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.
Phew! It was a white-knuckle kind of last week but at least the Blue Jays are in, and back-to-back wins in Fenway on this past October weekend help fade the memories of the dismal 11-16 September a little. Obviously we’d have loved to have seen a better September and a Jays division title (which would have, by the way, made this pundit 6 for 6 in picking the division winners back in spring training) but we’ll take what we get.
Looking forward to tomorrow night’s wild card game, things look favorable for Toronto. Fans will be loud and of course, both teams are better on home turf. Toronto was 46-35 at Rogers Centre; Baltimore 39-42 on the road. The only cloud on the horizon that worries me is the rumor that Toronto will go with Marcus Stroman for the winner-take-all game. This would clearly be a mistake. Francisco Liriano is the man for the job (given that JA Happ and Marco Estrada would be on short rest if called upon, therefore not ideal for the start.)
Yes, Stroman may end up being the ace of the staff down the road. yes, he’s feisty and has great promise. But he’s not shown himself capable of handling big-time pressure this year and in fact, has been rather redoubtable. To be fair, it’s not much of a stretch to say it was only Marcus’ second real year in the bigs, and at that point in their careers, Roy Halladay and Chris Carpenter didn’t look like much either. But here and now, Stroman has been a completely unreliable starter in 2016. With 204 innings logged, (46 more than he’d pitched in his whole big league career prior), it’s reasonable to think he might be a bit burned out, but then Aaron Sanchez has risen to the occasion with even less MLB experience. And Stroman hasn’t had a stretch of consistent good games at all this year. 9-10, 4.37 aren’t numbers that inspire confidence for a team that has to win a game; even less so his career numbers against Baltimore (2-3, 5.27, .298 opponents average.) Let’s not forget that Baltimore saw him last week, downing the Jays 4-0 in that game with Marcus giving up 9 hits and all 4 runs over 7 innings. The only positive would be to say that after not having a win at all in his last 7 outings, he should be due. But this seems a rather poor reason to risk the team’s season on him.
Liriano on the other hand, while posting so-so numbers on the year (8-13, 4.69) has been good with the Jays and of late, great. In his last four starts, he’s logged 24 2/3 innings with 26 K’s and only 4 earned runs, for a 1.46 ERA. His final start of the season, you may recall, he kept Baltimore off the board through 6 1/3 while striking out 10 (only to have the bullpen blow it but that’s another story.) And having pitched 163 or so innings this year, there’s no risk of him wearing out; the veteran has gone 160+ four previous years. Add in the fact that his career numbers against the Orioles are a bit better than Stroman’s (4.34 ERA vs 5.27, .273 opponent’s avg. vs .298) and the Orioles comparative difficulty hitting southpaws (well, compared to hitting righties like Stroman at least — the O’s hit .254 with a .709 OPS against left-handers, .266 with .758 against right-handers. As well they clipped homers at a one per 24 AB rate compared to one in 31 facing lefties.) and it should be a no-brainer.
Liriano goes on Tuesday and , thinking positive, the Jays will be set up to have Happ and Estrada pitch in Arlington later in the week. Sanchez could be the game 3 starter; Stroman should go to the bullpen to supplement a weakness there as could RA Dickey, who would add depth there should the team get locked into a lengthy extra-innings marathon.
Speaking of Dickey and that scenario, Josh Thole seems to make more sense as the back-up catcher than Dioner Navarro this post-season . Navarro in theory offers more pop with his bat, but hasn’t shown it this year (a meagre .182 avg with no extra base hits with Toronto in 16 games, not much different than Thole’s .169/1/7 line in 50) and Thole would at least be able to come in and catch that knuckleball should Dickey be brought in to toss more than one or two outs.
We’ll look at the rest of the post-season later in the week, with Toronto hopefully looking to see what’s new in Texas since the last time they saw those Rangers. If they are on the other hand,on the outside looking in because Marcus Stroman quickly dug them a hole they couldn’t climb out of on Tuesday night, we’ll likely be looking at the massive changes needed in team management on all levels, which will be a popular topic among fans I’m sure.
Nothing like being swept in the Bronx to take the air out of the party balloons, so we Jays fans aren’t feeling too swell today. Nevertheless, Toronto, as I write this hold onto a share of first place in the division and seem like a lock to make the playoffs again in consecutive years for the first time in over two decades. All is not lost, but watching the team sputter along lately hasn’t filled anyone with a lot of confidence in watching a parade down Yonge Street in November.
As a fan and critic, the irksome thing is it is hard to criticize the team. They seem to be giving it their all and not much John Gibbons has done is really open for a lot of second-guessing. That said, it does seem to me there are two things they could do that might help improve their chances of playing deep into October.
First, put Francisco Liriano into the starting rotation in place of Marcus Stroman. Stroman might be the future face of the franchise, but for now is a young, tired pitcher struggling. Although tagged with an “L” tonight against the Yanks , for which he can’t be faulted too badly (you can’t win if your team doesn’t score you any runs!), his season has been more full of ups and downs than a 3D topographical map of California. Before tonight he’s allowed 8 earned runs over 12 innings in his previous two outings, against light-hitting Minnesota and Tampa. His ERA at 4.55 is less than stellar and, for all the talk about the risk of Aaron Sanchez being fatigued, Stroman seems the more worn out. And little wonder, he’s logged 178 innings this season, well more than his previous career high at any level of baseball. Put him in the bullpen for now, let him log maybe 6-10 more innings in the regular season and then re-evaluate come October as to whether he’s the right man to be the #4 guy in the playoff rotation.
Meanwhile, the Jays went out and got journeyman starter Francisco Liriano at the trade deadline, why not let him start for now? His 4 starts with the team have been decent, going 1-1 with a 3.96 ERA and 23 K over 22 2/3 innings and he’s an innings-eater. By today’s standards at least. He’s pitched 150 or more innings every year since 2012, and posted a good 3.38 ERA over the past two years. A strong lefty to compliment JA Happ would be a good way to vary the rotation for the remaining three weeks and ease the burden on the bullpen in all likelihood. His two outings from the ‘pen so far have been half and half, a terrrible outing against Tampa paired with two good innings against the Yanks, but he’s not worked regularly out of the bullpen since 2006.
If the bullpen is still hurting for reliable southpaws, the team could always recall Chad Girodo who is not unknown in Toronto and was decent, albeit not remarkable (2-1, 3.79 in 29 appearances although allowing 45 hits in about 35 innings) with Buffalo this year.
Second, and looking at today’s boxscore, maybe Gibbons is one step ahead of me on this , stop batting Jose Bautista leadoff. Yes, we know the team lacks a Rickey Henderson-style prototypical leadoff hitter and yes, we know Jose is a good team player who will hit where he’s told. And that he walks a lot, making for a good on base, which might make him a good #1 hitter. But the experiment hasn’t worked. Even taking the injuries into account, Bautista is having his least effective year since 2009 and having him hit lead off hasn’t propeled the offence. While his 64 walks is more than respectable for the number of games played, his OPS of .793 is lowest in 7 years and his RBIs are down to one perh 6.2 at bats this year from one in 5 the past two years. And the reason seems clear- hitting leadoff in 40 games, he’s hitting .239 but has an .800 OPS and 22 RBI in 158 AB, or about one RBI per 7 at bats. Hitting his traditional third, he’s hitting only .227 but has an OPS of .844 and 28 RBI in 141 AB, or one per 5 at bats. No wonder. In situations with men in scoring position, clutch times, Bautista is right there where he’s always been, hitting .300 with a .430 on base and .543 slugging percentage. Bautista delivers in pressure, rBI situations, not with bases empty. Besides, his knee and foot problems coupled with his age have slowed him down somewhat so he’s not a base stealing threat anymore. Hit Kevin Pillar (disappointing .294 on base but 11 steals this year after 25 last year) or Melvin “BJ” Upton (25 steals this season) lead off and have Joey Bats bat third. Or maybe even fourth, as tonight…
Three more Liriano starts in place of Stroman, a fresh Stroman come ALDS time, and a handful more at bats with Jose Bautista hitting with men on base might not turn this team from adequate but not great (as they have been lately) to unstoppable, but might win one or two more close ones. and this season, one or two games looks like the difference between being the road team in the Wild Card game and being on home turf in the ALDS.