Jays not giving anything to Litsch
With candidates out of the picture, fifth spot undecided
ST. PETERSBURG -- Jesse Litsch's main competitors for the fifth spot in the Blue Jays' rotation have been eliminated from the race. That fact hasn't put an end to the club's internal debate about whether or not Litsch should indeed fill that role.
On Friday, Litsch took the mound at Progress Energy Park for his first spring appearance since Wednesday's news broke about Casey Janssen -- once considered the top candidate for the rotation's lone vacancy. Janssen is sidelined for the season with a torn labrum in his right shoulder and is set to undergo surgery early next week.
Gustavo Chacin, who Toronto pegged as a long shot for the fifth spot when Spring Training opened, was optioned to Triple-A Syracuse on Wednesday. One day earlier, after Chacin endured a rough start against the Yankees, Jays manager John Gibbons said the left-hander wasn't being considered for a big league job.
By default, that chain of events would appear to leave Litsch as the clear favorite for the fifth job. As it turns out, it's not that simple. Both Gibbons and pitching coach Brad Arnsberg tiptoed around questions concerning Litsch's status, indicating that there are still decision makers within the organization who are weighing other options.
"That's a tough question. I get in trouble for answering those," said Arnsberg, when asked if Litsch was the coach's favorite for the fifth spot. "He came in as my five-hole guy, coming in after the offseason, and he really hasn't changed that opinion, in my opinion -- and that's strictly my opinion.
"But this wasn't a kid who came up in September and gave us four or five starts. He started 20 games in the big leagues last year."
Litsch, who turned 23 earlier this spring, was summoned from Double-A New Hampshire last May when Toronto ace Roy Halladay landed on the disabled list with appendicitis. From there, Litsch completed 20 starts between two stints with the Blue Jays during his rookie year and finished 7-9 with a 3.81 ERA.
On Friday, Litsch entered the game against the Rays in the second inning instead of as Toronto's starter, because -- with rain a possibility -- the Blue Jays wanted to make sure closer B.J. Ryan completed one inning of work in his Grapefruit League debut. Litsch turned in 4 2/3 innings, allowing three runs on seven hits with three strikeouts and two walks.
It wasn't Litsch's best outing among the four he's had this spring, but the young right-hander is working on honing his two-seam sinking fastball. Against Tampa Bay, Litsch struggled some with location, which was not what the Blue Jays want to see.
"I'm just trying to fine-tune pitches," Litsch said. "I'm working on my sinker a lot. That's going to be a big pitch for me this year, I think. I'm just trying to make everything where I can throw everything for strikes."
Litsch might not be able to tinker too much as the spring slate continues, considering he needs to convince Toronto to keep him on board as a starter.
"He struggled," Gibbons said. "He was kind of in and out -- not enough strikes. That's his game. He's got to pound that strike zone to be effective and use his infield. He was falling behind too many guys."
Gibbons was also unwilling to speculate on the race for the rotation's fifth spot.
"I'm not ready to answer that yet," said Gibbons, who has voiced his support of Litsch all spring. "But he's done an awful lot of good things for us."
Last season, Litsch and Janssen -- the latter of whom posted a 2.35 ERA in 70 games as Toronto's primary setup man a year ago -- were among the handful of young pitchers helping to solidify Toronto's pitching staff amidst a wave of injuries. Needless to say, Litsch was upset to learn that Janssen was done for the season.
"That's a good friend of mine," Litsch said. "That was devastating to me. He was a big, big guy on this team and we would've loved to have him around. He's a definite [asset] to this team."
Even with Janssen out of the picture, Litsch said he's not going to alter his mind-set about the competition for the No. 5 role. Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi said earlier this week that the club would explore trades to stengthen the pitching staff, and there are other internal options being considered as well.
"I don't think about that stuff," Litsch said. "I'm still out there like I'm still trying to win a job. That's how I'm going out there every day -- just treating it like the same game. I'm just doing my job and trying to get outs."
"You've always got something to prove," he added later. "You have to go out proving every day -- prove that you belong here. There's guys down there trying to get your spot. That's what's going to happen every day."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.