Marco Estrada – not the mark of an off-season’s high point

Last time we proposed that the Blue Jays lacked any real plan moving forward to the 2015 season. Granted, they broke out the heavy chequebooks to bring in catcher Russell Martin and they acquired an All-star third baseman in Josh Donaldson but somehow they avoided doing anything about the real issues that look to prevent the team from going far into the Post-season, or even make it in for that matter. They have a bevy of potential second baseman, a few of whom are good defensively, a couple of whom potentially could swing a bat at a major league level but none who can do both. Worse yet is the pitching.

Last year’s pitching staff wasn’t horribly bad. At first glance, the staff ERA of an even 4.00 looks acceptable. Indeed, a decade back at the tail end of the Steroid Era, it would have been perfectly decent. However, now that pitching has kicked it up a notch and there are far fewer ball-mashers out there, an ERA of 4 is marginal at best– 9th best in the AL, actually. Division leading Baltimore had an ERA of 3.43 for reference; Seattle’s was a stellar 3.17. The staff was relatively consistent- the home ERA was a little better than the road, got a little better after the All Star game (3.81, largely thanks to the arrival of Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman’s finding a good groove), and the bullpen at 4.09 was only a little worse than the starting rotation. The only aspect where the team’s pitching was significantly above average was in limiting unearned runs (44, fourth best) which is more a factor of decent fielding behind them than they’re pitching itself. While not stopping the Jays from having a chance to make the playoffs in ’14, the pitching certainly didn’t do much to help make that happen.

One might reasonably expect that if the team was serious about winning in ’15, upgrading the pitching would be the starting place. One might especially think that given that in his post-season synopsis, Alex Anthopoulos laid all the blame on the bullpen. The so-so starting rotation, the second basemen (the main trio of whom combined to hit .232 with one homer) escaped his verbal wrath. So, given his expressed dissatisfaction with it, one would think the bullpen would be set for a major upgrade. One would be wrong.

The only pitcher the team added that is at all likely to make the big league club out of the blocks is Marco Estrada, acquired from Milwaukee for Adam Lind. Meanwhile, JA Happ, Casey Janssen and Dustin McGowan have all moved along. Mark Buerhle will be 36 on opening day and RA Dickey, 40, not spring chickens although neither is the sort of pitcher to put a huge amount of stress on their arms. One doesn’t have to ask how this can be construed as being a better pitching staff than they had last year- it just isn’t. Plain and simple.

Now, Marco Estrada is a decent big league hurler. Decent but nobody’s star, despite his PR buildup from Toronto’s front office. Last year he was 7-6 with a 4.36 ERA over 150 innings. He started 18 games and relieved 21 more times. The previous two seasons he was almost exclusively a starting pitcher, with 2012 being his best year, in ERA and in his strikeout to walk ratio. The line on him is that he is a power pitcher but gives up too many homers, not a great feature of a pitcher who’ll be working in the launching pad known as Rogers Centre. His numbers actually were very similar to JA Happ’s last year and the best guess is that he’ll be an adequate replacement for Happ at the bottom of the rotation; however, Anthopoulos and John Gibbons seem to prefer him being in the bullpen where he may be best seen as an alternate Todd Redmond (which would seemingly make him the “new” Dustin McGowan).

Whether he is in the ‘pen or the starting rotation, Estrada won’t harm the team. However, if Donaldson and Martin are shiny wheels and pinstriping on a car with a shot engine, Estrada is nice seat covers. Or at least, Alex A. is using him to cover his seat and make it look like he actually was doing something to improve the pitching situation. It hasn’t worked.

No one realistically should have expected Toronto to sign Max Scherzer or Jon Lester. As loaded as Rogers’ is, it might be fair for them to say they couldn’t afford to add those big ticket items, and frankly, they shouldn’t. Both are good pitchers, neither really has shown themselves to be exceptional or in the upswing of their career. A recent poll of baseball execs published on Yahoo Sports show they believe Scherzer’s contract to be the worst one of the off-season, and it’s hard to imagine that the mid-sized market Nationals will be feeling that paying him $30 million in 2021, by which time he’ll be 38, is money well-spent.

James Shields is a slightly different story. Like Scherzer and Lester, there’s no team that couldn’t benefit from Shields (the most consistent innings eater in baseball over the past half dozen years), despite his playoff run last fall that made his nickname of “Big Game James” laughable. Toronto was rumored to be talking to him and in the running to sign him; in the end he went to San Diego for a more reasonable four year, $75M deal. That actually might have worked well within the Jays pay structure and upgraded the rotation. That said, its highly unlikely they could have convinced him to sign here; he stated he wanted to pitch near his southern California home and reportedly turned down at least two bigger contract offers to make sure he could do so.

That seems to offer some excuses for the Jays, but really does it? Just because they couldn’t or shouldn’t have brought in any of the top 3 free agent starters this year, doesn’t mean they couldn’t have improved there. Justin Masterson signed a “cheap” two year deal with Boston. Masterson is coming off a lacklustre season it’s true but shows every promise of bouncing back (much like $156 M man Jon Lester did after a terrible 2012). He’s only 30 and only a year removed from a stretch of three years in which he averaged over a dozen wins and 200 innings a season with a respectable 3.86 ERA pitching for a lousy team. He’s a groundball pitcher, which works well in the home run friendly AL East parks. The Blue Jays absolutely could have added a million or so a year, or a third year, to the offer he accepted from Boston and had him. Or one could reasonably expect they could have traded for a decent starter; Detroit traded away Rick Porcello and then replaced him with Alfredo Simon from Cinci; Jeff Samardzja was acquired by the White Sox only months after the A’s sold the farm to get him, the Red Sox (again!) picked up young former All-star Wade Miley from Arizona. Any of those names would have resulted in a starting rotation that looked better than the one they enter spring training with and fans believing the team was “all in” this year. Now the dismal Phillies are trying to trade Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels but the price is high, both in remaining contract and in the prospects they seem to want in return, but either would in all likelihood add 4 to 6 wins to the Jays this season and all but ensure a playoff berth. History shows that we should temper our expectations though and expect them to end up in LA, Boston, Texas… anywhere but the sunny shores of Lake Ontario.

So as it stands, the team will go north in April with a rotation of Dickey (unlikely to win another Cy Young Award but equally unlikely to do much worse than 12 wins and 200 innings with his confounding knuckleball), Buehrle , (as reliable a pitcher as there is but no longer a front line star), Drew Hutchison (at 24 a very promising young pitcher, but whose season last year was a zig-zag graph of alternating greatness and crappy outings), Marcus Stroman (the team’s rookie of the year last season and a very promising starter but with only two full pro seasons behind him no sure bet to avoid a “sophomore slump” or pitch into October) and then either highly touted prospect Daniel Norris, of VW van internet fame, or Marco Estrada.

Then there’s the bullpen the GM hated so much but now is apparently high on…

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