The state of the Blue Jays starting rotation and where it goes from here
The 2018 season saw the Toronto Blue Jays get starts from 14 different pitchers. Of that group, only rookie starter Ryan Borucki (3.87) and reliever Tyler Clippard (3.67) finished with an ERA below 4.00, with no others — J.A. Happ as the exception— surpassing 2 fWAR. The only one that came close was Borucki (1.7 WAR), who arrived at the total in less than 100 innings pitched, and Marcus Stroman (1.5 WAR); a former building block that dealt with separate shoulder and finger issues.
Not to say the Blue Jays would have contended had their pitching been better, but it’s hard to come to a different conclusion. Blue Jays hitters were above average for most of 2018, ending the campaign with 101 wRC+ and a respectable .319 wOBA — good for a top-15 finish in each category. Another positive was the club’s home run totals. The Blue Jays slugged 217 of them, just under the previous season totals from 2017 and 2016 that saw the team finish with 221 and 222 home runs, respectively.
It’s not surprising, then, that general manager Ross Atkins has stressed acquiring pitching this offseason.
“Over the next year, it will be (a priority),” Atkins told reporters a few weeks ago.
“We have a strong core of position players, a lot of middle-infield depth. We have some interesting pieces on our major-league team that we’ll have to consider if there’s a way to turn that into more controllable pitching.”
Last winter, Atkins and the organization focused on improving the team’s lack of depth across the diamond — specifically the middle infield and corner outfield. It resulted in the separate acquisitions of Aledmys Diaz, Yangervis Solarte and Randal Grichuk, followed by the signing of Curtis Granderson. Jaime Garcia was the lone starter brought in by the club, and we all know how that turned out. Sam Gaviglio was acquired in mid to late March and, despite mixed results, was a rotation mainstay for most of the year.
Of course, it’s hard to chastise Blue Jays starters considering a few dealt with some crippling and lousy luck. Aaron Sanchez and Stroman were both forced out of action for a prolonged period. Coupled with Marco Estrada, who looked nothing like the Estrada of old, and the failed experiment of Joe Biagini as a starter, the Blue Jays were forced to call upon their prospects; a group including Sean Reid-Foley, Thomas Pannone and Borucki. So, it’s more than safe to say that Toronto’s Achilles heel was its pitching depth.
The trade front
I first saw this suggested on Twitter, and it’s floated around quite a bit ever since. Colorado Rockies right-hander Jon Gray, whom I chose as one of my breakout players to watch ahead of the season, is one pitcher the Blue Jays would be wise to keep an eye on this winter.
After struggling in his final four regular season starts, Gray was left off the Rockies postseason roster by manager Bud Black. Despite a solid month of July that saw Gray post a 1.66 ERA and 17 strikeouts in three starts, he never really found his footing. He was even demoted to Triple-A at one point. Pitching in Coors Fields tends to inflate stats, but Gray performed a bit better at home (4.91 ERA, 100 strikeouts and 13 home runs allowed in 16 starts) than on the road (5.34 ERA, 83 strikeouts and 14 home runs allowed in 15 starts).
This past season aside, Gray is precisely the type of pitcher the Blue Jays should target. He’ll be 27 in November, but there isn’t a ton of wear on his arm as Gray has pitched an average of 123 innings per-year since entering the league in 2015. He’s also a strikeout machine with a good, live fastball that regularly touches 96 mph.
Gray’s rank among NL starters with 450 IP or more (2015–2018)
On top of his high strikeout totals, Gray has induced more ground balls (a combined 48.2 percent in each of the past few years). Furthermore, Gray’s xwOBA has outperformed his wOBA every year since he entered the league, good for a career average of .306 xwOBA. In general, his expected stats have been widely positive, meaning there might be another level to be reached.
Gray also fits the bill of controllable pitching. He’s arbitration eligible for the first time this winter and is projected to earn approximately $3.2 million in his next deal, per MLB Trade Rumors’ arbitration projections. That makes him as good of a trade target as any pitcher the Blue Jays will consider in the coming months. Helping matters is Toronto’s infield depth. With DJ Lemahieu set to hit the open market, the Rockies might be attracted to one of Diaz, Devon Travis, Solarte and, in a less likely scenario, Brandon Drury.
It would be the perfect buy-low acquisition for the Blue Jays, providing Gray with a change of scenery.
Other possible trade targets: Sonny Gray (NYY), Brad Peacock (HOU), Zach Eflin (PHI)
Who’s in, and who’s out?
Despite some suggestions that the Blue Jays would be better off parting ways with one of Sanchez and Stroman — or perhaps both — I don’t see why they would sell low on two guys coming off mediocre seasons. The Blue Jays have options here. Stroman is only a year removed from back-to-back 200-plus inning campaigns, in which he pitched as one of the most effective starters in baseball. If he regains that form, the Blue Jays can then decide whether or not to keep or trade him, the latter being most likely.
Sanchez, on the other hand, is in a tougher spot. After a nagging blister cost him virtually all of 2017, a separate injury to his finger derailed his stock — and performance — once again this year. The walks are still a significant concern, and his strikeout totals aren’t much to write home about, either. Unless a team comes calling with an offer Atkins can’t refuse, the Blue Jays will stick by Sanchez, hoping all these issues will disappear in 2019. The upside as a starter is still there, but time is running out.
With Estrada set to become a free agent, the only locks are Stroman and Sanchez. Gaviglio and Borucki are two others with an upper hand at rotation spots, but it’s fair to assume Atkins will look at adding at least two, or three new arms. If that were to come to fruition, it would give Reid-Foley and Pannone the chance to log more innings in Buffalo.
Free agents that might be of interest
There aren’t many big-ticket starters hitting free agency this winter, and even if there were, the Blue Jays wouldn’t be in pursuit of them, anyway.
Similar to what the front office did last season with the bullpen, Atkins is likely going to be patient and wait it out before pouncing on a guy. Patrick Corbin, Dallas Keuchel and to a lesser extent, Nate Eovaldi, are the headliners, meaning the Blue Jays aren’t likely to pursue them based solely on asking price. Instead, let’s look at some veteran arms that could be in the mix, starting with CC Sabathia.
The big man was linked to the Blue Jays last year, leading Atkins to uncharacteristically open up about the club’s interest in signing him (he’s a professional, damn it!). Sabathia has done a remarkable job pitching into his late 30’s, and even though the years of 200-plus strikeouts are far behind him, he’s a lock for 150 innings. There’s value in that, especially for a rebuilding team like Toronto, and for all of you that love the clubhouse leader attribute, look no further than Sabathia. He’d also fit what the Blue Jays want regarding contract length and would be a trade candidate at the deadline.
Trevor Cahill and Lance Lynn are two others that appear to make some sense. After a few years of ineptitude, Cahill pitched well this past season in Oakland but was horrendous away from his home ballpark. Even with his struggles on the road, Cahill — who has built a reputation as a ground ball pitcher — was one hell of a bargain for the A’s. He could very well be swayed elsewhere for more money, but the Blue Jays might be able to get him on a two-year deal, at best.
Lynn, who is coming off a one-year, $12-million deal with Minnesota, will likely settle for a similar type of contract. The righty was terrible with the Twins but then salvaged his season after being traded to the Yankees. His K/9 rose from 8.8 with the Twins to 10.1 in New York, while his BB/9 saw a drastic drop from 5.5 to 2.1, respectively.
Lynn’s K/9 and WAR per season
Best case scenario for the Blue Jays would be other teams going hard after the marquee names, leaving Lynn as a potential bargain for the front office. For the sake of it, let’s say the Blue Jays can trade for Gray and sign Sabathia and Lynn to short-term deals. The starting rotation would look something like this come Opening Day.
Though not overpowering by any stretch, that has the making of a reliable and cost-efficient five-man rotation. It would also enable the new additions to build value in hopes of getting traded to a contender, and take some weight off Stroman and Sanchez as they look to rebound. Borucki and Gaviglio would be some much-needed depth behind them and could slot into the equation later in the season, and after the trade deadline.
Other potential free-agent targets: Hyun Jin-Ryu (LAD), J.A. Happ (NYY), Charlie Morton (HOU)
Statistics courtesy: FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Statcast