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I Keep Making These To-Do Lists But Nothing Gets Crossed Out: Sign a Starter Edition?

Hi everyone.  This is the second in a series of posts about choices the Jays will be making going into the 2011 offseason.  Last time we covered what to do about the catcher position and whether the Jays should attempt to resign John Buck, which generated a great discussion.  This time we'll look at whether the Jays should consider reinforcements at the starting pitcher position. 

The Jays' starting pitching fared pretty well last season, certainly better than had been expected by most after losing ace Roy Halladay.  Their starters only ranked 9th in the AL in ERA (4.30), but they ranked 4th in FIP, 2nd in xFIP, 3rd in tERA, and 6th in K/BB, suggesting that they suffered from some bad luck (or bad relief pitching that allowed in a  lot of inherited runs).  And they finished 4th in the AL in terms of WAR from their starters, providing $59 million in value, very imperssive considering that they were each paid well less than $1 m (at least, until Ricky Romero signed his long-term deal).  So, it's not necessarily that there was a problem with 2010's starters. 

However, it is fair to say that 4 pitchers: Shaun Marcum, Ricky Romero, Brett Cecil, and Brandon Morrow, were responsible for a great majority of that value.  Romero (4 WAR)  finished the season with solid peripherals, excellent groundball numbers, and an ERA (3.73) right in line with more advanced stats like tRA (3.88) and xFIP (3.75).  He really came into his own as a big-league starter with a very strong sophomore season, and earned himself a long-term contract besides. 

Marcum (3.5 WAR) had even better strikeout and walk numbers (3.84 K/BB) but of course is no one's idea of a groundballer.  Still, he finished with very similar ERA (3.64) and advanced (3.77 tRA, 3.90 xFIP) numbers as well.  He's always been a favourite of mine, but even I could not have predicted such a resoundingly sucessful return from ligament replacement surgery.  He was as baffling to hitters as ever with his excellent changeup and his ability to throw any pitch for a strike in any count, and had his usual pinpoint control.

Brandon Morrow (3.7 WAR) had unbelievable strikeout numbers (almost 11 per 9 innings) but also walked more than any other Jays' starter (over 4 per 9) and plainly suffered from some miserable luck (4.49 ERA) -  though xFIP (3.63) doesn't suggest he was as luck as do tRA and FIP (3.17 and 3.16, respectively).  Still, no question his transition to being a full-time starter was a resounding success. 

Brett Cecil (2.5 WAR) got a bit of a delayed start due to a spring training finger injury sustained while cooking (as an enthusiastic amateur chef myself, I can certainly sympathize) but was not much less effective than the other three, putting up stingy walk numbers (2.81 per 9) that offset low K (6.10 K/9) totals and, if anything, getting a little unlucky (4.22 ERA as compared to a 4.03 FIP and a 4.06 tRA, though his xFIP was 4.32, so it looks like his bad luck was of the runners left on, not the long ball, variety).  Cecil established himself as a legitimate big league starter and the only question remaining is whether he will continue to improve or take a step back to average next season.  I think he can improve on his strikeout and groundball numbers while continuing to limit walks and get even better. 

After those four, though, there was a bit of a vacuum.  No one else posted more than 1/2 a win above replacement, largely because no one else made more than 12 starts (Marc Rzepczynski).  Zep started a bit shakily but finished fairly strongly, with a 3.90 ERA over 32 innings in September.  He walked too many in general though, and needs to cut down - while he has always posted solid K numbers and also has good groundball stuff, his K numbers aren't  of the Morrow type that he can afford to walk more than 4 batters per 9 innings and expect success, and walks plus groundballs that find holes = rallies. 

Other possible candidates:  Shawn Hill made a handfull of starts down the stretch and was okay - not bad and a great backup option, but not necessarily a guy you pencil into a rotation when you're trying to compete in the AL East.  Jesse Litsch struggled in his return from tommy john surgery and sustained a hip injury that really limited his time - he's a big question mark for 2011.  Scott Richmond is a solid fallback option but not exactly someone you're excited to have in your major league starting rotation, and the less said about Brian Tallet's starts the better.  Brad Mills was decent in AAA but hasn't challenged hitters at the major league level and for a pitcher of his type that's a tough sell. 

On the minor league front, Zach Stewart and Kyle Drabek enjoyed great seasons in AA, but only Drabek is a legit major-league option going into Spring of 2011.  Stewart will likely be ready for the majors at some point next season but is a converted closer and so is still building up his stamina and is at least a year away from being able to shoulder a full season workload starting at the major league level, if indeed his future is in starting.  Drabek, on the other hand, made three starts at the major league level in 2010 and didn't look overmatched at all (3.75 tRA, 4.08 FIP), though he didn't dominate either.  He got tons of grounders and was not afraid to challenge hitters.  Cito Gaston remarked after one of his starts that the Jays should have had him pitching at the major-league level all season, instead of the carousel of 5th starters they used.  It would appear that Drabek is ready to be a major league pitcher, and there's no time like the present. 

So, with all that said, isn't the Jays roation set?  Although it's been bandied about, is there any need for them to delve into the free agent or trade market for additional starting pitching? 

Well, the Jays were mostly unscathed by it this season, but injuries happen. With the Jays relatively thin at the high minors in terms of starting pitcher talent (assuming Stewart won't be ready, it's mostly Mills and the folks we've already mentioned along with a few other guys like Robert Ray), it might be worth securing a starter and having Drabek begin the season as the 6th starter.  Historically, the 6th starter makes as many starts over a season as the 5th starter so it's not really a demotion so much as a backup plan.  And of course pitching is always a valuable commodity so if the Jays can find a free agent bargain, they can always trade someone like Marcum for a very solid return.  Marcum, in particular, has been rumoured to be a potential trade piece for a while now, and with the Jays' organization strength on the mound, none of their young starters should be untouchable.

In terms of who would be on the market, there's of course Cliff Lee at the top, but he's not coming to Toronto.  After him, you have middling guys like Carl Pavano, Aaron Harang, Jorge De La Rosa, Kevin Millwood, Jon GarlandJake Westbrook, and Javier Vasquez - no thanks. 

In between those two groups you have Hiroki Kuroda, who doesn't have Lee's star power but has a solid record of major league success.  All Kuroda has done over his 3 major league seasons is pitch to a 3.52 tRA and 3.73 xFIP.  Kuroda has solid stuff (3.18 K/BB ratio over his mlb career) and induces a lot of groundballs (51%) which is very helpful in the AL East.  He'd likely be a solid addition but the question would be the price tag - Kuroda made over $15 million in 2010 and he had an excellent season.  I don't see the Jays ponying up that kind of money. 

Then a couple of injury reclamation-type projects like Erik Bedard (who missed all of 2010), Jeremy Bonderman (a full, but awful season in 2010 after missing virtually all of 2009), Jeff Francis (who made 19 not particularly successful starts after missing all of 2009), Brandon Webb (missed all of 2010, questionable for 2011), and Ben Sheets (who made 20 starts after missing all of 2009 but wasn't himself). For them it all depends on what kind of deal they'd come in on. 

Another option would be to sign a swingman type like southpaw Hisanori Takahashi, who made made 12 starts and 41 bullpen appearances last season for the Mets and was perfectly acceptable (3.61 ERA, 3.65 FIP, 3.45 tRA).  He could start the season in the bullpen if Drabek has a strong spring and the rest of the Jays' starters escape March unscathed, and switch to the rotation as necessary, or otherwise start the season in the rotation with Drabek waiting in the wings.  That'd be a relatively risk-free endeavor that would strenghten the bullpen while providing some depth in the rotation.  On the other hand, I don't think he'd necessarily be better as a starter than, say, a Brad Mills or a Marc Rzepczynski. 

What do you all think?  Stand pat rotation wise in 2011, sign a veteran starter to anchor a rotation that lucked out (injury-wise if not performance-wise) in 2010, or go the in-between route and sign an injury reclaimation or swingman?