During John Gibbons' first stint as Blue Jays manager, the club often was searching for a No. 3 starter. The staff was basically Roy Halladay and the rest, although the flighty A.J. Burnett flirted with being fairly decent before fleeing to the Yankees.
But in Gibbons' second tenure, the rotation is so much better. Gibbons' biggest rotation problem was the No. 5 starter, who only a year ago was the No. 1 guy. That was fixed late in spring training when left-hander Ricky Romero was demoted to Class A Dunedin to work on his pitching mechanics, which had him scattering his pitches all around the strike zone.
Last season, Romero opened as the No. 1 starter but went 9-14 with a 5.77 earned-run average that was no fluke. He came to spring training knocked down to No. 5. That shows how far the rotation has come.
The No. 1 guy this season is knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, who won the National League Cy Young Award with the New York Mets last season. Next is power pitcher Brandon Morrow, who has the stuff to be an ace. Third is fast-working left-hander Mark Buehrle, who has a proven track record, and No. 4 Josh Johnson had the best spring training of any of them. Johnson and Buehrle came from the Miami Marlins in the trade last November with shortstop Jose Reyes and infielder-outfielder Emilio Bonifacio to convert the Blue Jays into instant postseason contenders.
"A lot of teams we've had in the past, you're looking for that third starter," Gibbons said.
With Romero working on refining his mechanics, left-hander J.A. Happ takes the fifth spot for now. Happ had been destined to start at Class AAA Buffalo as rotation depth for the big-league team or to stay with Toronto as long reliever. Happ, who has a 35-35 major-league record with a 4.19 ERA, insisted that he was a major-league starter. Happ pitched so well in spring training, with a 1.90 ERA, that Gibbons said he could not have justified shuffling him off to Buffalo.
"Happ put his money where his mouth is," Gibbons said. "He came out and said he wants to be the fifth starter, he deserved it and he got it. I expect him to be good. He's a competent guy, and good lefties are hard to find."
With Happ available, it meant that Romero could remain behind in Florida to complete the adjustments he started with major-league pitching coach Pete Walker. Minor-league pitching coordinator Dane Johnson helped Romero with his delivery so much when he was struggling in the minors a few years ago and will do so again this year.
That gets us back to No. 4. Even though he had his only rough inning of spring training on March 30, giving up a four-spot to the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, Johnson came out of spring training 5-0 with a 2.70 ERA.
Not bad for No. 4.
"Oh yeah," Gibbons said. "Oh yeah, and I talked to those guys when we set the rotation. I even asked him, 'Does it affect you at all or it does it matter where you're pitching?' And he said, 'I don't care. I just want to help the team win.' And he means it. That's kind of what we're dealing with, and that makes it easier on us."
And if Romero could come back and pitch like he did in 2011 and the others pitch just the way they have been in recent years, how good could this rotation be? Good enough to get the Blue Jays to postseason.