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2008 Keys to Success, Part II - 5th Starter

For Part I of this series, focusing on Vernon Wells, click here .

With Doc Halladay, AJ Burnett, Dustin McGowan, and Shaun Marcum set to fill the 1-4 slots in the Blue Jays starting rotation, and all four looking like good bets to provide better than average production as compared to other pitchers around the league in their respective rotation slots, the only non-health question mark regarding the Jays' starting rotation rests in the 5th slot. As the Jays learned 2 seasons ago, it's very important to have a decent fifth starter. If the Jays get good production out of the 5th spot this season, they could end up with one of the best 2 or 3 starting staffs in the league. Of course, the bullpen also sees a huge boost when the starting rotation is effective and stable 1-5.

Assuming that the Jays don't pick up another starter on the trade market or via free agency, it looks like the three leading candidates for the Jays 5th starter job are Gustavo Chacin, Casey Janssen, and Jesse Litsch.

Chacin is the only one of the 3 to have started last season in the Jays rotation, but he did not last long. The 27-year old southpaw had mysterious arm issues that limited him to only 5 starts last season. He was limited to 17 starts in 2006, so it's not at all clear that he'll be healthy enough to man a rotation spot this season. Chacin pretty much came up out of nowhere to have a great rookie season in 2005, going 12-9 with a 3.72 ERA in the tough AL East. However, his peripherals have never been good (career 1.57 K/BB, 1.22 HR/9, 1.38 WHIP), and his lack of success since 2005 calls into question whether 2005 was a flash in the pan.

Chacin's best pitches are his cut fastball, which he learned prior to the 2004 season, his breakout season in the minors and a two-seam fastball that, prior to his injury issues at least, got into the low 90s. Both pitches have lots of movement and, combined with Chacin's somewhat deceptive delivery, keep hitters off balance when they're working. Chacin doesn't strike out a lot of batters, and unlike our other two candidates, doesn't really generate a lot of groundballs, which means he doesn't stand to benefit as much as Janssen or Litsch from the Jays excellent infield defense. What Chacin would bring to the table is the fact that unlike the Jays 1-4 starters and both Janssen and Litsch, Gustavo throws from the left side and so would give the Jays rotation a bit of a different look.

Interestingly, Chone, Bill James, ZIPS, and Marcel all think Chacin will have a better season than I would myself forecast, though only ZIPS has him projected at more than 100 innings. Here are the 4 2008 projections:

Projection      GS  IP     W-L   ERA   K/9   BB/9    K/BB   HR/9   WHIP    FIP
James           15  85    4-6   4.66   5.08   3.18   1.60   1.27   1.44   5.11
Chone           --  97    ---   4.92   5.10   3.25   1.57   1.30   1.47   5.15
Marcel          --  82    6-4   4.61   5.71   3.40   1.68   1.21   1.41   4.96
ZIPS            26  143  8-10   4.73   4.78   3.52   1.36   1.01   1.51   ---

As you can see, none of the projection systems expect Gustavo to repeat his strong 2005. None project him to be too awful, but his peripherals look weak throughout, with Chacin walking too many and/or not striking out enough, and only ZIPS expects Chacin to effectively limit the HRs. With limited effectiveness combined with what appears to be a good chance that Chacin will miss at least 1/2 the season, the Jays would be better suited to use Chacin in the rotation only if there is a sound and ready-to-go backup option, or, really, to use Chacin himself as the backup option.

Jesse Litsch was called up directly from AA last season when Doc Halladay had an emergency appendectomy. Litsch, who will be 23 this March, was performing brilliantly in AA and continued doing so in his first start with the Jays, where he beat the Orioles with an amazing 8 1/3 inning, 1 run performance. Litsch made 2 other starts but was not effective and was particularly ineffective at striking batters out. He was sent back to Syracuse when Doc returned, and pitched very effectively there, dominating his two starts. Litsch rejoined the Jays when A.J. Burnett experienced some arm problems, and pitched great through the end of the season, finishing the year with an impressive 3.81 ERA and 7 wins. As such, Litsch is expected to have something of an inside track heading into spring training on the 5th starters job. Our job is to determine whether Litsch's success is replicable and whether he's really the best candidate for the job, or whether he was lucky and isn't ready to be an MLB starter.

Litsch, who is Mrs. Hugo's favorite Jay, features a sinking fastball between 88 and 92 mph as his bread-and-butter pitch, but also throws an effective slider and a decent changeup. When Litsch is working effectively, he keeps all his pitches down in the zone, and his stuff, especially the sinker, generates a ton of groundballs. Without further adeiu, let's look at his projections for 2008:

Projection        GS  IP   W-L   ERA    K/9   BB/9    K/BB    HR/9   WHIP    FIP
James           26  148   7-9    4.38   5.59   2.49   2.24   1.09   1.37   4.57
Chone           --  146   ---    5.05   5.30   3.08   1.72   1.23   1.49   4.99
Marcel          --  115   7-8    4.15   5.40   2.97   1.82   1.02   1.34   4.62
ZIPS            31  187  13-12   4.43   4.43   1.73   2.56   1.16   1.30   ---

As you can see, while no one expects Litsch to be quite as excellent as he was last season, most projections have Litsch as an above-average starter for next season (ZIPS has the average starter projected at a 4.73 ERA.) 3 of the 4 projections have Litsch in the low 4s, which would be an excellent performance out of the 5th starter spot.

There are a couple of reasons for the favorable projections for Litsch. While he has struggled to strike MLB batters out, he walked less than 3 batters per 9 innings last season, which is a very very impressive feat for a 22-year old rookie. His walk numbers in the minors were fantastic, so projectors don't see that as a fluke at all. And everyone expects him to increase his K numbers quite a bit so that most have Litsch above or near the 2/1 K/BB numbers that many folks feel is essential for a starter to have MLB success.

Next, Litsch had a nice 48% groundball rate last season, which dovetails really nicely with the Jays excellent infield defense. Dan Symborski, the ZIPS projector, mentioned that his excellent projection for Litsch is based in part on Toronto's defense - in fact, he graded Litsch down since the Eckstein acquisition (he originally had him under 4!) but mentioned that Litsch still stands to benefit quite a bit from Toronto's still excellent infield defense.

The bottom line on Litsch is that it is very impressive for a 22-year old to come into the AL East and hold his own, as Litsch did last season. I think Litsch has a future as a capable MLB pitcher - he doesn't beat himself, generates groundballs, and attacks the strike zone. Plenty of pitchers, though, have trouble duplicating their success in their second season, so it might be a good idea to keep Litsch as a backup plan, either in AAA or in the MLB bullpen. Many folks have shown that a 6th starter is basically as important as a team's 4 and 5 starters, so having a good option ready for the inevitable missed starts and injuries is a great idea. Not such a good idea, though, that it justifies starting inferior pitchers, as we did last season with Zambrano and Ohka, just to hold him back. If the Jays are going to compete this season, they can't give games away by using other than the best they have.

Finally, Casey Janssen had a great season last year for Toronto out of the bullpen. After a tough MLB debut in 2006 where Janssen looked great at first but then struggled with back troubles and inconsistency, Tek had a great 2007 spring, made the MLB bullpen, and never looked back. Casey served most of the season as the Jays primary set-up man, and did a great job in the role, appearing in 70 games and posting a sparkling 2.35 ERA. He didn't strike out many (4.83/9 IP) suggesting that the bullpen may not be the best long-term role for him, but he walked even fewer (2.48/9 IP) and generated more Ks as the season progressed. J.P. recently reiterated that he is definitely giving Tek a chance to win a spot in the rotation, depending on how closer B.J. Ryan's recovery from ligament replacement surgery is going.

Casey's repertoire really seems to suggest he should be a starter, with one caveat. Casey, a UCLA grad, throws a fastball in the low 90s, a curve, a low/mid 80s changeup, a low 80s slider, and a high 80s cutter. Tek's fastball has a lot of downward motion and the name of his game is control. He didn't really use all of his pitches last season pitching out of the pen, but they're all solid pitches and are good enough to help him as an MLB starter. The one caveat I mentioned is that Tek's fastball seemed to gain a little something extra last season out of the bullpen, as he could reach back a little more knowing that he was only out for an inning or two.

Tek will be 26 this season and J.P. has mentioned several times that he still seems him as a starter in the long term. I would agree, at least to the extent that he has enough potential as a starter that he should at some point get a chance in that role. As I argued last season , if he can be successful in the role, a starting role is usually a better leveraging of a pitcher's ability than a relief role. With the Jays poised to have a tremendous bullpen this season (assuming B.J. is back and healthy) with Ryan, Accardo, Downs, Tallet, Wolfe, and perhaps League, and an open spot in the rotation where perhaps the best alternative is a 23-year old, maybe this should be the season that Tek gets his chance?

I haven't been able to find any projections for Janssen as a starter (if you have one, let me know), but it's worth noting that the projection systems don't agree on where he will be as a reliever. James and Marcel have Tek in the low 4s for ERA, while CHONE (which doesn't specify starts or relief outings) has him with a 4.64 ERA in 97 innings. And ZIPS has got Tek with a 3.04 ERA over 80 relief innings! The disagreement is based on a few simple factors: ZIPS expects Tek to continue to do a fantastic job limiting walks and HRs, which is a recipe for success even with a low K rate when you factor in Tek's groundball tendencies. The other projectors agree, to varying extents, but don't also think that Tek will be so successful in the future at limiting hits.

A 4/5 pitch pitcher with a low K rate isn't really ideal for a high-leverage short relief role. Because Tek pitches to contact, it can be riskier to bring him in with runners on. But he is even more of a groundball-generator than Litsch (51.2% career in MLB) so he's even more poised to take advantage of the Jays infield defense. Janssen's control is impeccable and he has tons of experience in high-leverage situations from last season, so it's hard to go wrong with him. I suspect he'll be successful in whatever role in which he's placed.

Okay, now for the conclusions. Assuming that all three pitchers and B.J. Ryan have good springs, I would go with Janssen to start the season in the role, with Chacin (who has one option remaining) and Litsch either at AAA or in the bullpen. I like Litsch but I'm not sure if he's completely ready, so I'd use him as the 6th starter, and I've never really been a believer in Chacin, who's peripherals are not encouraging and who hasn't pitched a full season since 2005. With Doc - A.J. - Dustin - Marcum - Janssen, we have the makings of a fantastic rotation, and a solid consistent rotation will make the bullpen that much more effective. What do y'all think?