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Blair: Despite his warts, Jays need innings-eater like Santana

What nobody wants to say is what everybody around the Toronto Blue Jays is saying privately: that if this was last winter, Ervin Santana's signing would be done and dusted. There would be none of this nonsense of player-imposed deadlines allowing more teams to get in the hunt.

Less clear is what the dithering signified. As is the case with just about every free agent in one of the most unexciting crops in a couple of decades, Santana has warts all over the place: a fly-ball pitcher whose treatment for an elbow injury in 2009 still scares prospective employers, a pitcher who has eclipsed 200 innings three times in the past four seasons but has varied wildly between three years with an earned-run average over 5.00 and four under 4.00 and who in his career has given up six home runs in 52 innings at the Rogers Centre, with a 4.15 ERA in eight starts.

Brandon Morrow remains the key to the success of the Blue Jays in 2014 – and the jobs of manager John Gibbons, general manager Alex Anthopoulos and maybe even president Paul Beeston – but even before J.A. Happ's back problems necessitated an injection and doctors orders for two days of bed rest, the Blue Jays' rotation was cause for major concern.

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Drew Hutchison's had a nice spring and everybody thinks he'll go north with the team, but are he or Morrow a sure-fire 200 innings? No. And while Santana isn't perfect, Gibbons freely admits he'd take his chances.

And there's plenty of company in the Blue Jays clubhouse, which has followed with interesting reports all weekend long that had Santana agreeing to a one-year, $14-million (U.S.) deal with the Blue Jays.

That morphed into Santana imposing a 5 p.m. Saturday deadline for the Baltimore Orioles to match the deal; and which by Sunday had become the Jays, Orioles and Minnesota Twins talking to his agents. That deadline? It became "several days" instead of hours.

"Look, any time you add a potential piece that has the pedigree of Ervin Santana, you are adding a valuable piece, right? You can answer that for yourself," Blue Jays opening day starter R.A. Dickey said after scattering four hits over five innings on Sunday in a spring training game won 4-3 by the Houston Astros.

"We have a situation where J.A.'s back is bothering him and [Brandon] Morrow is bouncing back. That's a couple of question marks, so the depth Ervin would provide us would be an incredible benefit. He'd be welcomed with open arms."

As Adam Lind said this weekend: "Everyone likes Drew Hutchison and Marcus Stroman, but how many innings can they throw this season? About 120?"

It was not a dig at two of the Blue Jays prized pitching prospects. It was a statement of fact. Spend a couple of days around this organization and it's clear that the uniformed personnel will be disappointed if this is the rotation that goes north.

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More than one player has said he finds it odd that an organization that added players of pedigree and contract last winter is suddenly unable to close a deal with a pitcher such as Santana, whose representatives have so misplayed the market that it has caused their agency to split, with both Santana and Jose Bautista firing Bean Stringfellow as their agent in favour of Jay Alou.

This is an organization that has already struck out with A.J. Burnett – although they matched the Philadelphia Phillies offer – and fellow free agent Ubaldo Jimenez.

Jimenez signed with the Orioles, and it's one thing to lose a free-agent to the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox or Los Angeles Dodgers and another to lose out to the Orioles or – yikes! – the Twins.

"Limitations," is the word you hear around Dunedin whenever general manager Anthopoulos' dealings are discussed – Gibbons used it himself on Sunday – and nobody knows whether those limitations are the result of a philosophical imperative on the part of president Beeston (fear of the six-year contract; no incentive clauses, etc.) or a dictation from the Blue Jays owners, Rogers Communications.

The Orioles have said they're open to incentives, which might include a vesting option year.

Fact is, in the Blue Jays' perfect world, Santana and another pitcher with a major-league track record would be in the rotation along with Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Morrow. Hutchison would be at Triple-A Buffalo and Happ would be who-knows-where.

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His stuff, simply put, does not play in the American League East. There is a sense of anticipation to this spring that could easily give way to desperation. Jobs are at stake; Everyday players are being pushed – shortstop Jose Reyes played seven innings on Sunday after playing in Dunedin on Saturday against the Minnesota Twins – and Dickey's on board.

He threw 82 pitches on Sunday and will aim for 95 to 100 in his next start; he seemed as if he were a cranky veteran ready for the season when he responded to a question about different expectations on the 2013 and 2014 teams by saying: "I think we're terrible. I don't want anybody to take us seriously, and because of last year we're probably going to get walked over."

Good. Game-face is good. Asked if 100 pitches with two or three starts left in the spring seemed to be pushing it, the knuckleballer shrugged.

"You know, being older I know what I need to be prepared and one of the things I need is the confidence to know I can go deep from the get-go and not build into it."

Smart man, R.A. Dickey. Because you know that whole "it's a marathon, not a sprint," line about the 162-game baseball season? That might not be the case with the Blue Jays.

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