Rzepczynski to enter mix for spot in the bullpen

Rzepczynski to enter mix for spot in the bullpen

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The competition for the final two spots in the Blue Jays' starting rotation is now down to three pitchers.

Left-hander Marc Rzepczynski was informed Saturday morning that he is no longer being considered for a starting job. He will instead enter the mix for a role in the bullpen.

That leaves Kyle Drabek, Jesse Litsch and Jo-Jo Reyes as the three pitchers competing for the open spots with just 12 days remaining until Opening Day.

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"Right now with the competition it's coming down to the wire," Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos said. "We just don't have [enough] innings and at the end of the day we still think he [Rzepczynski] has upside as a starter. But we know his first and foremost priority is that obviously he wants to be up here and he wants to be in Toronto.

"With the way that Litsch has thrown, Drabek has thrown, Jo-Jo has thrown -- and Rzep's been good -- but we just feel, for what we need right now and the other opportunities, that we're better off having him compete for a spot in the 'pen."

Rzepczynski entered Spring Training hoping to secure one of the two rotation spots after posting a 6-8 record with a 4.32 ERA in 23 career starts.

He was given the option of starting for Triple-A Las Vegas or trying to win a job in relief with Toronto. Rzepczynski said it was an easy decision because sticking around in the Major Leagues is his top priority.

"My main thing is trying to make the team," said Rzepczynski, who has held left-handers to a .243 batting average in his career. "If I make the team by being a reliever I'm fine with that. It will take some getting used to, but because of the few times I did it last year I think I'm perfect for the role in getting out lefties."

Rzepczynski made two relief appearances for the Blue Jays in 2010 and also gained experience in that area while playing at University of California Riverside. His combination of a sinker and slider could translate well to the bullpen. He feels there are similarities between his style and former Toronto set-up man Scott Downs'.

Downs spent the majority of his first five seasons in the Major Leagues as a starting pitcher. He achieved only minimal success, going 12-14 with a 5.35 ERA in 50 career starts.

The Blue Jays transferred him to the bullpen in 2005 where he became a late-inning reliever. The 35-year-old signed a three-year, $15 million contract with the Angels during the offseason after posting a 15-14 record with a 2.59 ERA and 271 strikeouts in 329 relief appearances.

"We had a great guy in Downs ... he found a home in the bullpen," Rzepzynski said. "I'm not saying that's going to be me but for right now I see myself kind of as the same guy. We throw about just as hard, have the same kind of stuff. For right now, it fits perfect for [Toronto] so it works for me."

The 25-year-old's last appearance came against the Yankees on Friday, when he allowed two earned runs over 2 2/3 innings. He will rest until Tuesday and could get into a game as early as Wednesday.

Rzepczynski said the decision didn't come as a total surprise because he knew the situation he was facing heading into Spring Training. The Blue Jays had a slew of arms competing for just two spots in the rotation.

"I came in trying to be a starter, but at the same time they did the same thing with [David] Purcey last year," Rzepczynski said. "We're so [deep] in starting pitching right now, we've got a lot of good young arms, so for me fitting in for the team they wanted me to be a reliever. I wasn't totally shocked by it."

The competition for the starting rotation is expected to heat up over the next week as each of the three remaining contenders get a chance to start.

Litsch made a good impression on Sunday by throwing 5 1/3 shutout innings against the Twins. He struck out seven while facing just two batters over the minimum during his outing.

Toronto has an off-day on Monday which means rookie right-hander Drabek will get the call in a Minor League game. Left-hander Reyes will then start on Wednesday night against the Yankees in what could prove to be a pivotal outing.

"That might be one of the more challenging settings that Spring Training has to offer," Blue Jays manager John Farrell said of the upcoming game at Steinbrenner Field. "It was kind of a natural fit to challenge him as much as we can to continue to get the best read in Spring Training on our spots in the rotation."

Reyes is out of options in his contract, which means Toronto must find a spot for him on the 25-man roster or risk losing the 26-year-old through waivers. Anthopoulos said that that could factor into the club's decision about which pitchers head north with the club.

"We're going to go ahead and take the best players that we can," Anthopoulos said of Reyes, who could also potentially pitch out of the bullpen. "Like we talked about, you're trying to keep your depth as best you can over six months, so being out of options doesn't hurt you.

"If you're trying to break a tie that could certainly be a reason to break a tie. But you still have to go out and pitch."

Gregor Chisholm is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, North of the Border, and follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.