Vlad Jr., Doesn’t Pitch However

It’s been an exciting week for Blue Jays fans… with patience. For the first time in some years, it seems like Toronto really has some major talent in the minor league system which could bode very well for the big league Jays in two or three years. The same week his dad was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was ranked by Major League Baseball as the third best prospect in all of baseball and the flat out best hitting prospect. Earlier this winter they’d declared him the best Third Base prospect and suggested he could be “the next Miguel Cabrera”. There’s reason for optimism- not only was his dad a terrific hitter through his career, Jr. managed to have a .425 on base pct. in his first full year of the minors and took more walks than strikeouts, nowadays a rarity even among hitters a decade older than his 18 years.

Furthermore, Bo Bichette is poised to also make a mark before too long in the Jays infield; he’s ranked as the third best Shortstop prospect and among the 20 best overall ,largely thanks to his league-leading .362 average at A-level. Add in Anthony Alford in the outfield (who we saw for a few games last year at Rogers’ Centre) and the team seems well-poised to have a competitive hitting crew to supplement the likes of Randal Grichuk (and Josh Donaldson, Justin Smoak should they stick around.)

What is also clear though, is that the franchise’s strength isn’t pitching. None of the junior Jays merited much notice of any kind in the roundup of best young players, and beyond Marcus Stroman and the blister-troubled Aaron Sanchez, there’s not much to be optimistic about in way of long-term starting. Maybe Sanchez has overcome those blisters. Maybe Ryan Tepera, an under-rated reliever the past couple of years, will convince the team to let his start and maybe he will be as reliable in that role. Maybe Joe Biagini will mature and be less of a roller-coaster ride as a starter. That’s a lot of “maybes” for a team who hope to contend.

The Blue Jays have addressed some of the weaknesses in their hitting roster this off-season. Now is the time for them to address the pitching. And, I think, the timing couldn’t be better. It’s obvious that whether it’s owners’ collusion, a non-competitive “cancer” as described by agent Scott Boras or just a conservative approach to spending because of so many poor deals through the past few years, there’s not been a lot of activity in the free agent market. Which means that there are still pitchers aplenty available , some of whom will be anxious to have a job lined up by the time training camps open in two weeks. Toronto could use at least one good starter, and a reliable lefty for the bullpen. They have options open.

For starters, the starters… While it seems Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta are holding out for 9-digit, set-for-life deals, not too far down from there are some solid pitchers attracting less attention. Alex Cobb , nee of Tampa, has been much-mentioned in connection to Toronto, but I like big Lance Lynn better. Lynn, who’ll be 31 this spring has been a model of consistency with the Cardinals (and would know a couple of players here already given the off-season trades). He’s 72-47, 3.38 on his career and bounced back from Tommy John surgery in late 2015 to be 11-8, 3.43 over 186 innings last year. Except for the lost 2016 season while he recovered, he’s always had 30+ starts, at least 175 innings and 150+ strikeouts every season while keeping his ERA below 4, year-in, year-out. Granted, the NL Central is more conducive to pitchers success than the AL East, but the powerful rightie would also benefit from better run support here. He’d give Toronto a strong #2A/2B/2C set of starters with Estrada and Happ behind Stroman and given general histories of pitchers overcoming tommy John, might just be coming into his real prime right now. Given that he’s ranked below the likes of Cobb and Arrieta, and looking at some of the free agent signings so far (like CC Sabathia at $10M for one year and Michael Pineda for $10M over two) it’s not unreasonable to suggest something in the range of a 4 year, $40-50M deal. The Jays could look at that as just the savings they got by signing Jose Bautista-clone Curtis Granderson instead of Bautista himself.

Should Lynn be a no-go, another decent arm to look at would be Andrew Cashner. Cashner rebounded from a terrible 2016 (5-11, 5.25 with two teams and a -.7 WAR) to be quite good in his first year in the AL. He was 11-11, 3.40 in 167 innings with his homestate Rangers. His WAR jumped to a +4.6 and although his Ks were low (only 86 or about one every other inning), his 93 mph fastball was decent and a bit faster than the league average. Also at 31, he too might be available in the range of no more than $10M per year (ideally a little under that) for 3 or 4 years.

Either of these guys might give Toronto a much more competitive rotation for ’18 and leave a little cash over for a southpaw reliever and perhaps a longshot restoration project. In the latter category, someone like Brett Anderson – who finished the season here – comes to mind. He’s left-handed, will only turn 30 this week and while merely adequate here in ’17 (2-2, 5.13 in 7 starts), he’s only 2 years removed from a 10 win, 181 inning, 3.69 ERA season with LA. If no other team is knocking down his door, they could do far worse than re-sign him to a minor league deal or a smallish deal with the big league team and hope for the best.

Now the tricky part- a good lefty reliever to go along with Aaron Loup et al. A problem because, well, there just really aren’t any out there as free agents. The best option, Zach Duke, quickly signed with Minnesota. Therefore, it would seem the best choice would be to look to sign up a left-handed starting pitcher who may not get work doing that. Former Jay Francisco Liriano would be ideal, while here he was versatile going between the ‘pen and rotation as needed, and a decent enough arm. The aforementioned Anderson also is an idea, with him being switched exclusively to bullpen duty, or there’s Wade Miley waiting for his phone to ring. Miley’s career started out OK in Arizona, but he’s struggled as a starter in the AL for the past 3 years. Last year he was a rather ugly 8-15, 5.61 while giving up 25 homers and walking 93 in 157 innings for Baltimore. One glimmer of hope for him, though, was that he held his own against LH hitters. Against them he allowed just one home run, and kept them to a .230 average. His rate of groundballs off them was also double that of righties, noteworthy in a division where balls tend to fly out of the parks easily. Miley might be worth rebooting as a left-handed specialist reliever , and given the state of the market and his 2017 campaign, might do so without breaking the bank for Rogers’ and their Blue Jays.

Patience is a virtue, it’s true, but so too is it good to strike while the iron’s hot. Toronto have been patient this off-season, but now is the time to do something about the pitching while the iron is hot – and the opportunities plenty.

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