Glaring Weaknesses: Starting Pitching Edition

Smile Todd, you're in the big leagues. - Tom Szczerbowski

Never have so many been so disappointed by so few (quality starts)...

For the third and final part of my three part series on the glaring weakness on this team I will be taking a look at the meatiest topic of all: Starting pitching. As with the other two components of this mini-series, all internal and external options discussed as potential upgrades will be players under team control after this year who can help in the 2014-2015 window.

It's no secret that the Jays have had subpar starting pitching this year. Despite big ticket additions in the form of R.A Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson the team ranks 28th in the MLB in both ERA and FIP and that has been the single biggest problem for this franchise in 2013. With decent starting pitching the Blue Jays would probably be in the thick of the playoff race right now as opposed to buried in the AL East cellar. Even though all three of Dickey, Buehrle and Johnson will likely be better down the stretch than they've show so far, this is a team that is counting on Esmil Rogers to be a stabilizing the back end of the rotation and giving starts to Todd Redmond. Help is on the way in the form of Brandon Morrow and J.A. Happ but when that help will arrive and exactly how helpful it will be remains unclear. Morrow was awful when he was healthy and Happ is no savior. It goes without saying that upgrades are needed and the first place one might find them is internally.

Internal Options

Option #1: Marcus Stroman

There is some debate as to whether Stroman has a future as a starter but at this moment he is starting and looking pretty good doing it. He doesn't have a ton of professional innings under his belt, largely due to his suspension last August, but that doesn't seem to have stalled his progress. The 22 year old has been very good at AA so far in 2013 and is not very far from the big leagues. One would think a promotion to Buffalo would be on the horizon with Stroman posting a 10.51 K/9 and 3.26 ERA in New Hampshire so far. He has also demonstrated excellent command with a 2.17 BB/9 and the only real concern has been a 1.45 HR/9 rate that is a little bit scary. I would suspect that the HR's will come down though, especially given that 3 of the 8 he has given up this season were in his first 3 starts where he struggled to a 8.10 ERA. Arbitrary beginning point and small sample size warnings obviously go here, but in Stroman's last 7 starts since May 29th his numbers look like this:

IP

H

R

ER

HR

BB

K

ERA

FIP

39.2

26

11

9

5

9

45

2.04

3.25

Even though his FIP isn't unbelievable it's plenty good and in samples this small those HR's take a huge effect. Some say that Stroman won't hold up as a starter due to his small frame but the Jays need to keep him there as long at they can. As it stands there is a good chance he can help the team's rotation in the next two years.

Option #2: Drew Hutchison

Hutchison is still recovering from Tommy John surgery is unlikely to offer the Blue Jays much in 2013 but he could be a solid back of the rotation option once he has fully recovered. He also still has some upside given that he won't even be 23 until August. Hutchison isn't a power pitcher who will blow guys away consistently with a plus fastball but he's got good control and can get the odd strikeout as well. Hutchison never had an ERA above 3 at any stop in the minor leagues and twice posted FIP marks under 2 (although one was in less than 20 innings at AA so it doesn't really count). Looking at his stats from his 10 start appearance in Toronto he was better than I remembered with a respectable 7.52 K/9 and solid 3.07 BB/9, a number that could be even lower in the future given his track record of excellent command in the minors. His 4.60 ERA was inflated by home runs leaving the yard at a rate of 15.1%, a rate that is unlikely to be a career baseline. His xFIP was 4.03 and that number is probably more indicative of how he pitched. A guy who did that in the majors at 21 is a guy that is still worth being a little bit excited about even if he doesn't have an ace ceiling. Add in the fact that Tommy John recoveries are becoming more and more routine and there is plenty of reason to believe that Hutchison could be a contributor from 2014 on.

Toronto does have some promising internal possibilities, guys like Sean Nolin and Kyle Drabek weren't even mentioned here, but it never hurts to see if there are guys outside the organization who can help. That is easier said than done because it is very difficult to find pitchers who are under team control for more than just 2013 that might be available. Given that each team has five slots in their rotation they aren't exactly giving away good starters because everyone could use a good starter. As a result, the guys here are guys that might be available because they might be undervalued on the trade market.

External Options

Realistic Acquisition Possibility: Carlos Carrasco, Cleveland Indians

Carlos Carrasco was optioned to AAA by the Indians on Tuesday after putting up a 9.10 ERA, 4.71 K/9 and 4.08 BB/9 in six starts and 28.2 IP this season. There is no way to dress those numbers up, they are absolutely awful. His fielding independent numbers look slightly better but not by enough for me to find something to salvage in his statistics with Cleveland this year. However, Carrasco's numbers in Triple-A this year have been very good:

IP

H

R

ER

HR

BB

K

ERA

FIP

49.1

41

19

17

4

15

52

3.10

3.30

This lends some credence to the idea that he hasn't completely forgotten how to pitch coming off the Tommy John surgery he had in late 2011. In fact, that surgery has left a lingering effect that is part of what makes Carrasco interesting: increased velocity. Credit goes out to Mike Podhorzer at Rotographs who picked up on the situation with this piece back in April. At the moment Carrasco's average fastball velocity would be the 6th highest in the MLB if he had thrown enough innings. The following chart shows the league leaders in fastball velocity with Carrasco slotted in.

Pitcher

Average Fastball Velocity (mph)

Matt Harvey

95.7

Stephen Strasburg

95.4

Jeff Samardzija

94.9

Jose Fernandez

94.8

Wily Peralta

94.7

Carlos Carrasco

94.6

Jordan Zimmerman

93.8

Shelby Miller

93.6

Homer Bailey

93.5

Derek Holland

93.5

In case you are curious the next two pitchers on that list are Max Scherzer and Yu Darvish. Long story short, this is a list of great pitchers, except for Wily Peralta. Velocity is no guarantee of success, but it is highly correlated with success. Buck and Pat's daily rant about how velocity is irrelevant and all that matters is location is what one would call factually incorrect.

Now, some good Triple-A numbers and some extra juice on the fastball isn't enough to be completely confident in Carrasco's future success but it's pretty interesting. Add in the fact that the last thing to return after Tommy John for a pitcher is usually his command and we could see a pitcher that improves substantially when he pairs the return of his command with his newfound velocity. You are looking at a guy who would also be under team control through 2016 so if you bet on Carrasco and it worked out it would be a boon to the back end of the rotation for a while. A gamble on the 26 year old former top prospect might be an intriguing one. Given the three years of team control remaining and the fact that the Indians need pitching too this one might be trickier than the average reclamation project but I think Carrasco might just be available and he might just be at his lowest point of value right now.

Far Less Realistic Acquisition Possibility: Rick Porcello

Rick Porcello's 2013 season is a clinic in why the basic W-L and ERA numbers you see in the newspaper just are not enough to evaluate a pitcher. Porcello Is 6-6 with an ERA of 4.80, does that sound good to you? Good enough that you might not even be able to get him if you wanted him? Definitely not. However, there deeper you dig the better Rick Porcello looks. At age 25 it makes sense that he would take steps forward, he is younger than Kyle Drabek after all, but because he has already pitched so many innings in the big leagues there is a feeling that he has plateaued as an average innings eater. That feeling might not be true because in fact Porcello has been getting better and better in a lot of areas. The chart below shows Porcello's growth:

Year

K/9

BB/9

FIP

xFIP

WAR

2009

4.69

2.74

4.77

4.27

1.6

2010

4.65

2.10

4.31

4.24

1.8

2011

5.14

2.25

4.06

4.02

2.5

2012

5.46

2.27

3.91

3.89

2.9

2013

7.25

1.74

3.53

3.09

1.8 (so far)

Porcello is becoming better in a lot of meaningful ways. The fact he has started striking out batters at a respectable rate this year is the most significant development. These gains are sustained by increased curveball usage and abandoning his poor slider which has led to a career high swinging strike rate. Porcello also has a career high 57.3 ground ball rate this year which can't hurt matters. His xFIP of 3.09 is 7th best in the entire league between Chris Sale and Cliff Lee. To me that indicates that his ERA is being inflated by a ridiculous HR/FB rate and in fact 15.7% of fly balls off Porcello are leaving the yard, the 6th highest total in the league and well above his 11.7% career rate. His high career HR/FB and BABIP against probably signals that Porcello is a bit more hittable than one would like and he may never live up to his fielding independent pitching numbers but given that those are elite he can fall short of them and still be a very effective pitcher. His combination of respectable strikeout totals and strong ability to create ground balls would also play pretty well in a hitter's park like the Rogers Centre. He has two more years of arbitration eligibility and is already making 5.1 million dollars so he might get expensive, but he also might be worth it.

The Detroit Tigers are going for it this year so I don't see them parting with Porcello without a significant return but they do have Drew Smyly waiting in the wings. There were rumours that they were shopping Porcello before the season so perhaps they don't think that highly of the 25 year old. They also have a need for relief pitching which the Blue Jays have in spades so maybe it wouldn't be impossible to make something work. It still seems fairly unlikely though.

The Blue Jays' starting pitching staff is not quite as bad as it appears at this moment in time but it could definitely use some reinforcements. Internal solutions are probably the most likely fix here as it's not easy to find quality starters on the trade market or free agency and it's almost impossible to find ones that are even remotely reasonably priced. For now we can grit our teeth through Todd Redmond starts until some of the walking wounded return to the fold.

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