The Blue Jays need starting pitching; there’s no questioning that. The rotation was decimated in a way never before seen in this organization, with three starters undergoing elbow surgery (two mid-season Tommy John’s, one offseason cleanup), one starter undergoing foot surgery that cut his year short, and another missing two months in the middle of the season with a severely strained oblique. Further complicating matters is the departure of Carlos Villanueva, who served admirably as a fill-in starter for the second half of the season, but is now a free agent.
Much of the focus has been on who the Blue Jays should target this offseason to sure up those holes. While that’s obviously important, another aspect is what the Blue Jays should target this offseason, and by that I mean the contracts. Toronto has one of the best farm systems in baseball when it comes to young pitching, and while they’re not yet knocking on the door, they are on their way. When debating what kind of commitments a team should make to talent outside the organization, they should first look at what’s in the pipeline. Think of it like grocery shopping; before going out and spending your money, it’s wise to look at what you currently have in the cupboard, and how long it might last you.
As you can see below, I’ve created a chart with seasons (split into spring and summer, representing roughly April and July) on the X-axis, and starting pitchers on the Y-axis. The only pitchers present are those currently in the organization who I feel have the potential to be above average starters in the American League East, and will establish themselves within the time restraints. Therefore, while Chad Jenkins and Deck McGuire (among others) could be viewed by some as MLB-ready contributors, I’m not of the belief they should be relied upon for more than spot starts at this point in time. The blue bars within the chart are representative of the timeline, between the beginning of 2013 and the end of 2016, in which the pitchers can or will be in the major leagues. For present major leaguers, such as Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero, it’s the years they are currently under contract, with the darkest blue representing an option year. For prospects, the timeline begins when, by my rough estimation, they’ll be ready to contribute in Toronto’s rotation.
As it stands, the Blue Jays currently have four pitchers with the potential to be above average starters available to start in spring training. That number increases to six in the summer, when Drew Hutchison and Kyle Drabek should be making their way back from Tommy John surgery. The pitcher pool grows to seven at the start of 2014, as Sean Nolin, who threw over 100 dominant innings between High-A and Double-A last year, should be major league ready. By mid-2014, the first wave of elite pitching prospects could be surfacing in Toronto, as Noah Syndergaard and Justin Nicolino should move quickly over the next season and a half. In 2015, the pitcher pool reaches its peak at ten names, as Aaron Sanchez and Roberto Osuna make their arrival, while Happ becomes eligible for free agency.
It’s obviously doubtful that all five prospects I mentioned will reach Toronto when I estimate, and even then, as we saw with Drabek and Alvarez over the past two years, there’s no guarantee they’ll live up to expectations when they do. If two or three of those five stick as above average major league starters, the organization will have done an excellent job of player development, and both front office and fan base alike should be jubilant. However, when you combine that prospect quintet with the established regulars and the trio that falls somewhere in between, the Blue Jays are in pretty good shape long term.
On the other hand, if this team wants to contend now, serious changes need to occur. Having just four potentially above average starters ready for the first three-to-four months of 2013 is woefully insufficient, particularly when you consider how poorly two of the four (Romero and Alvarez) pitched for a majority of 2012. Be it through free agency or trade, the Blue Jays need to find a high end pitcher. In the chart below, I’ve added “Pitcher A”, a new acquisition who is signed through at least 2016 (i.e. a four-plus year deal).
The immediate rotation is substantially improved, and the 2014 pitching staff has significantly more depth and versatility. Things begin to clog up in 2015, however, as even with Happ no longer in the organization, the number of potential major league starters balloons to 11. This shouldn’t be viewed as a negative, as while 11 pitchers for five spots seems precarious, the reality is, at least two or three of those pitchers are likely to suffer a serious arm injury at some point over the next three years. That’s just the way baseball is; there’s no way around it. But what happens if one of those arm injuries happens in the near future? I pray it doesn’t occur, and am knocking on wood as I write this, but what happens if Brandon Morrow were to suffer a season ending injury in May? For the next three months, you’d be resting your playoff hopes on the shoulders of Romero, “Pitcher A”, Happ, Alvarez, and Chad Jenkins. That’s an unsettling feeling, and is why “Pitcher B” enters the equation in the chart below.
Finding a good pitcher on a one year deal is easier than you might imagine. Names like Josh Johnson, Matt Garza, and even R.A. Dickey have been bantered about in trade talks, while someone like Dan Haren or Brandon McCarthy may seek a one year deal in free agency to re-establish their value. Whoever he is, “Pitcher B” considerably improves the 2013 rotation, pushing Henderson Alvarez to Triple-A as the invaluable sixth starter. In the second half, the starting pitcher pool has grown to eight names, which is exactly the type of depth a team needs if they hope to make a push for the postseason. The other added bonus to a acquiring a second pitcher on a one year deal is that in 2014, only Romero, Morrow, and “Pitcher A” would have guaranteed salaries. J.A. Happ is non-tenderable if he were to disappoint, while all of the young guys/prospects save Drabek have three options (he has two). Depth, controllability, and flexibility are three of the most important factors when building a pitching staff, and with the scenario I laid out above, the Blue Jays would have a nice balance of all three over the next four seasons.