As the majority of you who are Blue Jays fans know by now, Dustin McGowan signed an extension with the Blue Jays earlier this week. There was a collective head-scratch from armchair analysts across the nation, and I’ll count myself among those who weren’t sure what the front office was thinking. It was covered fairly well here, so I won’t add anything extra to that.
One line of thought I pursued after hearing about the extension wasn’t what it meant for Dustin McGowan, but what it meant for rotation hopeful Brett Cecil. It doesn’t change a lot for him this year, but it’s certainly something he should take note of, given his status on the team currently. Though it feels like he’s been around the Blue Jays for some time, he’s still only 25 years old. Having a few years’ history with Toronto, the team still isn’t sure what to make of him. While this is natural for a young pitcher, it’s been hard for fans to see the peak of Brett Cecil. What is he capable of?
Cecil’s been with the Toronto Blue Jays for parts of three years now, with mixed results. His best year was 2010, where he finished with a 15-7 record and a 4.22 ERA in 28 starts. Expectations were higher in 2011, but Cecil struggled to a 4-11 record with a 4.73 ERA. The record was as much a function of luck as anything, though Cecil did allow a higher slugging percentage in 2011, which contributed to the rise in ERA. His best game was a complete game shutout against the Rangers in July 2011, where he allowed four hits and walked two, striking out seven. Very good? Absolutely. Has he shown he can be that dominant regularly? I wouldn’t go that far. Looking at his game log, these performances are few and far between. Some of this is a young pitcher developing, but we haven’t seen too high a ceiling. Cecil had been assured a rotation spot going into 2011, but after that year, it’s understandable that the Jays would want to see what he had.
Early reports out of spring training for the Blue Jays had Cecil as being in “the best shape of his life”. Though we can take that cliche with an appropriately sized grain of salt, it can only be a positive for the young pitcher coming off an up and down season last year with Toronto. The better shape he’s in, the better a chance he’d pitch well, and secure one of the rotation spots for the Blue Jays that are up in the air.
Other reports were less positive: Cecil’s velocity was down, with his fastball somewhere in the 87-89 mph range, which would probably be fine if he were a senior in high school and pondering whether he should go to Maryland, but less ideal when facing major league hitters.
There are several schools of thought to consult here. One is that it’s less about velocity and more about changing speeds, and movement on pitches. This is a solid argument- there are several examples throughout major league history of pitchers who were effective with that approach. The Braves made a living off painting the corners throughout the 90s with pitchers like Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux. If someone has a fastball that’s 100 mph, and straight as an arrow, major league hitters WILL hit it.
That said, if you’re given the choice between two equally competent pitchers in terms of stuff/location/command, and one of them is 5 mph faster on average, major league teams will take the guy with the heat. Additionally, if you don’t have that velocity, you need to have better command.
With these in mind, can Cecil be successful with less velocity? Has he shown the control necessary to be more than a league-average pitcher? Thus far in his major league career, his control has been problematic at times, showing a BB rate of 3.1 per nine innings. He’s never been a strikeout pitcher, spotting a low K rate of 6.3/9 over his career. Though he’s had some success this spring (before getting tarred and feathered to the tune of 5 runs over 2 and 2/3 innings last Friday), we know that spring stats aren’t necessarily the best indicator of future performance.
Cecil has several arbitration years remaining (information on Cot’s Contracts was unclear as to his 2012 contract amount, he was pre-arbitration in 2011), whereas McGowan was eligible for free agency at the end of the year, so certainly the Blue Jays braintrust had more urgency to lock up McGowan, who was a pending free agent- if they believed he was a sure thing to produce well in a rotation spot. Do they think that of Cecil? It doesn’t seem like it- and given Cecil’s production so far, it’s hard to blame them.
There’s an irony in McGowan’s foot injury almost assuring Cecil of a spot in the opening day rotation (Hopefully the Jays aren’t moved to keep perpetual junkballer Aaron Laffey in the unfortunate Jo-Jo Reyes/Dana Eveland tradition). With Cecil’s reduced velocity, his inconsistent showing thus far, and a bevy of talented young pitchers knocking on the door, this was already something of a make-or-break year for the Jays’ young left hander. Adding the McGowan extension to the mix makes it even more interesting.