Pitching- A Mound Of Opportunity or Trouble?

Last time out, we looked at the position players likely to start the season with the Blue Jays, since then little has changed – there’s still a battle for the backup outfield spot and for at least one of two backup infield slots. The surprise acquisition of Jesus Montero a few days back likely changes nothing; there’s a reason Seattle placed him on waivers after all. I’m not all that pumped about his acquisition, but it’s not a terribly risky maneuver. Montero, of course, was the one-time “can’t miss” catching prospect for the Yankees, traded for “can’t miss” pitcher Michael Pineda. After a decent 2012 campaign with the Mariners (.260, 15 HR, 62 RBI) it’s been all downhill, not only with diminishing results at the plate (.225, 6/21 in 44 big league games over past couple of years) but with all sorts of negative reports about his work ethic and conditioning. He’s currently listed at 6’3”, 235 lb, not exactly obese but not exactly in game shape either. He has, however, potential and power, and there’s always a hope he can work a bit harder and eventually translate some of his minor league prowess to the bigs. Last year in 98 games at AAA Tacoma, he smashed a .355 average, .569 slugging and 85 RBI. Look for him to be Buffalo’s starting DH.

The pitching lineup is all but set by now. Aaron Sanchez has earned his spot in the rotation after a great spring and apparently highly-effective curveball added into his repetoire; only 3 walks in 20 innings is an encouraging development in his talent. RA Dickey, JA Happ and opening day starter Marcus Stroman were never in doubt, likewise Marco Estrada. However, Estrada’s sore back and limited spring use mean he will be on the DL for a week or two and, presumably Gavin Floyd (very decent 3-0, 2.19, 11K, 3BB upto yesterday) will be the spot starter and then return to the bullpen which the team has told him will be his usual spot.

I’m a bit surprised at the release of Randy Choate yesterday, I figured he was a shoe-in to be a second lefty in the ‘pen behind Brett Cecil. Instead he’s mulling over an offer to pitch in Buffalo. Since Roberto Osuna, Drew Storen, Jesse Chavez, and Cecil are already on the staff as is Floyd (who, again, we assume will be a starter initially at least), three spots remain open in the bullpen. My best guess would be that Ryan Tepera will be in, given his good performance so far this spring (4 hits allowed in 6 appearances, 1.69 ERA before today’s bizarre starting assignment) and his talent at handling left-handed batters last season. In effect, it gives the Jays two “southpaws”. Ditto, Pat Venditte, who is more than just a carnival trick with his ambidexterity. Venditte has been good thus far, not allowing a run and just 3 hits through his first 8 innings this spring and with a talent for getting out lefties he should make the team.

Which leaves just one spot. Here’s the challenge for John Gibbons and the front office. Arnold Leon, like so many other Toronto players through the past decade, picked up on the cheap from Oakland, has been excellent – 7 innings, only 2 hits, no earned runs and comes with great potential. Last season between 6 starts and 14 relief appearances at AAA, he posted a 2.95 ERA and limited hitters in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League to a .236 average. He’d be a good guy to have in the middle innings. The hitch is so too, possibly, might be Joe Biagini.

The big (6’5”, 240 lb)righty is a year younger and a bit behind Leon in development, but has had a decent spring (5 hits, 7K, 3.38 through first six games) and is apparently a Rule 5 pickup from San Francisco. Last year he was impressive to say the least as a starter for AA Richmond, going 10-7 with a 2.42 ERA- fourth best in all of AA- and a solid 1.46 ratio of ground outs to flyball outs, which would be most useful at Rogers Centre. He’d be an ideal candidate to get more starting experience at Buffalo, but given his status its keep him with the big team in the ‘pen or (in all likelihood) send him back to the Giants. A tough call, but I’d give him the final slot and have Leon a Bison, awaiting the call up.

So, that would leave us playing Tampa in a few days with a pitching staff of Stroman, Happ, Sanchez, Dickey, Floyd and Cecil, Venditte, Osuna, Storen, Chavez, Tepera and Biagini; Estrada soon to return. It’s a staff that lacks a typical “Ace” , but then again the same would be said of last year’s World Series champions. There are a few worries about innings and durablility of the young starters but with Gavin Floyd and Drew Hutchison available to take over if need be, the starting rotation should be strong enough to work into October. All things considered, it’s not the pitching staff we’d dreamed of last November, but it compares decently to any of the others in the AL East and with the hitting expected, it just might be enough.

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