DUNEDIN, Fla. -- All eyes will be on top prospect Marcus Stroman for the next few weeks as the Blue Jays face a series of tough decisions regarding their starting rotation.
Stroman was originally considered somewhat of a long shot to crack Toronto's roster at the end of camp, but all of that changed when general manager Alex Anthopoulos said earlier this week there could be two starting jobs up for grabs instead of one.
The 22-year-old Stroman now finds himself under a microscope, and every spring outing he makes has serious consequences for his immediate future. There's very little doubt that Stroman's time will eventually come, but his arm will dictate how quickly it happens.
"It's awesome that he has that faith in me, and I just need to be better each time out there to prove that he is right," Stroman said when asked about the praise he had received from Anthopoulos. "Going forward, just putting my head down, working on the things that I need to, making some adjustments, and I have no doubt in my mind that I'll be where I need to be."
Stroman's opportunity could come at the expense of veteran left-hander J.A. Happ, who is dealing with a sore back and has battled control problems this spring. Anthopoulos insinuated on Thursday that the combined issues could be enough to put Happ's job security into question.
Anthopoulos then went on to heap praise upon Stroman and his potential future in the Blue Jays' rotation. Stroman says he blocks out all of that outside chatter, but it is hard to take him at face value considering how amped up he appeared to be Friday afternoon at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium.
Stroman has always been a fiery and animated pitcher, but Friday's did not seem like just another normal spring outing. There appeared to be more at stake, and there was visible disappointment when he allowed three runs on four hits while striking out one over his three innings of work.
"I'm very critical of myself; that's the way I've been my whole life," Stroman said. "I expect nothing but the best out of me. I'm my harshest critic; that's how I've always been, and that's how I always will be. I definitely have some work to do, but I know that I'll get there."
Stroman was not happy with his fastball command or the spin on his breaking pitches against Tampa Bay. The most frustrating part, he said, was that twice he recorded two quick outs in an inning only to see the Rays still find a way to score.
The first two-out rally started in the fourth with a walk to Jayson Nix. The next batter, Rays outfielder Kevin Kiermaier, promptly followed with a two-run homer to right-center field on a first-pitch fastball that was located up in the zone. The second rally came in the fifth, when Matt Joyce doubled and Wil Myers drove him home.
Within each of those innings were opportunities for Stroman to learn and grow. The walk to Nix came after Blue Jays veteran catcher Dioner Navarro called for a fastball but was shook off in favor of a slider. Navarro did not seem to take offense to the decision, but he did hint that it could be a teachable moment for the inexperienced starter.
"I let him be, sometimes they have to go figure it out by themselves," Navarro said. "I'm not saying he doesn't have it, but he went out there and competed. He has that swag, which I like. It's just a matter of him figuring it out. ... Execution is the most important thing.
"He has great stuff; he threw a couple of great cutters. I think the only time he really got in trouble throwing his slider was to Nix, 3-2, when I would have preferred just go after the guy, and if he hits it, he hits it."
Stroman will get a mulligan for Friday's outing, and he no doubt remains among the front-runners for a spot in the rotation. Right-hander Drew Hutchison is the runaway favorite for the No. 4 job, while Happ, Stroman, Esmil Rogers, Todd Redmond and perhaps even Ricky Romero are contenders for the final spot.
It is certainly not a stretch to consider Stroman a perfectionist on the mound, but he is also not someone who is going to sit there and lament for days about where things went wrong. That is a good quality to have as a starting pitcher with another outing looming in the not-so-distant future.
"You have to have a short memory in this game," Stroman said. "I'm not going to dwell on this start either. I'm going to come to the park tomorrow, put a smile on my face, I work hard and get after it again and get ready for my next start."