Any other Jays fans getting both a sense of deja vu as well as a sense of ‘what might have been’ about the team this year?
Seems like we’ve danced to this tune before: the team adds one or two key players in the off-season, proclaim a new attitude and then the front office goes about sitting on their duffs while other teams around them get to work on becoming competitive. The end result is a Blue Jays team that’s by no means terrible- but always a building block or two away from ending baseball’s longest post-season drought.
The Toronto Star‘s Richard Griffin (who’s upped his game lately and has a very worthwhile column on all things Blue Jay-ish) seems to think a deficient bullpen is what will keep the Jays outside looking in on the playoffs this year , something I’d quarrel with, but what’s not in debate is whose doorstep the blame should be put on. Alex Anthopoulos railed against what he considered a crappy bullpen last season and then proceeded to watch it get significantly worse in the off-season. He let better-than-average but less-than-all-star Casey Janssen walk away, insulted. He didn’t put in a bid on a veteran with strong ties to Toronto and an AL championship last year, Jason Frasor. He talked to John Axford, a pitcher from Ontario, but let him end up signing with a minor league contract in Colorado. He didn’t seem interested in Pat Neshek, who was brilliant last year with the Cardinals. Neshek is now anchoring the bullpen of the surprise best team in the AL, the Astros. The Jays did apparently make an offer to Andrew Miller, who keeps getting better, but not enough to lure him away from the Big Apple. With no new key additions, the team ventured to try two unproven 20 year olds with no serious minor league experience to hold down the ‘pen behind new closer Brett Cecil. The result hasn’t been much of a success; Cecil has two saves in 11 appearances so far and an ERA of 4.50 (granted, ERA is an unreliable measure of quality with a sample of innings so small); he’s now firmly entrenched in the closer’s role after Miguel Castro got demoted back to the minors . Castro started off great but had given up 8 hits and 4 earned runs in his last 3 innings, so perhaps there’s a reason why most players go through AA and AAA baseball before being promoted to the big club!
As much as the bullpen has been iffy so far, it’s not the cause of the Blue Jays being below .500. Nor is the hitting. Before last night’s game, the Jays .432 slugging percentage was fourth best in the AL, their 32 homers third best, and most importantly, the 144 runs scored, tops in all of baseball. We knew eventually the Detroit trade, getting Devon Travis for Anthony Gose would look good, we just had no idea it would be so soon- Travis so far is second in the AL in RBI. The team is scoring runs in bushel baskets, unfortunately it’s also allowing runs by the boxcar. Their 5.13 ERA is by far the worst in baseball (next worst, Boston at 5.04, something New England scribes are none too happy about ) as is the 138 total runs allowed. St. Louis, for comparison’s sake, even without ace Adam Wainwright, have given up a skimpy 59. One would suspect that if Toronto’s pitching had limited the opposition to a number even close to that, we’d be in awe of an undefeated team.
As predicted, the Jays starting rotation has been the achilles heal. It’s difficult to imagine how anyone could have thought it would be otherwise. RA Dickey pitched his best game of the year so far last night, and has been best of a bad lot, at 1-3, with a 4.38ERA and team high 39 innings. Mark Buehrle’s started off hot but has been terrible in his last couple of outings, adding up to an ugly 6.75 ERA and what is currently the worst WHIP of his lengthy career. He has a winning record, but one has been aided by 37 runs in his three wins.
Nevertheless, I stand by my spring analysis. Those two veterans are what they are, and what they are is decent middle-of-rotation guys who will give you 200 innings a piece and a win or three above par. There’s nothing inherently wrong about having that pair, in fact they would be an asset – if they weren’t the only two viable starters on the roster!
Drew Hutchison has already complained of being fatigued and looks it. After a good game against Baltimore, he’s given up 17 hits and 12 earned runs in only 8 1/3 innings in two subsequent starts. Overall, he sports an ERA of 7.47, appropriate because it’s up there in the stratosphere. We all too quickly forget this lad is still under 25 and had only 43 big league appearances before being somehow knighted as Staff Ace this spring.
Internet sensation Daniel Norris was told to get in his VW van and drive to Buffalo after his most recent outing where he lasted 78 pitches and was complaining of a “dead arm” as well. Although he’s 1-1 and has an acceptable ERA so far, the fact that he’s tired after averaging less than five innings a game suggests that while he may still be a good one, that time is a ways off.
Which leaves Aaron Sanchez, who commendably has managed to lower his ERA a little in each start since his first, but still sits at 4.62, and has given up a distressing 20 walks in 25 innings. There’s no problem with his “stuff” but obviously is one with his command of where that ‘stuff’ goes.
The team’s answer to all this has been to shunt Marco Estrada to the rotation, starting tonight. He probably can’t do much worse than Daniel Norris has so far, but he leaves a hole in the bullpen making that weaker and making it clear that Alex Anthopoulos is out of ideas. He did call up outfielder Chris Colabello from the minors, and Chris has been hitting up a storm in Buffalo. I guess the thinking is if your team needs 8 runs a game to have a shot at winning, it’s easier to add another bat to club some balls instead of improving the pitching.
Needless to say, it’s not quite as simple as all that. There aren’t any solid free agent starting pitchers looking for work in May and most teams aren’t willing to trade anyone worthwhile this early. The Phillies are still apparently trying to rid themselves of Cole Hamels contract, but the price tag seems too high in both dollars and players they want. There may be a few options which could be open to help the Blue Jays though.
While Hamels apparently merits a king’s ransom, there are lesser pitchers in Philadelphia they might part with for a more reasonable dowry. The Phils are going nowhere quickly and from all reports would love to rebuild sooner than later. Chad Billingsley is set to make his season debut tonight. Billingsley is a little risky having missed almost all of the past two seasons with Tommy John surgery, but was an under-rated player when he was with the Dodgers. In 2012 he was a decent 10-9 with a 3.55 ERA and 150 innings pitched there. Granted, his best season was way back in ’08, but if he could regain his pre-surgery form, he’d likely instantly become the best starter on the Jays roster.
Likewise, the Phillies have 37 year-old Aaron Harang, who seems to have dipped into the fountain of youth. This year he’s sporting a nice 2.35 ERA, has pitched 38 innings and only allowed 29 hits and 8 walks in them. He may not be a long-term solution but would fit in nicely with the current Jays.
Perhaps the most intriguing idea is to turn to Cincinnati. The Reds have been under-achievers of late and now with Homer Bailey gone for the year, look like they have an even steeper hill to climb this year. Their ace, Johnny Cueto is a free agent after this season, and is not far off Kershaw and Bumgardner when it comes time to discuss best NL pitchers. Last year he won 20, the last year he had an ERA above 3 was 2010 (quick question – when was the last time a Jays starter had an ERA below 3? One might think Roy Halladay last decade, but it was actually Ricky Romero in ’11) and is off to a flying start again in ’15, although likely frustrated by his 2-3 record despite averaging over 7 innings a start and limiting the opposition to a .203 avg. Imagine how well he’d do in a lineup where the team actually scored runs once in a while… like Toronto!
The Reds trading Cueto, would face the same kind of fan revolt the Jays did after trading Halladay. But he’s not likely to stick around there after this year and likely would welcome pitching in a place where he would get run support to boost his win total heading into free agency. He’d not come cheap – but would he be worth mortgaging the future? Would it be worth giving up say Norris and Sanchez to get him, potentially for only 25 or so starts?
It’s a question that keeps GMs up at night. I don’t know if I know the answer but I think it’s one worth considering. We fans are tired of the tune that’s playing now, “Good but not good enough.”