There wasn’t much in the way of good news coming from the Toronto Blue Jays this winter. While they watched their divisional rivals improve at every turn, they all but stood pat after a 75-win season. The only upgrade came in the form of Dioner Navarro, stepping in as their new catcher. There was no Brian McCann or Jacoby Ellsbury or Ubaldo Jiminez. Hell, there wasn’t even a Grady Sizemore-esque lottery ticket for them to wish on.
As the season grew closer, it became more and more apparent that the back-end of the Blue Jays rotation was…problematic. The Spring Training fifth starter battle quickly became more about attrition than production. Yesterday, Blue Jays manager John Gibbons announced the man who would take the ball every five days was…Dustin McGowan?
Given that most of the Blue Jays fanbase spent the winter foaming at the mouth, announcing their fifth starter was a guy who hadn’t started a baseball game since 2011, a pitcher with a grand total of 46.2 inning pitched since the end of the 2008 season would have the fans marching on the Rogers Centre, pitchforks in hand.
There are scrapheap finds and then there is Dustin McGowan. There are few players in Blue Jays franchise history who get the kind of leeway and good will extended to Dustin McGowan. Now is his chance to make good on the patience from the fans and the franchise.
Because nothing really changes in Blue Jays land, there is a chance Dustin McGowan is not being setup to succeed in his latest bid to become a starter. The oft-injured right hander was carefully deployed in a relief role last season, showing the kind of velocity and stuff out of the bullpen that makes his right arm so easy to wish on. He struck out 26 of the 114 batters he faced, touching 98 miles per hour with his fastball at times.
But the decision to transition him to the starting rotation seems slightly rushed, as Shi Davidi of Sportsnet points out. Is McGowan properly stretched out and ready to take on a starter’s workload? Even more of a concern than keeping his delicate right shoulder/right elbow/knee/oblique/foot healthy, there is the not-so-insignificant concern about his performance.
Concerns that largely fall on deaf ears when it comes to Dustin McGowan. After losing the better part of five big league seasons to injury, the now 32-year old still engenders the best kind of faith and belief in sports fans – that which comes blindly. McGowan’s story is compelling and his stuff inspires awe. Grinding away, rehabbing in Florida for all those years, it resulted in a strange confluence of empathy (or pity) and playing potential that nets the rare athletes chance after chance after chance.
Looking back on McGowan’s career numbers, it is easy let the incredible radar gun readings and singular outings mask the fact that even when he was good, Dustin McGowan was never a great pitcher. All the pieces were there but injury or whatever prevented him from ever putting together anything more than an average season.
But Dustin McGowan’s story trumps all the realities. The Blue Jays broadcast that cut to shots of his wife as often as it showed him falling behind into a hitters count buys him time. At some point, the narrative does matter more than the reality. When Dustin McGowan throws the first pitch of the 2014 season on Canadian soil, that he’s a pitcher with a career ERA of closer to 5.00 than 4.00 doesn’t matter. That he won’t make 32 starts doesn’t matter. None of it matters. It won’t matter to the 49000 on hand and it won’t matter to McGowan or the Blue Jays front office.
At that point, it will be a great story and a great moment. One even the most cynical reporter and ironically detached new breed fan can appreciate in equal measure. After a long, cold, winter of disappointment, maybe something that warms the heart a little is just what the doctor ordered in Toronto.