When the Blue Jays' season starts on April 3rd Marcus Stroman will most likely be getting his first opening day start. After Stroman the next three games will most likely be started by RA Dickey, Marco Estrada, and JA Happ in some order. This is a group that while not flashy is expected to be able to get the job done in front of what should be the most powerful lineup in all of baseball once again. The question for the Jays is who will get the job of being the fifth starter. Very rarely do we get to see true position battles in spring training. But, this might be as close as we get this year from the Blue Jays.
At the end of 2015 the Jays had a serious problem coming into 2016. Stroman, Dickey, and Hutch were the only pitchers under contract for 2016 who had significant MLB experience. However, this offseason Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins did a good job of filling the organization with depth at the starting pitching position. While they didn't add any top line starter they did resign Marco Estrada and picked up JA Happ for his second stint with the Jays. They were also able to refill a minor league system that was pretty barren following 2015. The Jays acquired 24 pitchers this offseason through trades, free agency, and waivers. Estrada and Copeland were technically resigned, and they traded Liam Hendricks to acquire Chavez so that's a total of +21 pitchers and 22 pitchers new to the Jays organization. Admittedly, most were minor league contracts and probably won't see time in Toronto, but I don't believe you can ever have too much pitching. But, a few of these guys will be in a position to help the big league club this year.
The addition of depth is important as the Jays don't have a clear fifth starter. This spring we will see a variety of guys get the opportunity to battle for that last spot as there are currently 13 potential starters in spring training besides the four mentioned above. Steamer projections has the four of them starting a total of 117 games. This would leave roughly 45 games that will need another starter. It's also possible to minimize the fifth starter early on by utilizing off days and just have pitchers pitch every 5 days. This means less starts for the fifth starter and allows younger guys to start in the minors to see who's looking sharp. That would still leave 3 starts in the April and this isn't a long term solution as it can run up IP in a hurry. The bottom line the Jays are going to need a guy or group of guys to fill the fifth starter job this season. Here's the breakdown of the top candidates for the job.
The Front Runners:
Drew Hutchison- The ideal scenario for the Jays would be for the 25 year old to finally be able to put it all together and be the pitcher they think he can be. Hutch got the opening day start for the Jays in 2015 and pitched well enough to pick up the win. From there, the season was one of ups and downs for the young right hander. He did put together a record of 13-5 last year despite an ERA of 5.57. His xFIP of 4.21 is much better and might mean that last year he was the recipient of some bad luck. The fifth starter job is probably Hutchison's to lose. The Jays are probably hoping that Hutch can be the fifth starter allowing Chavez and Sanchez to pitch in the pen. This is by far the strongest configuration for the bullpen. If Hutchison doesn't win the job expect him to start the year in Buffalo so he can make regular starts.
Jesse Chavez- Chavez was acquired for Liam Hendricks this offseason . Chavez's value lies in his ability to both start and pitch out of the bullpen. Over the course of Chavez's career he has made over 200 appearances out of the bullpen, but over the last two season he has started 47 games. Chavez is a middle of the road pitcher and the Jays are most likely counting on him to be the long man in the pen and make the occasional start. Chavez will be the contingency plan as the fifth starter if no one else rises to the occasion. He's posted back to back quality seasons and is a relatively known commodity.
Aaron Sanchez- Sanchez might be the most interesting name on this list as much of what determines his role this season is based on other guys. Sanchez has started the last two season as a starter until eventually being moved to the bullpen both times. He's clearly been more effective out of the pen and been a huge piece for the Jays as the bullpen has been shaky over the last two seasons. Some believe that Sanchez's repertoire lends itself to him spending his career in the bullpen anyway. But, the franchise still wants to see Sanchez become a starter and thinks that his future is in the rotation. With the addition of Storen that could strengthen the back end of the pen enough to allow Sanchez to have a shot at the starting job. However, if anyone else proves to be pitching well enough to fill the role, or the bullpen falters, this could push Sanchez back into the bullpen.
Joe Biagini- Biagini was claimed from the San Francisco Giants back in December during the rule 5 draft. He's a big right-hander who relies mostly on inducing groundballs. He's got a fastball that sits in the low 90's and a decent curve and change. Biagini broke out in 2015 as he went 10-7 and posted a 2.42 ERA at double-A. His FIP of 3.35 suggests this number could be a little deceiving. Biagini is only 25 and has never pitched above AA, nevertheless, since he was picked up during the rule 5 draft he needs to spend the season on the Jays 25 man roster or be offered back to San Francisco. The Jays have only a few options with Biagini. A) Keep him on as the fifth starter or in the bullpen. B) Offer him back to the Giants for $25,000. Or C) make a trade with the Giants in order to be able to send him down. Biagini has the makings of a guy who could be a back end starter but the reality is he probably isn't ready yet.
Gavin Floyd- Floyd was signed to a contract on February 6th. Floyd was once a big part of the White Sox rotation. From 2008 to 2012 Floyd made 153 starts. While he was never great, he consistently turned in quality performances while pitching a lot of innings. However, over the last three season Floyd has only made 14 starts and only pitched 92 innings at the big league level. Floyd spent most of 2015 injured and didn't return to big league action until September. Over the last month Floyd made 7 relief appearances where he pitched 13.1 innings. The interesting thing about Floyd is that his contract was for the major league roster. Floyd figures to be in a position to compete for the fifth spot but will most likely spend the year working out of the bullpen providing depth for the rotation and a veteran middle reliever.
Roberto Hernandez- Hernandez was signed over the offseason to a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training. Hernandez was once thought to be a pitcher on the rise. Back in 2007 he finished 4th in the AL Cy Young voting at the age of 23. Although, this was back when he was Fausto Carmona. It was later reported he was three years older than he admitted and that his real name is Roberto Hernandez. Since that magical 2007 season Hernandez has struggled. Hernandez hasn't posted an ERA under 4 since 2010 and in 2015 he only made 11 starts. At 35 years old Hernandez's best days are behind him. The Jays acquired Hernandez mostly to fill out the Buffalo roster and provide insurance for the big league club. Hernandez also doesn't have a spot on the 40 man roster so getting to Toronto will certainly be an uphill battle for him. Hernandez will get a look in Spring Training but if he finds his way onto the big league roster then something has went seriously wrong for the Jays.
Brad Penny- Penny probably has little to no chance of ever seeing Toronto in a Jays uniform. Penny is simply a body to fill out the Buffalo pitching staff. The reason the 37 year old makes the list is his track record of playing for winning franchises and his ability to put the ball on the ground. Penny made 24 starts for triple-A, Charlotte, in 2015. During his time in the minors Penny posted a 3.86 FIP and a GO/AO ratio of 1.98. Penny has always had the ability to put the ball on the ground. This plays well to a Jays team that boasts one of the best defensive infields in baseball to start the season. Penny is a non-roster invitee to Spring Training in 2016, so the odds of him making the big league roster are slim. But, any guy who whose won 120+ games and is going into his 21st season of professional ball is worth at least mentioning.
Roberto Osuna- From the very old to the very young. Osuna's name appearing on this list may be a bit of a surprise to many. But, Osuna is still viewed as a starter long term and in my personal opinion his ceiling as a starter is much higher than Aaron Sanchez's. Osuna was invited to Spring Training in 2015 at only 20 years old. This was supposed to be simply a chance to see what the big leagues are like before he went back to the minors (probably Dunedin). However, Osuna and Miguel Castro pitched so well that the organization couldn't not let them start the season with the big club. Again, it was assumed that these two would return to pitching like 20 year olds and be sent back down after the team had utilized their hot streaks. For Osuna this never happened and Osuna was one of the best relievers in all of baseball last year. Osuna pitched 69.2 innings for the Jays in 2015 during which converted 20 of his 23 save opportunities and posted an ERA of 2.58.
While many know about Osuna's powerful fastball, many don't realize that Osuna has a deep arsenal that contains 4 good pitches. The downside to Osuna is whether his other pitches are up to the task of MLB hitters and his durability. Osuna only pitched 69.2 innings in 2015, the year before he spent most of the season recovering from Tommy John. 2015 was the first time Osuna topped 45 innings since he began professional ball (including his time in the Mexican league). While the franchise does expect Osuna to be a cornerstone of it's rotation someday it's yet to be determined if Osuna will even get the opportunity to be a starter in 2016 as he's most likely in a position battle with Storen for the team's closer. If Osuna does get to start at any point this year he will most likely be on the "Aaron Sanchez" plan to limit his innings growth and will be in the bullpen come September.
Other Non-Roster Invitees:
Taylor Cole-26- spent 2015 at double-A where he went 7-10 in 28 GS and compiled an ERA of 4.06 in 164 IP.
Scott Copeland-28- spent most of 2015 in Buffalo where he won 11 games while posting an ERA of 2.95 in 125 IP.
Scott Diamond-29- a Canadian signing as he spent 2015 in AAA going 11-6 with a 3.71 ERA in 25 GS.
Conner Greene-20- one of the Jays top prospects, the invite is simply a chance to see the big league camp.
Wade LeBlanc-31- played 2015 in Japan where he was disappointing to say the least.
2016 will probably see a wealth of guys get a chance to start for Toronto. But, the chance to get the distinction of being a part of the opening day roster and getting to be the fifth starter is a nice thing to have. The Jays will have no shortage of guys competing for that job in Spring Training this year.