The Toronto front office has spent most of the winter slowly raising the team’s floor and giving the everyday lineup some badly needed flexibility and depth. First, they found some appealing Troy Tulowitzki and Devon Travis injury insurance in Aledmys Diaz and Yangervis Solarte. Then they addressed the outfield by grabbing Randal Grichuk and Curtis Granderson. These moves should provide John Gibbons not only more competitive lineups if guys start hitting the DL, but also a better bench throughout the season.
However, if the plan is to raise the floor for the 2018 season, the remaining area that really needs addressing is the bottom of the rotation. Since the start of the 2016 season, the Jays have leaned heavily on four guys in their rotation: Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ. That worked out really great in 2016 when the quartet made a combined 123 starts and pitched their tails off to average a 3.51 ERA between the group. For more detail on that, here’s a table which shows the stats of every Blue Jay that started a game in 2016:
The key here is that the list is short. The Jays were very lucky with injuries (or lack thereof) in 2016 and only needed seven pitchers to get through the entire season. Five guys made 152 of the starts, and it could have been more of that if they weren’t playing a shell game down the stretch with Aaron Sanchez’s starts trying to limit his innings. The team was able to flex its middle of the rotation muscle with a third and fourth starter about as good as you’ll find anywhere in the league, but didn’t have to dig into its long rotation depth where the talent drops off a cliff.
Compare that to this table which shows all of the starters Toronto had to use in 2017:
Here, the big four only made 99 starts, and it was effectively less than that from a production standpoint because Estrada went into a mid season funk and the eight starts Aaron Sanchez did make were hardly Aaron Sanchez like. Either way, this created a massive increase in the number of games the Blue Jays had to send someone less than ideal to the mound who wasn’t part of their big four, and look at the disastrous numbers they put up. The Jays must avoid this carousel of ineffectiveness in 2018 if they want to play meaningful baseball in September. There’s just so many games on that table that were thrown away by about the third inning.
But here’s the scary part. If we’re being completely honest with ourselves, the big four are probably more likely to make something closer to the 99 starts they made in 2017 rather than the 123 starts they made in 2016. Estrada and Happ are both in their mid thirties now, and Sanchez’s durability has to be considered a huge question mark until he proves he’s over this blister thing.
This is a rotation that has the potential to be one of the best in the AL if everything goes right, but also a repeat of the very shallow mess we saw in 2017 if a few things go wrong. For this reason, the Jays really need to address the bottom of the rotation before opening day.
Right now, there’s four pretty high end pitchers sitting out on the free agent market in Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb, and the longer the off season progress, the more I’m convinced that the Jays need to grab one of these four guys.
Here’s a list of some of the reasons why:
1) As noted above, the Jays need another arm behind their big four. Last year, they had to send somebody not named Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Marco Estrada or J.A. Happ to the mound 63 times. That’s up dramatically from the 39 times that happened in 2016, and as you can see from the table above, that really doesn’t work out for this team based on what they currently have available. They need to cut down on the games where their starter is likely to get bombed.
2) There is a massive drop off in the available starting pitching talent pool beyond these four guys. I don’t even know who I’d argue as the fifth best starter on the market right now. Andrew Cashner who posted a strike out rate that screams he’s going to come crashing back to Earth in 2018? Jaime Garcia who feels well past his prime? Jeremy Hellickson who’s coming off the worst season of his career? The pickings are slim. Good luck trying to find the guy who’s inexplicably going to have a great year out of that group.
3) Trading for a starter won’t be easy. The front office rightly doesn’t want to give up prospects, and any idea of moving someone like Pillar for a starter now that the outfield is deeper becomes problematic with Milwaukee having a deeper outfield and the same starting pitching need.
4) There’s no immediate help coming from the farm. Despite some exciting starting pitching prospects in the lower minors like Nate Pearson and T.J. Zeuch, they’re not going to help the Jays in 2018. Last year was a very disappointing year for the starting pitching prospects close to the majors; specifically Conner Greene (who’s already been dealt to the Cardinals in the Grichuk deal) and Sean Reid-Foley, who posted a 5.09 ERA in New Hampshire and couldn’t keep the ball in the yard. With the minor league starting pitching well running dry the last couple of seasons, the Jays have put themselves in a position where they’re likely going to need to get some help externally to bridge the gap here.
5) Both Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ are going to be free agents after 2018, so your’re going to need more starting pitching going forward anyway. Both guys have a great relationship with the club, so you’d have a good chance to re-sign them, but both guys are also aging and we don’t know what their situations are going to look like in nine months. One thing is for sure though; the Jays won’t be as desperate next off season if they add a reliable starter to their mix now on a multiyear deal.
6) The Jays are currently projected to be the sixth best team in the AL by Fangraphs at 84 wins. The talent left out there on the market is as valuable to them as it is any other team as each win gives them a pretty solid percentage bump as far as chances to make the playoffs are concerned.
Perhaps it would be different if the front office didn’t already acquire Solarte, Diaz, Granderson and Grichuk and wanted to commit most all of the resources to 2019 and beyond, but this is a group that’s clearly trying to build something for this year, so you really can’t make the moves they’ve made and then leave this glaring hole at the bottom of the rotation. Odds are that one of the Yankees, Red Sox or Angels will have a disappointing season and stumble below 88 wins, and the Blue Jays would be wise now to put themselves in a position where they can take advantage of that.
7) It’s good for business. The Jays led the AL in attendance the last two seasons and have generally picked up a huge, young fanbase since the 2015 run. Knowing this, adding one of the four starting pitching prizes on the market right now could prove to be a worthwhile investment in keeping this group around. Not only does that type of signing increase the chances of the Jays playing entertaining games down the stretch this year (which will keep the audience happy), but I think it also presents an opportunity to make the general experience of going to games at Rogers Centre more pleasant.
Think about this for a second. What’s the worst type of game to attend? It’s when you draw a terrible starting pitcher for your team, they get hammered early, and then there’s low leverage relievers throwing the rest of the night to mop up the mess. You spend all that money to go to the game - maybe even take your whole family - and you get a night with no drama late, and the home team getting crushed. This is exactly the type of game we’re trying to eliminate by reducing the number of starts made by pitchers outside of Toronto’s big four. The easiest way to do that is to sign a guy who can make their rotation the big five. If you do that, fewer fans who buy tickets to games in 2018 will get that awful experience at the ballpark we saw way too much of in 2017. That alone means some of the investment will pay for itself long term. (Let me stress SOME. All of these pitchers will cost a pretty penny, and this will only put a dent in whatever contract they sign.)
The front office is in a weird spot now. They’ve already improved the position side of things and reportedly were interested in CC Sabathia before he went back to the Yankees, but they seemed to want to do their repairs this winter on the cheap without committing any long term assets. However, they’ve now reached a point where there’s such an enormous gap between the top four starting pitchers left on the market and everybody else, that they’re kind of in a box.
If the front office does go out and get one of those guys, they have to commit big money beyond 2018, so they better be right and not end up with a bunch of dead money on the books during the early Vlad / Bo years. However, if they don’t go out and get one of the free agent prizes, they’re seriously asking for a repeat of 2017 as far as the rotation is concerned. Most every other option out there feels like trying to patch a hole with bubble gum and duct tape.
This feels like a risk the Jays have to take to avoid an incomplete off season. It’s not ideal, but if they don’t get one of these arms, where else are they going to find an acceptable bottom of the rotation piece by April? The moment of truth is coming.