This is the seventh part of a series of posts on the keys to the Toronto Blue Jays 2010 season. Part I, where we introduced and laid out all the keys, is here. Part II, in which we discussed the importance of Kyle Drabek's continued emergence as a future ace, is here. Part III, which focused on growth of Aaron Hill and Adam Lind, is here. Part IV centered on the continued contributions from Ricky Romero and can be found here. focused on the importance of a bounce-back season from Vernon Wells and is here. Part VI, which centered on Brett Wallace's development in Las Vegas and, eventually, Toronto, can be found here. Today, we'll be discussing two young Jays lefties, Marc Rzepczynski and Brett Cecil.
6. Marc Rzepczynski / Brett Cecil -- If both of them prove that they can be league average starters in the major leagues at ages 24 and 23, respectively, this team should have a solid basis for the rotation for years to come. The one big hurdle left for Rzep is to learn to finish off hitters. If Cecil can locate his change a bit better, the walks to righties should come down drastically. If both can keep hitters over the top of the ball, Alex Gonzalez and Aaron Hill should be pretty busy.
Marc Rzepczynski (or Rzep, or Scrabble, but thankfully not Milton Bradley) was drafted in the fifth round of the 2007 draft out of UC Riverside and finished out the season strongly at Auburn (though he was quite old for the level). In 2008 and 2009, Rzep moved quickly through the minors on the strength of his groundball-inducing ability and knack for missing bats, pitching strongly in Lansing in '08 and baffling AA hitters at New Hampshire in '09 (10.3 K/9 over 14 starts) before getting a couple of good starts at Las Vegas en route to Toronto, where he pitched well for the Jays (3.70 xFIP over 11 starts). Brett Cecil was drafted as a sandwich pick the same year and, although he's almost a year younger, actually moved through the minors even more quickly. Cecil pitched his way into AAA by late-summer 2008 and earned a callup to the big leagues at just 22 years old last May. There are many similarities between the two southpaws but there are some key differences as well.
Cecil is an interesting case, as he was a closer at the University of Maryland before being drafted. The Jays always saw him as a starter longterm (otherwise they wouldn't have used a sandwich pick on him) and he was immediately put into the rotation at Auburn, where he shined. The Jays have been slowly acclimating his arm to starting and the young lefty pitched a total of 142 1/3 innings last year (49 for Las Vegas and 93 1/3 for Toronto), so, barring any setbacks, he should be good to throw somewhere in the range of 160 - 170 in 2010. Superficially, Cecil's line (7-4, 5.30 ERA) last season was nothing special, but Cecil was just 22 years old, pitching in baseball's hardest division and was actually dealing with some bad luck (4.68 xFIP) to boot.
On the heels of an excellent spring (in which Cecil did all he could to win a spot in the rotation), he started 2010 well at Las Vegas before a Brian Tallet injury got him called back up. In 2010 so far, Cecil has had a couple of excellent starts, a couple of okay ones and an absolute clunker his last time out. Over 5 starts, Cecil's pitched 28 innings, struck out 26 and walked just nine. If there's been one real hole in Cecil's arsenal thus far, it's been his tendency to give up fly-balls (45.7 FB% vs. just 38.3 GB%). This shouldn't worry us too much as, throughout the minors, Cecil's burned worms, inducing grounders more than 60% of the time.
Cecil's importance to the Jays is more long-term than immediate, but that should not discredit any contributions he makes in 2010, which we should really look at as gravy. Cecil may not be at his peak yet, but he does seem to be ready to make some positive contributions to a Blue Jays team that's started the season in a way that even the most optimistic of us would agree is surprisingly well. I see no reason that Cecil should be sent back down to AAA and if I had to venture a prediction for what I'd like to see him do over the course of the season, I'd say that I'd be more than satisfied if he can maintain his current strikeout- and walk-rates (8.36 K/9, 2.89 BB/9) over 150 or so innings, but I would like to see that two-seamer and his slider start to induce a few more grounders (47% GB-rate). In fact, I wouldn't mind seeing the strikeouts fall a bit if he can start getting them to pound it into the ground with a bit more frequency. I'd also like to see him rely on his change-up a little more against righties, who gave him some trouble last season.
Rzepczynski also had a strong spring and actually earned a spot in the starting rotation but broke his middle finger (I bet he must get some funny looks with the splint on) before getting the chance to reap its rewards. No worries, though, as a broken finger shouldn't really affect him much once its healed properly, so he should be as good as ever. And Rzep was quite good for the Jays in 2009, striking out 60 and walking 30, while still inducing grounders 51.2% of the time over 61 1/3 innings with the big league club.
The one knock on Rzep, of course, is his inability to pitch deep into games. Efficiency is not the man's strongest point, as he didn't make it through more than 6 1/3 innings in any of his 11 starts last year. On the other hand, he did manage to pitch six innings or more in eight of those 11, so what he lacks in efficiency he makes up for to a certain extent in consistency. Walking his share of batters is going to happen with guys like Rzep because his best pitch, the slider, moves so much that it can be difficult for him to keep it in the strike zone at times. This doesn't mean that it wouldn't be nice to see him cut down on the walks some, but just that there's probably only so much he can do to cut them down without forfeiting some of what's made him so effective thus far. Like Cecil, Rzep has had some issues with walking righthanded batters, but in the minors he did an excellent job keeping the ball on the ground when they did hit it (62.1% GB-rate vs. Righties; 53.5% GB-rate vs. Lefties).
I don't think it's unreasonable to look for Rzepczynski to get a little deeper into ballgames and pitch between 140 and 150 innings (including minor league work) on the season. It won't be easy for him to maintain his excellent K-rate from last year if he's going to try and keep the ball in the zone more, but I'd like to see him repeat it while cutting his walk-rate from 4.4 BB/9 to somewhere around 3.8 BB/9. Even if he can't keep the strikeout-rate up, if he can get through seven innings with any regularity, that would be some real progress. With the number of strikeouts he accrues and his ability to get hitters to roll over on that slider, peripherals like those should make him an extremely effective pitcher.