ST. PETERSBURG -- Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero are the only two starting pitchers with guaranteed jobs heading into next season according to general manager Alex Anthopoulos.

The Blue Jays have made the rotation their top priority for the offseason and don't want to rule out acquiring at least a couple of upgrades.

That's why only two starters will end this season knowing for certain they have spots locked down on next year's squad. Everyone else will have to wait and see how the offseason unfolds before likely competing for a job during the spring.

"They both have guaranteed contracts," Anthopoulos said. "That's not to say we don't have guys that are front runners. Obviously if [Henderson] Alvarez continues to perform well, but he has options left.

"I just don't want people coming into Spring Training assuming they have a job lined up. Or, we make a trade in the offseason or we sign someone and I have to make a phone call and say, 'You know what? I changed my mind.'"

Contract options likely will play a big role heading into next year's Spring Training. This season, the Blue Jays lost three starting pitchers to major injuries in a span of just four days in June.

That created a ripple effect throughout the organization which had a negative impact on overall depth. Next season, to better combat the issue, Anthopoulos said he wouldn't be afraid to stash multiple young pitchers in Triple-A instead of giving them a job out of spring.

The strategy could allow the Blue Jays to add a couple of starting pitchers while also signing an additional veteran or two. That way, if anything goes wrong, there will be a series of arms waiting in the wings to take over.

The example Anthopoulos used was the 2007 season when the Blue Jays signed John Thomson, Tomo Ohka and Victor Zambrano. The move backfired because of poor performance, but it did allow the likes of Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum to begin the season in the Minor Leagues and then move up when the things went wrong.

"Not that they were the right signings because obviously they didn't perform well enough but, knowing you had those guys waiting in the wings are your insurance, as your backups, that's something you look back at," Anthopoulos said.

"Sometimes you want to give kids the innings, want to give them the opportunities, but it's not the worst thing in the world if they're sitting down there as depth and they're ready to go. Because you know guys are going to get hurt or guys aren't going to perform and you're going to need a change."

Escobar makes return to lineup after suspension

ST. PETERSBURG -- Yunel Escobar made his return to the Blue Jays' starting lineup on Saturday night following a four-game absence.

Escobar received a three-game suspension earlier this week for writing a homophobic slur on his eye-black patches during a game on Sept. 15.

The Cuban native was then also held out of the lineup on Friday night to provide a longer mental break, but he did pinch-hit during a lopsided 12-1 loss to the Rays.

"It's time to get back in there," manager John Farrell said. "Whether he is completely over what has taken place, I would venture to say that he's not, but these are the things that he has to deal with."

Escobar's suspension is over, but the storyline is unlikely to go away anytime soon and it remains to be seen what the fan reaction will be when the Blue Jays return home on Sept. 28.

The 29-year-old Escobar is set to undergo sensitivity training as part of his suspension, and he's also expected to take part in a number of community events and meetings to help bring awareness to the issue.

Escobar already has apologized on multiple occasions and has maintained all along that he didn't intend to offend anybody with the spanish slur. He's hoping that fans will eventually forgive his actions and that he'll be able to put the incident in the past.

"I'm having a hard time dealing with the situation," Escobar said through interpreter Luis Rivera. "I'm really sorry for what happened on the field ... If I hurt somebody, from the bottom of my heart, I feel really sorry about it. I'm looking forward to meeting the people in Toronto and go from there."

Villanueva's struggles tied to arm soreness

ST. PETERSBURG -- Right-hander Carlos Villanueva arrived at the ballpark on Saturday afternoon feeling a little more discomfort than normal.

Villanueva surrendered seven runs over just 2 1/3 innings during Friday night's 12-1 loss to the Rays. After the game, Villanueva admitted he didn't get anything behind the ball as evidenced by a decrease in velocity and flat action to his secondary pitches.

"He feels a little bit more soreness from his previous starts, which is not to be totally unexpected at this time of the year," manager John Farrell said. "If need be, if that soreness persists, we'll take every measure to identify if there's anything going on there physically. But it wouldn't be totally uncommon to feel a little bit more soreness."

Most pitchers are forced to go through periods of fatigue at this time of the year. The only thing that makes Villanueva's situation stand out is that he went through a similar experience in 2011.

Villanueva was forced to the 15-day disabled list after 13 starts with fatigue and a right forearm injury. So far this season, he has made 15 starts, so it's understandable there will be a close eye on the veteran right-hander for the rest of the year.

Friday's outing, though, was the first time Farrell saw any indications of Villanueva being flat on the mound. One start won't cause anyone in the organization to panic, but it's a scenario that still will be closely monitored.

"He was a little flat," Farrell said. "Their hitters indicated that as well. It's not because of a lack of effort, preparation. Physically, he wasn't as he has been of late.

"Particularly the late action to both his changeup and his slider. Those are the things that really shine through. Velocity can be somewhat comparable, but it's the late life to the secondary pitches that indicate he might not feel as sharp."