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

Is Dustin McGowan a viable candidate for Blue Jays rotation?

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.

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