Jays pitch of “improved rotation” falls flat


As discussed previously, if the starting lineup remains moderately healthy, the Jays could be an offensive powerhouse. Alas, they will have to be all that and more, given the state of their pitching. In particular, the starting rotation, which last year had a next-to-worst 4.81 ERA…and is returning largely unchanged in ’14. A rather massively disappointing fact for the diehard to chew on given the November speeches of Alex Anthopoulos and Co.

Mind you, a realistic assessment of the situation must recognize that drastically improving the rotation would have been easier said than done. Anytime “Matt Garza” and “best available arm” is used in the same paragraph,let alone sentence, you know free agent pickings were going to be Nicole Ritchie-slim. One can’t fault the Jays for not offering a $14M qualifying offer to Josh Johnson after his two-win campaign of last year, and even deep-pocketed Rogers Communications may have had difficulty outbidding the Yankees for the services of Japanese phenom Masahiro Tanaka, not to mention convincing him of the desirability of pitching for Toronto. Ubaldo Jimenez and Bronson Arroyo could have made decent adds, and by the time they were gone and Ervin Santana had come down to earth (realizing he wasn’t Cliff Lee or Clay Kershaw and was thus not going to be paid like them) the Jays got serious a few days too late. Had the Braves not lost two starters in two days in spring training, they (Atlanta) would have likely not entered the fray for his services and Santana could well be a Jay. Not that Santana was going to single-handedly take them to the promised land anyway, but another 200-inning, 11 or 12 win pitcher would make them look at least competitive.

As it stands, the rotation looks like “Dickey and Buehrle and hope lots of rain ends the series early”. RA Dickey finished the season strong last year and has good velocity on his knuckler (as knuckleballs go) this spring compared to last. He may not return to Cy Young form but should easily match or perhaps better his 14 wins and , perhaps more importantly, 224 innings of last year.Not to mention screw batters’ timing up for a day or so after seeing his array of slowballs.

Mark Buehrle may not be the best pitcher out there but certainly is the most reliable. That is not merely this scribe’s opinion, but essentially a fact… no other pitcher out there has won in the double digits for the past 13 straight seasons, nor gone over 400 straight starts without missing a game. He has a good shot of joining the relatively elite club of 200-game winners this season, needing 14 more. Given his strong spring, and fact that he’ll be working with a better defensive catcher this year, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him do that and add two or three more for good measure, and also slog through 220 innings.

The problem of course is that that tandem will only account for 40% of the games. As of today, the remainder of the rotation is set as Brandon Morrow, Dustin McGowan and Drew Hutchison. JA Happ, originally seen as the #3 guy, is now on the DL with a bad back which one only hopes was the reason he managed to hurl only 7 innings in four spring starts and had an ERA that masqueraded as the Dunedin zip code.

Morrow of course, is a good bet to one day throw a no-hitter. When he’s “on” he’s absolutely dominant with a great heater and decent slider. Alas, he’s not “on” all that often. He is, in effect, the poor man’s (or poor doctor’s) Ubaldo Jimenez– a guy with fantastic “stuff” who unfortunately seldom puts it together for more than a few games at a time. Unlike Jimenez though, Morrow also seems injury-prone. In 2012-13,he started 31 games and lobbed 179 innings– a not bad one year total,as a 2 year tally though a source of major anxiety for the club. His walk:strikeout ratio has declined in the past three years and this spring he’s toting a 9+ ERA . The Toronto Sun reports that in his 5 outings he’s “been efficient in none of them”.

McGowan, on the other hand has been pitching well, and is a “feel-good” story. No one doubts McGowan’s effort, having overcome three separate shoulder surgeries, knee surgery and an oblique injury that cut short his 2013 season. There’s plenty of reason to doubt his physical ability however, given his history and fact that since 2009 he’s only pitched 46 innings in the bigs – and 47 more in the minors. 93 innings over 5 years, and this year the Blue Jays expect him to double that in just one year. My sense tells me that if you bet “over-under” on games started by Dustin this year, 10 would count as an “over”. Sadly too, time has perhaps distorted many a memory of the 32 year old– even in his best year, 2007, he was only 12-10 with a 4.08 ERA over 169 innings—not bad but no Cy Young.

Drew Hutchison is a question mark, having being rushed to the majors in 2012 and getting into a decent groove for about 4 games before being lost to the omnipresent “Tommy John Surgery”. He’s looked sharp this spring, and could be a decent #5 but… only 5 big league wins and 270 innings logged in the minors makes me consider Drew less than a surefire winner.

Today Toronto announced that back-up possibilities Esmil Rogers (at times good last season , at times awful), Todd Redmond and Jeremy Jeffress all will be with the big club, in the bullpen to start the season. There will be danger of running out of starters this year, but then again actual number of arms available wasn’t the shortcoming of the 2013 edition. Moreover, with these three in the pen, rather than in the minors logging innings (due to lack of options more than lack of relievers in Toronto), they’ll be limited to short outings and take longer to get into shape as a starter when (not if) the need arises.

Under-rated Casey Janssen only pitched his first game of the spring on March 24, but should be good to go early in April if not right off and with Sergio Santos, Aaron Loup, Steve Delebar, Brett Cecil around as well, the bullpen should continue to be a strength. This year’s Delebar could be John Stilson, who came out of nowhere – or New Hampshire- to be brilliant this spring, only allowing his first run on march 25.Last year he had a 6-2 record and nifty 2.09 ERA in a part-season with AAA Buffalo .

The Jays will score a lot of runs this year, alas they’ll also allow a lot. Geography has dealt the team a cruel hand of late; were Toronto to be dropped in, say Alberta, this team could compete. But here in the east, in baseball’s toughest division, everything will have to go right for them to even tread water at .500. I’d like to be optimistic, but the glass of cold water is this– Toronto will play 120 games this season against teams that had winning records last season. Detroit, by comparison, has 92 and the Texas Rangers, only 65.

The 2014 Blue Jays won’t be a bad team. However, it’s not likely that you’ll know that looking at the standings.

Next– we’ll look at the rest of the division.


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