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Two rotation spots remain as season nears

With Spring Training winding down, competition continues between Blue Jays starters

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DUNEDIN, Fla. -- With just over a week remaining until Opening Day, the Blue Jays have yet to solidify the final spots in their starting rotation -- though the once-muddled situation is clearing up.

"Right now we still have a couple decisions to make," pitching coach Pete Walker said. "We have an idea, but I think we're at a point where it's still playing out the last seven, eight, nine days."

Toronto manager John Gibbons named R.A. Dickey his Opening Day starter Feb. 18 and said Tuesday that Brandon Morrow will serve as the club's No. 5 starter to begin the season. Veteran Mark Buehrle, Gibbons said, will not start immediately after Dickey, a decision that places the left-hander in the No. 3 slot to begin the year.

"R.A.'s throwing the ball as good as I've seen him throw the ball," Walker said of the knuckleballing ace. "He's in a great place right now. Mark Buehrle's Mark Buehrle. The ball's coming out of his hand, I think the velocity's where it needs to be, the command is excellent, he feels great."

Walker added that Morrow, who was limited to ten starts last season by an entrapped radial nerve in his right forearm, felt "very good" after his last spring start.

The announcements leave the Blue Jays with two spots in their rotation. Right-handers Drew Hutchison, Esmil Rogers and Todd Redmond, and left-hander J.A. Happ will spend the rest of Spring Training battling for those two positions in Gibbons' rotation.

The 23-year-old Hutchison has made a strong case for his inclusion so far, compiling a 2.79 ERA in 9 2/3 spring innings. A former top-10 prospect in the Toronto system, Hutchison threw 58 2/3 Major League innings in 2012 before undergoing Tommy John surgery. He returned last season to pitch 35 1/3 innings in the Minors.

Though Hutchison has put together the strongest spring among the four, the Blue Jays are hesitant to name him to the rotation.

"He's done everything you can do to earn a spot, there's no question, but we're just at a position right now where we're still sorting through some things and making sure we make the right decision," Walker said.

With his spring success, Hutchison could pitch in the No. 2 position when the season opens. While he has risen, three other potential starters have faltered.

After Gibbons all but assured Happ of a spot during a Sunday interview, injuries and poor form have re-opened the issue.

Happ started Wednesday's contest against the Phillies -- his third appearance of the spring -- and struggled once again. In 2 2/3 innings, Happ allowed three earned runs and three hits while walking four and striking out two. His spring ERA is 20.25, though he has only thrown four innings.

 "There's still competition there," Walker said before Happ's Wednesday start. "I think J.A.'s in a position where if he has a strong start today, he's someone we're counting on."

Rogers (7.00 spring ERA) and Redmond (5.79) have started a total of just 57 Major League games.

The eventual starters will be under pressure from talented prospect Marcus Stroman, who thrust himself into the competition before he was reassigned to the Minor League camp on Tuesday. The 22-year-old right-hander, the 22nd overall pick in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft, is considered Toronto's No. 2 prospect. Walker said he expects to see Stroman back with the Blue Jays at some point.

"He's got a great head on his shoulders for a young kid, and I think he's going to go down there and do what he needs to do to get back to the Major Leagues," Walker said. "He's got tremendous stuff and he's going to have a very long career."

The pressure on the starters will be reduced if the Blue Jays score as often as their manager believes they will.

Last season, Toronto ranked ninth among all Major League clubs in runs scored with 712. The Blue Jays have struggled to score runs this spring, but an 11-run, 18-hit outburst Wednesday has Gibbons optimistic and less concerned about his rotation.

"With that lineup intact, we're going to score some runs," he said. "The key is just pitching, keeping us in the game. We don't have to have a shutdown rotation, you know. Just keep us in the game and somewhat match the opposition, and let the offense take over."

The Blue Jays will open the regular season March 31 with Dickey on the mound against Tampa Bay and will open their home slate four days later against the Yankees behind Morrow. What happens in between is still in doubt.

"I wish everything was finalized right now," Walker said, "but we're still looking at a couple of situations and a couple of guys, and just making sure we leave with the guys that are most ready. So there is competition, as far as I'm concerned still, right now."

Alden Woods is a journalism student at Indiana University.

Toronto Blue Jays, J.A. Happ, Drew Hutchison, Todd Redmond, Esmil Rogers