The Blue Jays will enter the 2012 campaign with relatively few question marks. Ricky Romero is the de facto ace, Brett Lawrie has taken over as the everyday third baseman, and the acquisition of Sergio Santos has quelled debate regarding who will close.
Of the uncertainties that remain heading into spring training — who will start in left field, which players will round out the bench with Jeff Mathis and Rajai Davis — the most intriguing is the competition for the final spot in Toronto's starting rotation.
Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, Henderson Alvarez, and Brett Cecil enter camp with jobs in hand, while at least four other pitchers will be vying for the one remaining vacancy.
With just over a month to go before the 2012 regular season gets underway, the competition is set to begin, and the list of candidates is considerable
Here, we will take a look at who has the inside track.
Dustin McGowan made his return to the Major Leagues in 2011, after having missed all of 2009 and 2010 because of injury. The Savannah native posted uninspired numbers upon his return, but pitched with good velocity.
McGowan was once a top prospect in Toronto's system, but has posted a pedestrian 20-24 record with a 4.80 ERA in 80 career games. Even so, there is optimism within the Blue Jays' organization that McGowan will be back stronger than ever in 2012, which indicates he may be the favorite to lock up the final rotation spot for the regular season.
If McGowan shows manager Jon Ferrell and general manager Alex Anthopoulos that he is healthy and ready to go, the job is his to lose.
Chance of Making the Opening Day Rotation: 55 percent
The prized jewel in the treasure chest lugged back from Philadelphia in the Roy Halladay deal, Drabek has shown flashes of potential, but has failed to show them consistently.
In danger of going the way of Travis Snider, what Drabek does during the 2012 season should tell a great deal about the type of player he will be for the rest of his career.
He didn't just struggle with the Jays last year, with whom he conjured up a 5.83 ERA, but also in Triple A, where he allowed 7.44 runs per nine innings pitched.
Drabek is too talented to repeat last season's line, and will almost certainly be better in 2012 than he was in 2011. If Drabek puts in a strong showing during spring training, there is a reasonable chance he wrestles the fifth starting spot away from Dustin McGowan.
After all, the Jays brass has to be as eager as the fans to give him another chance.
Drabek will pitch in the MLB in 2012, but not necessarily right out of the gate.
Chance of Making the Opening Day Rotation: 30 percent
The contract Aaron Laffey signed with the Blue Jays this offseason allows the team to start him off in the minor leagues, which is a rite Toronto is unlikely to waive.
Laffey has solid career numbers — 21-13, 4.34 ERA — which are considerably better than either McGowan's or Drabek's.
The reason why Laffey isn't a shoe-in for the fifth rotation spot is because his ceiling is lower than the two aforementioned candidates. Though he is actually younger than McGowan, Laffey is seen as a utility pitcher. In his career he has boomeranged from the rotation to the pen and back again, never excelling anywhere, but never completely flopping.
The chances are excellent that Jays fans see Laffey pitching in the bigs this summer, but he is unlikely to win a spot out of camp.
It is really a case of Laffey being serviceable, but nothing more. Management knows what he can do, and believe (or at least hope) that either McGowan or Drabek will be better than serviceable in 2012. If neither prove that they are, enter the former Yankee.
Chance of Making the Opening Day Rotation: eight percent
Joel Carreno made quite an impression at the big league level last season, posting a 1-0 record and a 1.15 ERA in 15.2 innings out of the pen. He also struck out 14 batters and walked only four.
Though Carreno was a starter in the minors, he looked poised to lock down a relief role with the club this season. But that was before the team acquired Sergio Santos, Jason Frasor, Darren Oliver and Francisco Cordero.
Carreno has logged enough innings as a starter to warrant consideration for the fifth rotation spot, but will likely receive nothing more than a token glance in camp this spring. He would have to knock some socks off to play his way into the job.
The Dominican Republic import will likely wait in the wings until a right-handed reliever visits the DL.
Chance of Making the Opening Day Rotation: four percent
Chad Jenkins isn't a name being thrown around much when the final rotation position is mentioned. Where there is smoke there is often fire. And where there is no smoke, there probably isn't a fire.
This is bad news for Jenkins.
Jenkins is a former first-round pick of the Jays who worked himself up to Double-A last season, posting a 5-7 record and a 4.13 ERA with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. Though his numbers are nothing to scoff at, Chad's ascent towards the majors has been sluggish and unspectacular.
Jenkins will enter the 2012 season as a 24-year-old, but is unlikely to crack the roster out of camp. He will most likely begin the season in Triple A. From there, Jenkins can play himself into a late season call-up, or position himself to compete for a starting job in 2013. Anything beyond that is pretty unlikely at this point.
Chance of Making the Opening Day Rotation: one percent
Though the competition will likely be most intense between McGowan and Drabek, and be stoked by Laffey, Carreno and Jenkins, it is within the realm of possibility that someone off the board swoops in and stakes a claim.
Carlos Villanueva has experience starting ball games. Though he was more effective coming out of the pen last season, he may act as a fall-back plan if the more likely candidates all collapse in March. Allowing Villanueva to join the rotation would create a bullpen spot for Joel Carreno.
Prospects Deck McGuire and Drew Hutchison may also wiggle their way into the rotation, but it is unlikely to happen just yet. Beyond unlikely.
Chance of Making the Opening Day Rotation: two percent