubt about it, the best team [will be selected]," Anthopoulos said. "Where it becomes a little more interesting, if you have multiple players, if it's close and someone has options and someone's out of options, you keep the depth. If it's not close, then you take the best players. That's always the way it's been.

"That's why those players that have options left have to be that much better than the guys they're competing against, and I've told the players that to their faces. But those guys that are out of options, if they're not performing and guys are clearly an upgrade over them and will make a big difference for them, we'll go with the best team."

Stroman has generally been considered by a lot of experts to be ready for the Major Leagues. He has an overpowering fastball and a wipeout slider, but until last year, there was a glaring need for another pitch. He has since started to use a changeup on a regular basis, and it seems to have gone a long way in keeping opposing hitters off balance.

The final three weeks of spring will ultimately dictate what final decision the club decides to make, but it's safe to say that Stroman is no longer a long shot; he is very much in the mix.

"He has a chance," said Anthopoulos, who added that Stroman will not be on an innings limit this year. "I don't know what the chances are, the percentages, but there's a reason he's getting stretched out, there's a reason we're giving him the innings. We want to take a look. If he can impress and really come on, he's going to make it hard on us, which is what we want."

Gregor Chisholm is a reporter for Read his blog, North of the Border, and follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB.

Toronto Blue Jays, J.A. Happ, Drew Hutchison, Marcus Stroman