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McGowan ready to break camp -- as reliever

Oft-injured pitcher had hoped to start, but just glad to be healthy, part of team

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Dustin McGowan has been very open about wanting to become a starting pitcher, but it does not appear as though his wish is going to be granted by the Blue Jays.

The Toronto right-hander will have to be content with beginning the season in the bullpen. He's still being stretched out for a potential role in long relief, but it's very possible his workload will be capped around the three-inning mark.

There had been a line of thinking in recent days that the Blue Jays might consider McGowan as the club continues to audition several candidates for the rotation, but the former first-round Draft pick currently does not appear to be in the discussion.

"He's kind of in limbo there; we want to be able to stretch him out anyway," manager John Gibbons said Thursday morning when asked if McGowan had been eliminated from consideration for a starting spot. "If he's in the 'pen for multiple innings that would benefit us quite a bit down there. We know he can do two. If he can do three, that would do wonders for us."

A few hours after Gibbons spoke, McGowan proved that he could do just that. He came out of the bullpen and threw three strong innings against the Phillies in the Blue Jays' 3-1 win. McGowan looked dominant at times, as he allowed just one hit and struck out five during his fourth game of the spring.

It was the first time in more than two years that McGowan went that deep into an outing. He threw 48 pitches and admitted after the game that the big test will be how his arm feels on Friday morning. Despite the success, there's a limited amount of time remaining until the start of the regular season and the plan doesn't seem to include increasing his pitch limit by much more.

If that's disappointing to McGowan, he wasn't showing any signs of that after his scoreless outing. When informed about Gibbons' comments earlier in the day, McGowan nodded his head and didn't seem surprised that he was headed for a role in the bullpen.

"We kind of figured that's where I'm going to be, just because I didn't build up enough innings to even really, I would say, compete for the job," McGowan said. "But I think they wanted to get me out there just to even see if I could go three or four innings, just to see how I would bounce back. Who knows, in the bullpen, you may need those days when a guy goes three or four."

Toronto's organization has been known to change its mind before, and it certainly could happen again. But the only realistic way McGowan could start the season in the rotation is if he was on a strict innings limit and paired with a reliever like Todd Redmond or Esmil Rogers to pick up the rest of his outing.

That's not the current plan, though, and the Blue Jays are expected to go with a starting rotation of R.A. Dickey, Drew Hutchison, Mark Buehrle and Brandon Morrow. That leaves one final spot to be picked from the likes of J.A. Happ, Redmond and Rogers.

The Blue Jays seem content with the idea of taking a cautious approach the often-injured McGowan. The idea of using him as a starter clearly was talked about at some point, but it doesn't appear as though Gibbons was ever really on board.

"He had desire to do it," Gibbons said of McGowan starting. "A lot of people had desire to see if he could do it, but myself, personally, kind of had some reservations."

The concerns about McGowan are rather understandable, considering his checkered injury past. He got hurt in 2008 and went on to have a pair of shoulder surgeries and also an operation on his knee. The native of Savannah, Ga., wasn't able to make it back to the Major Leagues until late in the 2011 season.

The following spring, McGowan entered camp as the favorite to win the final spot in Toronto's rotation. The Blue Jays seemed confident and even signed him to a three-year contract worth $4.1 million. But more injury problems quickly followed.

First, there was a plantar fasciitis issue with his right foot. McGowan attempted to come back from that injury a little too soon, and when he tried to compensate for the discomfort, he re-injured his right shoulder. Another minor surgical procedure was required, and this time it kept him out until midway through the 2013 campaign.

Once back in the big leagues, McGowan at least temporarily showed why the Blue Jays have remained so loyal to him for all of these years. He posted a 2.45 ERA in 25 2/3 innings out of the bullpen, but in the midst of all that, there was still a 31-game absence because of a strained oblique.

It has become a laundry list of injuries, and Gibbons is just thankful to have him back healthy this spring. McGowan feels the same way, and regardless of the role, he's excited about the possibility of heading north with the team at the end of camp for the first time since 2008.

"As long as I'm pitching, I don't care if I'm starting or in the bullpen," McGowan said. "It's whatever I can do to help the team win. I'd be happy to do that.

"I don't know [the next step] yet. I'm sure they'll tell me. I can't wait to see."

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

Toronto Blue Jays, Dustin McGowan