It took a few days but today the Blue Jays announced what we heard rumors of last week, that they’d signed veteran pitcher Bud Norris, to go along with one time Red Sox star Clay Bucholz. As I’ve made it clear here through the winter, I’m not that much of a fan of the team’s current direction under the command of Ross Atkins, but I’ll give credit where it’s due… and he’s due some credit for these pickups. His patience in waiting out the free agent market could pay dividends with this pair of right-handers, and at a fairly affordable rate. Bucholz is reportedly signed on for a less than league average $3M or so for the season and Norris the same if he makes the team (which everyone expects although he’s only on a minor league guaranteed deal thus far.)
It certainly improves the Blue Jays pitching staff for ’19. Bucholz has never seemed to quite live up to his potential but has been a pretty decent starter through the decade. He had career high 29 starts and 189 innings back in 2012, when he was 11-8 but with a rather high 4.56 ERA. The next year he put it all together with the Red Sox, going 12-1 with a brilliant 1.74 ERA, one of two All Star seasons for him. Back then he was something of a power pitcher, averaging 95MPH on his fastball. By last year that had dropped off to a below average 90MPH, but he compensated well with an expanded repetoire of pitches and good control, going a very solid 7-2 in his first year with Arizona. His 2.01 ERA was less than half the league average and his K to BB ratio was excellent (81 : 22). He was good for a 3.2 WAR over 16 starts, but there’s the rub- he went on the DL with elbow problems in September, a problem that’s plagued him throughout his career. He visited the disabled list 7 times in his first 9 years with Boston. But he’s apparently feeling good this spring and should be a solid #3 starter for the team. If they can get even 16 starts of the quality he showed last year, it’ll be a win for the Jays… if he can manage to get back up to the 2012 durability… he could be the bargain of the year.
Hope springs eternal in, err, spring, but there is reason to hope that the Blue Jays rotation could be quite good this year. It now shapes up to be Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Bucholz, Matt Shoemaker and Clayton Richard. All but Bucholz have made decent appearances already in Florida; Ryan Borucki, last year the team’s best rookie, has made 3 starts already but has been battling control. Ironically, his problem seems to be that he muscled up over the winter and the one time Mark Buehrle clone, a slow-tossing control pitcher, is throwing 95 and not having good control over the strike zone. If that doesn’t change soon, a re-visit to the minors might be worthwhile for him and now that wouldn’t necessarily leave a gaping hole in the rotation. Sanchez in particular seems to have been looking good in the limited appearances thus far, reminding people that in 2016 he led the league in ERA and got some Cy Young votes.
Of course, things could go south easily and quickly. Stroman could run into recurrent blister problems like he had last season or have some sort of meltdown with management; Sanchez could have recurrent blister problems like he had two years back; Richard and Shoemaker may not have fully recovered from last year’s physical woes and Bucholz’ elbow could give out for good. The five combined last year for just 89 starts with their respective teams. But the prospects look a lot better than they did around Christmas, when the projected rotation was Stroman, Sanchez who was iffy, Borucki and two minor leaguers to be determined later. All things being equal, the Jays rotation could be middle of the pack.
Norris is another veteran, expected to shore up the bullpen considerably. The 34 year old started his career as a starter and had some decentish years with baltimore but has recently converted to a reliever, with career high 60 games in ’17 and 64 last year, when he was a late addition to the Cardinals but quickly became their closer, nabbing 28 saves out of 33 chances with better than a strikeout per inning and an OK 3.59 ERA. Although ESPN noted he comes in with a little bit of a reputation as a redneck, which may not play out well in liberal Ontario, as of now he’s a clean slate and has the right mindset, namely “I want to be a lockdown reliever at the back end of the game and get big outs.” Which is about all that can be asked from him. Combined with Ken Giles the Jays should be pretty solid in the 8th and 9th. Add in reliable Ryan Tepera, lefty Tim Mayza and probably John Axford, perhaps David Phelps and a couple of a list including Danny Barnes, Justin Shafer (who was excellent last year with 15 saves and a 1.41 ERA in a part season at AAA Buffalo) Mark Leiter Jr. or Joe Biagini and the ‘pen could be a strength. Thus far, in very limited samples,all have looked reasonably good except Phelps who is yet to have pitched, working his way back from Tommy John surgery in ’17 (and from all accounts won’t be making the opening day roster).
Toronto is unlikely to have a Cy Young winner in 2019 or be confused with the Red Sox or Indians pitching staffs, but could be middle of the pack – which would be a massive improvement from last year’s 4.85 ERA, 12th best in the AL and 27th overall. Prognosis … well, we’ll get to that a little later in spring but let’s say the team could finish better than the disappointing 73 wins of last year. But unless they can get into the Central division somehow before the end of March, let’s not book any time off in October to watch playoff games this year.