Is Dustin McGowan a viable candidate for Blue Jays rotation?

dustin mcgowan

Sep 24, 2013; Baltimore, MD, USA; Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Dustin McGowan (29) throws in the eighth inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Credit: Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

One of the more interesting developments that came out of the 2013 MLB Winter Meetings for the Toronto Blue Jays wasn’t a rumour regarding a potential trade or free agent acquisition. Rather it came courtesy of Sportsnet’s Jamie Campbell who speculated about how Blue Jays were planning to use one of their current pitchers in Spring Training.

Dustin McGowan, who will be 32 when next season begins, has been somewhat of an enigma since he was drafted as a first round pick out of Long County High School in 2000. The hard-throwing right-hander was rated by Baseball America as the Toronto Blue Jays top prospect by 2003 but suffered an elbow injury in 2004 and needed Tommy John surgery. He battled back and regained his status as the Blue Jays’ top prospect in 2006 and had a breakthrough season in 2007 when he made 27 starts (18 quality), a near perfect game and pitched to a 4.08 ERA (110 ERA+) and 1.22 WHIP.

However, as most of already know all too well now, midway through the 2008 season McGowan’s health began to deteriorate. Two shoulder surgeries, one knee surgery and a contract extension later he returned to a successful 2013 campaign logged 25.1 innings in 25 appearances out of the bullpen for the Blue Jays. His velocity remained upwards of 95 MPH (h/t Brooks Baseball) and he generated 26 strikeouts to go along with 12 walks to make for a 2.45 ERA.

This is something that I would have addressed earlier but Hot Stove burnout has delayed me asking the question: Is Dustin McGowan a viable bounce-back candidate for the Blue Jays rotation in 2014?

According to Gregor Chisholm at BlueJays.com, McGowan took part in the weighted ball program and despite suffering an oblique injury that shut down part of his season his shoulder remained seemingly intact coming out of 2013. The Blue Jays took baby steps with him and only used him once in back-to-back games last year. He only threw more than 30 pitches twice and the most outs he had in any one appearance was seven.

Whether or not he can successfully revert to a starting pitcher remains to be seen. The biggest concern is obviously his health and the increased usage would seemingly pose a huge risk. However the past doesn’t always predict the future and although his prior shoulder history is a huge red flag there’s no way to know for sure McGowan can’t handle starting duties unless the Blue Jays choose to test him.

Next season will be the final guaranteed year of his contract, which turns into a $4 million club option in 2015 and has a $500,000 buyout. The Jays are on the hook for $1.5 million in 2014 and McGowan has no minor league options remaining. He’s also accrued enough service time to refuse an outright assignment.

It makes sense if the Blue Jays feel now is the time to take one last risk on McGowan. If Anthopoulos finds a way to move some of his other bullpen pieces he would carry slightly more value as a reliever but the way things stand now the Jays have too many other right-handed relievers to maximize his value.

The rotation is still full of holes and it’s yet to be determined how the Blue Jays will choose to fill their need this off-season. It’s reasonable to believe they are still in good position to take a run at a starter but adding two is unlikely. This leaves the Jays presumably searching from within to fill out the rest of the rotation.

The Blue Jays do have depth at the back-end with J.A. Happ, Todd Redmond, Drew Hutchison and Kyle Drabek likely the leading candidates to join R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Brandon Morrow in the rotation. Hutchison and Drabek are both coming off Tommy John surgery in 2012 and manager John Gibbons has hinted they may both start the season in Triple-A. Marcus Stroman and Sean Nolin also remain dark horse candidates to make the jump from the minors.

Where does that leave McGowan? Likely on the outside looking in, especially if the Blue Jays are able to upgrade the rotation this winter. Theoretically he could begin the season with the Blue Jays as a boom-or-bust starter but that situation is further complicated with the presence of Happ who has accrued five years of MLB service and can refuse an optional assignment. That means the Blue Jays can’t just send him down to Buffalo to start the year and take a flyer on McGowan. If Morrow can return healthy, one of the two (Happ/McGowan) would be forced to the pen if the Jays are able to add another starter. And Happ is the far more reliable rotation option based on his ability to take the mound on a regular basis alone.

It’s hard to talk about upside when it comes to a 31-year-old pitcher who has made a grand total of four starts in the past five seasons but McGowan still has it. He looked much closer to his former self in 2013 compared to his comeback attempt in 2011 (although part of that success could be linked to his usage as a reliever). It’s the ultimate long shot but maybe, just maybe they can catch lightning in a bottle with McGowan in his final season before they need to make a decision on his $4 million club option for 2015.

Whether or not this is actually the Blue Jays plan is also uncertain. Campbell was right when he tweeted that the trade market for J.P. Arencibia was soft but wrong when he guessed the JPA would go to camp with the Blue Jays. However it doesn’t seem that far-fetched that the Blue Jays see him as a potential bounce-back candidate that Anthopoulos has admitted they need to find to make 2014 a success.

I’m sure McGowan would be more than happy to receive another shot at revitalizing his career as a starter. I’m not sure if it’s the best long-term idea for him based on the success and relatively good health he experienced as a reliever. But he was limited to mostly low leverage situations and although $4 million isn’t a huge sum of money it’s still probably more than the Blue Jays would want to pay McGowan if he fills a similar role going forward.

The odds of McGowan returning to the Blue Jays starting rotation remains a slim possibility but I wouldn’t write the idea entirely off just yet. It’s only mid-December so the composition of this team could change dramatically over the next couple of months but as it stands now there could be a perfect storm of pitching needs where the Blue Jays give him a legitimate shot.

They don’t have much to lose, other than a few early games, if McGowan fails or gets hurt pitching out of the rotation. If he pitches poorly they could still try to slot him back into the bullpen or designate him for assignment and if he gets hurt they have other arms to rely on. It sounds crazy and it wasn’t a possibility I considered possibly feasible until recently but neither the Blue Jays or McGowan have much to lose. As much as I think the move could backfire I think that giving him another shot as a starter is a risk worth taking for Toronto.

Topics: Dustin McGowan, Toronto Blue Jays

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  • david s

    Good article this. There is something in our psyche that wishes for a desperate hero to overcome all odds. You know what I mean… it is the stuff of movies. Remember the scene in the 1960s movie Zulu, when hundreds of Welsh Guards are surrounded on all sides by thousands of brave African warriors. The situation seems so desperate until one soldier is asked to sing. He does and his tenor voice pushes out the lyrics of Men of Harlech. His comrades join him singing. Soon the whole company takes up the song galvanizing themselves to their certain fate of death.

    Ok, I am overdoing it, but we do wish for a lone hero who goes up against it. Down deep, even knowing it might ruin McGowan’s career once and for all, we want him to overcome all the odds and basically be that hero. That is essentially what he would be a hero, isn’t it? I mean coming back from career ending injuries and ignoring the cost and defeating the opposition. We want him to do it, he wants to do it, Buck Martinez and Pat Tabler want him to do it…. we all want it, but it makes no sense to do it. We shake our heads and say no wishing to put this exquisite pieice of china porcelain back in its protective box. Even a whisper might break it.

    During a spring training interview last year, AA said to Bob McCown and Stephen Brunt that McGowan had the best stuff on the team. They looked sceptical but refrained from calling AA out on it. Yet, he did come back and pitched very well, the few times we took him out of his protective box. His short-term injury convinced us, yes let us use this magic sparingly, for we may break it.

    I want to hear the refrains of Men of Harlech. I want McGowan to go there as a starter. I want him to conquer or come back on his shield. I want to see and this flies in the face of WAR, FIP and all the other metrics… I want to see him pitch as a starter even if it is not smart, but heroic.

  • Quincy-Sam

    I don’t think anyone can properly assess his chances of being a starter at this point. Even the stats guys would have to admit the recent sample size is too small to predict how effective he might be in any role. As good as he looked last year, even the subjective guys shouldn’t be able to have a lot of confidence in what they might hope for. So it will probably come down to what he does in spring training.

    I am going to be unfair and compare him a little bit to Halladay. I felt that way when he was younger because he threw what I call a heavy ball. I felt that way last fall when he made it back, because he did it by having confidence in himself when maybe he shouldn’t have. I hardly expect him to bring the Halladay intensity to every game, but if he has the confidence in himself in every game regardless of the score or the previous game or last pitch, then he will have what it takes to make it and convince us.

    What I saw in McGowan last year was a pitcher that had command and good stuff. Not just a nice story. Limited outings, but no bad ones, and not dominant, just really good. Surprised by his velocity but don’t want him to throw high nineties either. Command better than I remember and maybe a better pitcher. Not gonna kid anyone, he has a lot more to prove, but was far from disappointing.

    I would love to see them bring him into camp as a starter. Have him earn a spot or go from there. Other than controlled pitch counts the first half, stop worrying about durability. He is a long way from proving he is a pitcher and not just the thrower he once was, but I liked what I saw last year. He gave every reason to start to like his chances, and far from a disappointment. Too small of a sample size to know we have something really good, so time to find out. Maybe he won’t be an ace, but maybe the only guy other than Morrow that could come to camp that MIGHT have ace stuff. But I’ll set my expectations lower. If he has both confidence and command at spring training maybe he earns a starting spot and have fun watching where he goes from there.

  • Justin Jay

    Hopefully he stays on the outside looking in. I said this to Janssen and I didn’t mean it to be offensive, but I told him his best chance to play everyday was by being a bullpen guy. We talked about how he wanted to be a starter, but his shoulder couldn’t stay healthy. Same situation with McGowan.

    The guy has missed almost 5 years worth of games, including almost 2 after his latest 21 innings stint in 2011. If the Jays care about this guy, they won’t play with him. The fact he got back to this level after all the injuries and surgeries is a great story. If he gets another serious arm injury, his career is probably over. I’d rather see him in the pen, than see that happen to him.

    • Pelwr

      You spoke with Janssen?

      • Justin Jay

        Yes. Back in 2011, I met several Blue Jays players while in St.Petersburg after a Rays-Jays game.

  • bob l.

    i believe he should be given every chance to start in 2014. everybody harps on his past injuries and gives him little chance to stay healthy. if he stays healthy, he is clearly the best in-house option to fill the 4 spot in the rotation. his stuff is nasty!! why not see what he can do OR risk losing him to free agency after 2014 when another club signs him as a starter.

  • RyanMueller

    Great article. Love the debate aspects of baseball. To start or not to start, that is the question. I will have to agree with Justin Jay, Dustin’s body has proven that starting a game every 5th day will ultimately result in injury. I, like many of you, love to see the under dog win. I think that Rogers should sit Dustin down with a couple writers so that they can write a manuscript and film a made for tv movie.

    What we forget is this, it is nothing short of miracle that he was even able to make it back to the Toronto and is even more amazing that he has been able to pitch effectively after all he has gone through. I think having him start games is tempting fate too much.

    Don’t piss off the baseball gods.

  • Andrew van Laar

    I really hope he stays in the bullpen. He has had such horrific luck with his arm, he doesn’t need the grind of being a starter again and the Jays don’t need to baby him in terms of pitch counts and innings limits. I think he should be used out of the bullpen as a middle reliever who can pitch multiple innings. After this year, if he is OK, I say the Jays maybe try him out. But definitely not this year. Of can stay healthy this year he can be a great starter for us next year or be a great trade piece if we can prove he is healthy.

    On a side note does anyone think when he becomes a free agent, he will give the Jays a bit of a discount for sticking by him though all of this? He has been a major leaguer for 8 years and has pitched a total of 400 innings. I would like to think he would give at least a little bit of a discount.

  • CashGameND

    i couldnt agree more. total boom or bust situation, but let him at least compete with happ for the spot, or trade happ & give the spot to mcgowan (beecause we already have so much depth). If he fails or gets injured, thats the last of the experiments, he needs to go back to the bp forever.

    BUT, we need to sign or trade for a top 3 pitcher, having a guy like mcgowan in the rotation wouldn’t be such a scary proposition if he is the #5 guy, and we have a guy like garza/santana/japanese guy ahead of him. Or trade for a guy. Even tho its the #4 slot, we really need a #2/3 type pitcher, theres just to many inconstancies in the rotation to have another question mark in there.

    I’d love to see them get one of those 3 pitchers i named above, give mcgowan that 5 slot. and trade for a 2nd basemen. Even though its not allot of moves, I think it is a successful offseason if they can do that. Teams in the MLB make the mistake all the time of making drastic changes to the roster & it hardly ever pays off. Give this team, that was basically formed last offseason, a 2nd season to play together. Don’t make major changes, just bring in the pieces you HAVE to bring in (catcher, 2b, pitcher). And let the core stay the same. I think this team would at least have a chance of competing for a spot if they do that. I know thats not what anyone wants to hear, but its still a major improvement over what we’ve had for a long time. And we give another year to stroman/sanchez to develope, hope that they will come in & really boost the rotation this season or next, and give us a chance to contend in the next couple of years.

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