Marcum, Romero likely to lead rotation

Marcum, Romero likely to lead rotation

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Overcast skies and a steady, cold rain threw a wrinkle in the Blue Jays' plans for Saturday morning. Players stood huddled in the indoor batting cage at the club's spring complex, trying to stay warm and protected from the unusually chilly Florida breeze.

Inside the dark facility, working off the first mound within the netted tunnel, Shaun Marcum fired off pitches during his scheduled bullpen session. One day earlier, left-hander Ricky Romero and a group of other pitchers were able to take to the hills on the sun-soaked practice fields -- soaked only with puddles now.

"It's always a little different throwing inside," Marcum said with a shrug. "But at least there's hitters in there."

Marcum would find the positive in the situation. After all, the right-hander missed all of last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery he had performed on his throwing elbow at the end of the 2008 campaign. Now, after months of grueling rehab, Marcum is back at full strength, and he and Romero appear to be the top candidates to start for the Jays on Opening Day.

That job was once reserved for the good doctor, ace Roy Halladay.

"Doc's one of those guys that everybody looked up to," Marcum said. "He didn't talk a whole lot, but you learned just by watching what he did."

In each of the past seven seasons, the Blue Jays watched Halladay take the mound on Opening Day -- a record-setting streak for the franchise. Over the offseason, though, Toronto traded Halladay to Philadelphia, leaving a gaping hole in the rotation's top slot. Figuring out who will occupy that important spot is a puzzle that will take much of the spring to solve.

As things currently stand, Marcum and Romero seem to be the top choices, showing just how thin Toronto's staff is in terms of experience. Marcum has not pitched in a Major League game since 2008. Romero is coming off a solid rookie showing in which he won 13 games and logged 178 innings, but none of the other 14 rotation candidates in camp have put up better totals in one big league season.

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Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston said that, in a perfect world, he might prefer to have his No. 1 starter be someone who has more experience than Romero on the big league stage. Beyond Marcum, Gaston mentioned Brian Tallet, Brandon Morrow and Dustin McGowan as possible candidates to take the hill on Opening Day.

It is clear that Gaston is not close to determining who will head the starting staff.

"One thing that you have to keep in mind," Gaston said, "that No. 1 guy is always facing the best pitchers in baseball. Not to say that Ricky can't do that, but he's still young. I don't know who's going [to fill that role]."

Right now, Marcum said it is not something that he is thinking much about.

"Opening Day start, it doesn't mean a whole lot," Marcum said. "I just want to pitch when it's my turn to pitch, and the main thing for me is staying healthy, whether it's Opening Day or not. Whoever gets the Opening Day start, take the ball out there and give us a chance to win -- whether it's me, Ricky, Tallet, Brandon Morrow -- whoever it is.

"Every one of us has a chance to go out there and help this team win, and that's all I care about."

Romero smiles wide when asked about potentially taking the ball on Opening Day, but he also said that is not something he is focusing on right now.

"It'd definitely be a really, really awesome experience," Romero admitted. "Not very many guys get to do that -- it only happens once a year. It'd be exciting. It'd be really, really exciting, but I'm not too worried about it."

For Marcum and Romero, their main focus is simply on making the rotation.

After missing all of last season, Marcum has been cleared by Toronto's medical staff and will have no restrictions as he competes for a job. That said, he still needs to prove that he can remain healthy and handle an increasing workload. So far, Marcum said he has been feeling great, leaving him optimistic about the rest of the spring.

"It feels like a brand-new elbow," Marcum said. "I feel like I'm 10 years old again. It takes me three throws to get loose and, other that that, I just go out there and throw, and my arm feels great."

After going 21-13 with a 3.77 ERA primarily as a starter for the Jays from 2007-08, Marcum required Tommy John surgery two offseasons ago. The 28-year-old pitcher worked his way up through the Minor Leagues on a rehab assignment last year and was tentatively penciled in for a promotion back to Toronto last August.

That was until back spasms derailed his progress during a July 26 outing for Triple-A Las Vegas. With his second son, Landon, due to be born in August, Marcum was shut down and plans to have him rejoin the Jays were put on hold. The extended time away from Toronto has made this Spring Training that much more exciting for the young pitcher.

"It's a lot better than last year," he said with a smile. "Last year wasn't a whole lot of fun. I'm kind of looking forward to getting out there and doing whatever I can to help this team win games. It's important to me. Last year was tough to sit there and watch games and not be able to help.

"It's going to be a fun year for us this year, and I'm looking forward to it."

Romero has a strong season under his belt, but he knows, as a young pitcher, that there are no guarantees. The 25-year-old left-hander admitted that he entered this Spring Training with much more confidence and a better mental approach, but the last thing that Romero is going to do is become complacent.

Romero, who went 13-9 with a 4.30 ERA in 29 starts for Toronto last year, was a surprise story last spring, earning a spot on the roster only a few days before the season began. With all five spots virtually available now, Romero knows that a few of the younger arms currently in camp could make a similar push.

"You've got to stay dedicated and have that desire to just keep getting better and stay disciplined," Romero said. "That's the biggest thing. Those are the things I kind of look at, those three D's: discipline, dedication and desire. It comes down to who wants it more, and right now, I feel like I'm hungry out there and I want to get better."

Will that earn Romero the top spot in the rotation? Time will tell. Besides Marcum, there is plenty of competition for the Opening Day nod. Even without Halladay filling that role, though, Marcum believes the Blue Jays' staff is in good shape.

"We have a lot of good arms here," Marcum said. "I think our pitching staff is going to be better than people might give us credit for. I think we're going to surprise a lot of people. It's going to be a battle all year long for us."

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.