Pitching – why being #1 is worrisome

Yesterday I addressed some of the moves the Blue Jays could make to keep the offense powerful and viable for 2017; today, the pitching side of the equation.

Thankfully, and yes, surprisingly, there’s not much that needs fixing with this. The 2016 Jays led the league in pitching with a 3.84 ERA, six points better than league champion Cleveland. (Those looking for clues as to why the Twins lost triple-digit numbers of games need only start with their 5.08 ERA by comparison.) Toronto’s starters were best in AL and perhaps even more surprisingly, the team’s numbers on the road were best in baseball – 3.47, about a fifth of a run better than the NL champion Cubs. Clearly the hurlers did everything in their power to pitch the team to a championship. No question that coaches Pete Walker and Dane Johnson should return therefore, and they have been told they are.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that the Jays can sit on their laurels for ’17, although I think they might be tempted to. Pitching seems even more fickle than hitting so there’s no guarantee that the crew will follow up their ’16 success, not to mention that Toronto might have been blessed with just about the best luck of any recent MLB club in recent years. Consider that they had their starting rote set in April and – except for a minor glitch mid-season with Marco Estrada’s sore back – were able to run with the set 5 all season and into the post-season. They even acquired a solid veteran 6th starter at the trade deadline just for the heck of it and he was excellent. Frankly it may be too much to hope for to think that the 2017 starting rotation will only miss one or two starts between the five of them due to injury; history suggests everyone in the Rogers Centre crowd might have a better chance of winning the 6-49 than seeing that happen again.

As well, while we try to take the “glass half full” approach, it’s wise to look at the other side of the equation. JA Happ had a “career year” in 2016- but will it be just that (a “Career” year , reminiscent of Adam Lind and Aaron Hill’s blockbuster 2009 seasons which were followed up by… well, not all that much) or just the start of a new, improved Happ?

We hope the latter and are encouraged by his consistency since he was traded to Pitttsburgh in 2015 and was coached by Ray Searage. Since then , he’s 27-6, 2.86 over 43 games. But it can’t be ignored that before this year he was a .500 pitcher who averaged 146 innings a year over the past 5. He exceeded that by nearly 50 innings, while knocking a run off his previous career ERA . I personally think the “new” Happ is real, the guy the Phillies expected when they made him a first round draft pick years back. But I’m not betting on another 20-win, Cy Young worthy campaign from him.

Marco Estrada, when healthy, is as unhittable as anyone in the AL. (That’s not just my opinion, he’s led AL starters in opponent batting average in 2016 and after the All Star break in ’15.) But his wonky back, which John Gibbons said had bothered him all year has to be a concern moving forward. Bad backs seldom get “good” all by themselves.

Francisco Liriano was a great addition and should be a decent, reliable 12-15 win, 180-210 inning sort of player. Which still leaves the youngsters in the rotation, Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman. I have no real worries about Sanchez – after all the hand-wringing and year-long story arc spun by the team and Toronto media about needing to send him out to pasture after the All Star break to prevent his arm from falling off, all he did was win the league ERA championship. Including the playoffs (a bat outing vs. Texas but a brilliant one and the team’s only win against Cleveland) he logged 203 innings and went 16-2. Even if he were to regress a little in ’17, he should be a reliable, above-average starter.

Less so Stroman though. He was by no means terrible this year; in fact at times he was outstanding. He was, however, not consistent at all and not nearly as intimidating to opponents as his younger self had been. His ERA jumped by over a run and perhaps more alarming, after giving up only 9 homers in 30 previous games, he allowed 21 this year in 32 starts. So it’s a bit of a crap-shoot as to which way he will go. A carbon copy of this year would still be enough to make him a valid #5 guy, but not an opening day pitcher by any means. A return to 14-15 form would be a huge lift for the team, but we can’t ignore entirely the possibility he might be the new Ricky Romero.

With all those factors, it’s clear the team needs another proven starter to pad the roster. They should extend an offer to return to RA Dickey (who’s turning 42 today- happy birthday to him!) but with an asterisk. His 15 losses this season were a career worst and his 4.46 ERA worst since ’09 when he was a reliever with the Twins. Nonetheless, he still gave over 160 innings and has averaged 206 per year in his time with the Jays. Knuckleballs don’t deteriorate as quickly as other pitches so it’s likely he could at least match his 2016 campaign next year.

The asterisk though, is that ideally he wouldn’t be a starter. He could follow Tim Wakefield’s arc in his late years with Boston, and be a bullpen arm that could deliver lots of innings in a blowout or extra-inning game and come through with a spot start or two should a regular wake up with a bad stomach. This would help the team, but wouldn’t warrant a $12.5M pay cheque like he’s been getting. At age 42, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Dickey choose to retire rather than take a 50% pay cut. But he probably won’t have to as while he might not make the grade as a starter with the team with the league’s best pitching, he’s plenty good enough to be a #3 or 4 starter with many teams that are thin on pitching . It’d be no surprise to see the Angels or Rangers offer him a pay raise to give stability to their rotation for one year.

That’s especially true given a fairly slim selection of free agent starting pitchers coming up. No David Price or Jon Lester this winter, the feeding frenzy will have to settle for trying for the likes of an Andrew Cashner or Ivan Nova. Which is the type of pitcher Toronto should try to add. doing so without increasing the budget significantly (even if we factor in the subtraction of Dickey’s money) will be a test of the Shapiro-Atkins office!

A quick look at the arms behind the outfield fence next time here…

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