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Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Henderson Alvarez throws in the first inning of a spring training baseball game against the Detroit Tigers, Monday, March 5, 2012, in Lakeland, Fla. (Julio Cortez/AP/Julio Cortez/AP)
Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Henderson Alvarez throws in the first inning of a spring training baseball game against the Detroit Tigers, Monday, March 5, 2012, in Lakeland, Fla. (Julio Cortez/AP/Julio Cortez/AP)

JEFF BLAIR

For Blue Jays pitching prospects, it's a matter of when, not if Add to ...

Henderson Alvarez might present the best case for bringing Drew Hutchison up from Double-A and throwing him feet first into the major leagues.

Alvarez, who turned an uncommonly mature 22 Wednesday, gets the start Thursday for the Toronto Blue Jays in the third game of their three-game series against the Tampa Bay Rays. Saturday in Kansas City, the Blue Jays will need to fill the fifth spot in their rotation and both general manager Alex Anthopoulos and manager John Farrell say they are not interested in a fill-in.

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Alvarez will match up with Jeremy Hellickson in the rubber match of the series, after the Rays battered Brandon Morrow in a 12-2 win on Wednesday in front of 15,828 at Rogers Centre. Morrow (0-1) gave up eight hits in six innings including home runs to Ben Zobrist, the second batter faced, Matt Joyce and Sean Rodriguez. The Rays added six runs in the ninth off Carlos Villanueva, who gave up a grand slam to Luke Scott.

Nothing much worked for Morrow. His fastball command eluded him – typical of power pitchers, he tried to look for extra velocity to compensate for the location, and all that did was flatten out his pitches - and he abandoned his curveball after failed attempts to get it over for strikes, and afterward he admitted it was time to study some video. “I’m looking at something,” Morrow said when asked whether he needed to make a mechanical adjustment. “But I don’t want to jump the gun.”

Yunel Escobar had four of the 12 hits for the Blue Jays, who figured to have Dustin McGowan in the fourth or fifth spot, but now aren’t planning on seeing him for as much as six weeks. He is essentially back on a spring training regimen, after developing plantar fasciitis in March. And while Anthopoulos said the team was keeping all its options open in the event of a waiver claim or even a trade within the next 48 hours - “Balls in the air,” he called the options - it is apparent that either journeyman Jesse Chavez or gilt-edged prospect Hutchison will get the call. Joel Carreno, who started the third game of the regular season in Cleveland, seems to have lost his spot in the pecking order because of deep counts.

Hutchison, who was signed for a massively over-slot $400,000 as a 15th-round selection by the Blue Jays in 2009, has pitched to a 2.16 earned-run average at Double-A New Hampshire and has a WHIP of 1.14 with 12 strikeouts and three walks. The Blue Jays started to believe in 2011 that he was capable of coming on quickly, and that was one of the reasons that Farrell kept him close at hand as long as he did in spring training.

Anthopoulos is realistic when it comes to minor-league prospects. He’ll all but roll his eyes at the notion that sending a player back down is some sort of career setback. But he also understands that this is the reality of the way baseball is discussed and analyzed in the Internet age. We’ve gone from second-guessing managers to second-guessing G.M.’s and now farm directors. That’s particularly the case with young starting pitchers – the game’s true gold standard.

It is frankly a pleasing notion, given how this off-season unfolded, that the Blue Jays seem prepared to bring up the best arm possible for what should be a winnable game in a soft part of the season, with four games in Kansas City, three in Baltimore against the Orioles and then three at home against the Seattle Mariners. It is pleasing that the phrase “service time” didn’t once enter a dug-out conversation with Anthopoulos before Wednesday’s game.

When Hutchison was sent down to the minors from spring training, it was with a hearty hand-shake, a pat on the back and instructions from the Blue Jays braintrust to focus on what Farrell calls some of the nuances of pitching: controlling the running game, developing a more consistent slider.

Anthopoulos said that when the Blue Jays brought up Alvarez on Aug. 10, there was little fear that his development would be set back. Like Hutchison, the Blue Jays wanted to see Alvarez refine his slider. His progress was not charted by numbers as much as his ability to absorb teachings and take them into games. The same standard is being applied to Hutchison, whom has made enough progress that the Blue Jays believe he can tighten his slider and change-up further at the major-league level without getting hammered all over the ballpark.

“If there was a major developmental component, he [Hutchison]wouldn’t even be a candidate,” said Anthopoulos.

It is easy to pay lip-service to the notion of maximizing internal pitching options. More difficult is knowing when and how to make the call. These Rays are what the Blue Jays hope to become; they are loaded with young pitching coming at a rapid pace, and that means there will be more than a few of these decisions to be made in the next two years. Might as well get at it.

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