TORONTO -- Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos' top priority this offseason is finding a way to upgrade his rotation. While there's a clear need for another frontline starter, it's pretty apparent that depth won't be an issue in 2014.
Toronto's previous lack of organizational depth was exposed last season when a series of starters went down to injuries for the second consecutive year. When Brandon Morrow, Josh Johnson and J.A. Happ got hurt for an extended period of time, there wasn't anyone left to help pick up the slack.
That led to the likes of Ramon Ortiz, Aaron Laffey, Chien-Ming Wang, Todd Redmond and Esmil Rogers receiving opportunities. All five had previous big league experience, but they weren't exactly starters who would strike fear into the heart of the opposition.
The Blue Jays' lack of options in the upper levels of the Minor Leagues meant that Anthopoulos essentially had to sign an entire starting rotation for Triple-A Buffalo prior to the start of the year. Dave Bush, Thad Weber and Claudio Vargas were among the other names acquired to help fill holes, but the lack of legitimate prospects became a growing concern.
The internal options shouldn't be as big of a concern in 2014, regardless of how many additions Anthopoulos ends up making this offseason. He's in the market for at least one starter -- possibly two -- but if something goes wrong, the club appears better suited to weather the storm.
Here's a look at the current starting candidates for next season:
The sure bets
R.A. Dickey: The knuckleballer didn't have the type of year that many people expected in '13, but he was still one of the club's most reliable starters. Despite battling an upper back and neck injury during the first half of the season, he didn't miss a start and managed to surpass 200 innings for the third consecutive year. Dickey clearly had issues keeping the ball in the park, but after the All-Star break, he posted a 3.56 ERA in 14 starts. Toronto would definitely take that type of production from the veteran next year.
Mark Buehrle: The veteran southpaw got off to an incredibly slow start in 2013, but after the middle of May, he was everything the Blue Jays could have hoped for and more. Buehrle had a 7.02 ERA on May 6, and there were legitimate questions about whether he could still succeed in the American League, but the critics were then silenced as he went 11-8 with a 3.43 ERA the rest of the way. Toronto will certainly hope for a better start next season, but the body of work was exactly what the club wanted when it acquired the veteran lefty last winter.
Brandon Morrow: The hard-throwing righty once again will enter the season as the club's biggest wild card in the starting five. Morrow has the best pure stuff of anyone in the rotation and possesses the type of arsenal that could make him one of the most dominant starters in the league. The problem of late has been health, as Morrow missed a significant period of time in 2012 with a torn abdomen, and then again in 2013 with a forearm issue. Toronto can only hope that injury woes are a thing of the past and that Morrow takes the next step in his development. He still has ace potential, but patience within the fan base is starting to wear thin for it to be regularly displayed on the mound.
On the bubble
J.A. Happ: The left-hander's status for 2014 depends entirely on what Anthopoulos is able to do this offseason. As of now, Happ would begin the year as the No. 4 starter, but he likely will be bumped down a notch when the Blue Jays inevitably make a move to upgrade the rotation. The problem then becomes whether it's still beneficial to keep Happ in the organization, or whether he should be moved to another team. Happ is owed $5.7 million next season, and the club already has a series of candidates for the fifth-starter spot. Expect Happ's name to surface in trade rumours this offseason, as the Blue Jays could package him with some other players to fill another area of need.
Drew Hutchison: After missing the entire 2013 season because of Tommy John surgery, Hutchison should be able to assume a full workload next year. He did manage to make some starts in September for Buffalo before going on to impress at the Arizona Fall League. Hutchison will need to use the offseason to his advantage, but he'll likely enter Spring Training with a chance to compete for the final spot in the rotation. He isn't going to overpower anyone, but the native of Florida has impressive command and should be ready to take the next step.
Marcus Stroman: One of the breakout stars at the AFL, Stroman was ranked No. 12 on the AFL Top 20 by MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo and Jim Callis. There used to be plenty of doubts about whether he could become a starter at the big league level, but the group of skeptics seems to be getting smaller by the day. Stroman will likely begin the year at Buffalo, but he should be more than ready for the call in the event of any injuries on the big league roster. Stroman's name also seems to be coming up frequently in trade rumours this offseason, but it's not immediately clear how open Anthopoulos is to that type of deal.
Kyle Drabek: After missing a significant period of time in 2013 because of Tommy John surgery, Drabek returned to the big league roster as a September callup, but barring any unforeseen changes, the 25-year-old likely will begin the year at Triple-A. Drabek could use the additional time in Buffalo to improve his command and continue working on his secondary pitches, which seemed to have a lot of life post-surgery. He'll potentially be in the mix to break camp with the team, but he's more likely to serve as another impressive depth option for Toronto.
Anthopoulos has talked frequently over the years about needing anywhere from 10-12 starters to get through an entire season. Dickey and Buehrle are as durable as it gets, but injuries are inevitable, and there are certainly at least several candidates mentioned above who can be considered at least somewhat risky.
That's why even more depth is crucial, and Toronto certainly doesn't have a shortage in that area. Right-handers Jeremy Jeffress and Dustin McGowan are both expected to be stretched out during Spring Training, while holdovers Redmond and Rogers could also step in on a short-term basis if needed. The problem is that all four pitchers are out of options, so it may prove challenging to keep them in the fold.
Other fill-in starting candidates include left-handed prospect Sean Nolin and right-hander Chad Jenkins. Top prospect Aaron Sanchez also has an outside chance of making an impact at some point in 2014, but he could likely use another full year in the Minor Leagues to continue his development.
There are a lot of candidates in the mix for jobs, and it's possible that group will get a lot more crowded in the coming weeks as Anthopoulos does his best to acquire another impact arm.