With just two games remaining in the 2009 season, Toronto Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi was sacked. He had one year left on his contract, but after the Blue Jays failed to finish higher than third for the third consecutive campaign, enough was enough; the man had been in charge since the 2001-2002 offseason. Alex Anthopoulos, the assistant general manager under Ricciardi, took over for his old boss on the same day, and is still in that position today.
While finding replacing Ricciardi's replacement was as quick as a trip to the office next door, overhauling the pitching staff he left behind has taken a few years. That slow evolution is part of the reason the Jays still haven't threatened the standard bearers atop the American League East. Anthopoulos isn't completely done with that transition yet, but thanks to the combined efforts of his three years on the job, the Jays finally have a rotation with more of their current general manager's fingerprints on it than those of Ricciardi.
Back in 2010, four-fifths of the rotation were inherited from Ricciardi. Shaun Marcum, returned from the Tommy John surgery that cost him his 2009, was drafted in the third round of the 2003 draft, Ricciardi's second as Toronto's GM. Ricky Romero was the Jays' first-round selection in 2006. Brett Cecil went in the sandwich-round of the 2008 draft. Mark Rzepczynski was picked in the same year, in the fifth.
What Anthopoulos brought to the table was Brandon Morrow, a 25-year-old right-hander with wicked stuff and a history of shoulder issues. Morrow was taking Roy Halladay's place in the rotation in a way, as Anthopoulos had dealt his ace to the Phillies in exchange for Travis d'Arnaud, Kyle Drabek, and Michael Taylor. While he wouldn't replace Halladay's production, Morrow stayed off of the disabled list despite shoulder soreness in the spring, and struck out just under 11 batters per nine.
The 2011 staff would lean a bit more Anthopoulos, but that wasn't necessarily a positive. Morrow returned, but spent time on the disabled list. Despite leading the American League in strikeout rate, the 26-year-old right-hander posted a 4.72 ERA in another season that looked prettier than it actually was. Drabek made his major-league debut, and finished fifth on the team in starts, but the 23-year-old was terrible. Between a 6.06 ERA, more walks than strikeouts, and a budding home run issue despite extreme ground ball rates, it wasn't a productive 78 innings for the rookie hurler. Last, you had Jo-Jo Reyes, acquired along with Yunel Escobar in a mid-season trade the year prior. Reyes ended up tied for third on the team in starts, and the only reason he wasn't the Jays' worst regular starter is because Drabek existed.
Romero inexplicably succeeded, posting a 146 ERA+ despite a seeming inability to defeat anything resembling a productive lineup; in the AL East, that's a problem, a concept his 2012 would later reinforce. Cecil, the remaining vestige of Ricciardi's reign in the rotation, was as uninspiring as Morrow, except without the strikeout rates to make you think more good stuff could be on the way.
Injuries played a part in this rotation's issues -- 12 different pitchers would make starts -- but there was little that went right whether they had been brought on board by Anthopoulos (Drabek, Reyes, Carlos Villanueva), or were leftover from the previous regime, whether they were supposed to start or were considered backups. Part of this was by design, in a way -- once again, Anthopoulos had used the off-season to unload the club's top starter for prospects. This time around, it was Marcum, whose value was at its zenith after a successful 2010 following major surgery. This isn't to blame Anthopoulos for the deal -- after all, he received Brett Lawrie in return -- but to remind that there are consequences to taking these sorts of risks.
The 2012 season was something of a cage match between which group-- Ricciardi's or Anthopoulos's --could be more disappointing. Henderson Alvarez and Drew Hutchison, holdovers from Ricciardi's minor-league system, received more significant roles than they had in the past. Hutchison made 11 below-average starts before heading under the knife for Tommy John, and Alvarez, while throwing 187 innings, reminded everyone watching each start that he lacks a full repertoire or any ability to miss bats. Romero gave back all of the luck he had in 2011 and then some by posting a 5.77 ERA over 32 starts. His control and command vanished, and that's a significant problem in any division, never mind one with three playoff contenders in it, not to mention a Red Sox club that was still able to hit until they unloaded the roster before the season's final month.
Not to be outdone, Anthopoulos' squad of Drabek, Morrow, and Villanueva brought their own issues to the table. Drabek had a shinier ERA this time around, but he walked the same number of batters that he struck out, and then underwent his own Tommy John procedure. Morrow cut back on the strikeouts, a move that coincided with giving up fewer walks. While that was a positive, and he finally produced at a level that his stuff suggested he could, he was able to do so for just 21 starts thanks to spending 64 games on the DL with an oblique strain. Villanueva was useful enough in relief, but as a starter, he threw 92 innings of below-average ball.
Once again, 12 different starters took the mound for the Jays. Once again, just one of the regulars was an above-average pitcher. Former manager John Farrell took a lot of heat on his way out of town from those who expected the former pitching coach to work magic on the pitching staff, but he was only a manager, not Albus Dumbledore. There aren't enough smoke and mirrors in Canada to disguise how poor Toronto's starters were, and no matter who was in charge of the pitchers or the roster, that wasn't going to change.
That's where this current offseason comes in. First, what went out: Anthopoulos sent Alvarez packing in a trade. While still on the Jays, they now don't have to rely on the returns of Drabek or Hutchison, and can hypothetically send them to the minors to continue to work on their game instead when they do come back. The only remnants of the past are Morrow, who, healthy or no, is a good pitcher to have around, and Romero, who was too awful to be moved anywhere. These two have some new friends, though, better ones, even, thanks to the most-active off-season of Anthopoulos's young career.
Rather than trade his top pitcher this time around, Anthopoulos brought in new ones. First, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle came to Toronto in the deal that sent Alvarez to Miami. Buehrle is a mid-rotation arm at best at this stage of his career, but the Jays have been lacking that of late, unless you've already forgotten about Aaron Laffey finishing fourth on last season's team in starts. Johnson makes a dangerous combination with Morrow in more ways than one, in that he could be one of the game's better pitchers at any time, but could also spend half the season on the disabled list. There's upside there where there has not been before, though, when Toronto just pushed young arms through their system and expected them to thrive in the trenches that make up the AL East.
By itself, that's not hugely impressive, even if it's bold -- Johnson, Morrow, Romero, and Buehrle represent far too much potential to go wrong without the right fifth starter in tow. That's what makes the trade for R.A. Dickey so important -- he's a true anchor for this staff, lessening the burden on both Morrow and Johnson to a degree, and keeping someone like J.A. Happ around for depth, rather than as the fifth starter on the Opening Day roster. Dickey has averaged 206 innings over the last three years, whereas no Jay starter reached that figure in 2012, and only Romero has hit it at all over the last three seasons. Not to mention that Dickey won a Cy Young in 2012 and has been about 30 percent better-than-average over the last three years.