Lately the Toronto Blue Jays organization has been lauded for its pitching depth. Established veterans such as R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle will attempt to lead the young core of Marcus Stroman, Drew Hutchison, and Aaron Sanchez to the team’s first playoff birth in over 20 years. Beyond that a deep pool of prospects including Daniel Norris, Sean Nolin, Roberto Osuna, and Jeff Hoffman, could potentially provide quality reinforcements for many years to come. Although it is easy to take such depth forgranted, it is important to remember that this sort of pitching depth is hard to come by.
When Alex Anthopolous took the helm in late 2009, Toronto’s pitching situation was in a state of total disrepair. Roy Halladay was on his way out of the organization, leaving behind only the returning Shaun Marcum and the promise that once was Ricky Romero to lead the pitching staff. The view in minor leagues was even bleaker as Zach Stewart, Kyle Drabek, and Chad Jenkins were the Jays’ top pitching prospects at the time. Anthopolous correctly identified the lack of quality depth as an area of concern and went about rebuilding the system. He hired a small army of new scouts to strengthen player evaluations and even brought a new team, the Bluefield Blue Jays, into the organization to house more minor league players. All this was done in preparation for franchise altering First-Year player drafts. Since 2010 the Blue Jays have made their emphasis on pitching known on the draft board, as over 50% of the nearly 240 players drafted over those years have been pitchers.
Sep 19, 2014; Bronx, NY, USA; Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Mark Buehrle (56) reacts during the third inning against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Five years since Anthopolous’ first draft, draftees have developed into top prospects which had led many to suggest that the Jays could deal from their pitching depth to improve the major league team. There is no doubt that the holes need to be filled on the 25 man roster, but I believe depleting pitching depth would be foolishly nearsighted for a number of reasons. First of all, the pitching staff overall was not above average by any means. Toronto ranked 22nd overall in starter’s ERA and the overall staff was slightly below average in the American League as well. In terms of quality, it seems that the staff needs to be added to instead of taken away from.
Second of all, there is still something to be said about the durability of Dickey and Buehrle combined with the rising potential of Stroman, Hutchison, and company. The best rotations find a way at combining veteran presence with youthful talent, just look at the Kansas City Royals this year. It would be a mistake for the Jays to remove from either of those aspects on their own team. Trading Dickey or Buehrle could bring back a nice major league piece, but doing so would put a lot of pressure on the younger players. While the former are a virtual lock for 200 innings, none of the latter have ever broke that barrier and nearly all of them are already pushing their inning limits from last year. On the other hand, trading from the young talent pool would leave two older players to do the majority of the heavy lifting in the rotation. Neither of them have the kind of strikeout potential that the younger players do and both will be free agents in the coming years. Giving up multiple years of cheap, and potentially elite, pitching for short term fixes could put the Jays right back the same position they were 5 years ago.
Last but certainly not least is the value of young talented pitching. If the aforementioned pitching prospects reach their projected potentials, the Jays could have a dominant staff to rely on until 2020. That is the kind of cost-controlled certainty that a team like the Jays, who don’t practice signing pricey free agents to long contracts, should be looking to maintain. Still, there is a high probability that even the most well regarded prospects won’t reach their potential (ie. Stewart and Drabek), which is why the overall depth is even more important. Second-tier contributors such as Nolin, Jenkins, and Kendall Graveman, could potentially be called upon to pick the slack left behind by the hard-hitting failures of big name prospects. Losing them as ‘extra pieces’ in a blockbuster trade could force the Jays to rely on spot starts from the even lesser quality options, like the team had to do in past with players like Ramon Ortiz and Aaron Laffey.
This offseason the Jays should have learned from their previous experience with subpar pitching depth and should be aiming towards maintaining as much of it as possible. At this point a potential trade of J.A. Happ is about the only scenario that makes sense in regards to trading pitching, but even that should only be done if the Jays are certain they can pick up the slack with a new addition to the rotation. If the ramblings from the front office are to be believed, the team has the ability to increase payroll perhaps as high as $150 million. In that case any short-term holes could be filled through the free agent market. The major league core is in place and the pipeline of talent has been filled. If the Jays want to become the kind of organization that wins and wins often, their system will have to be added to rather than swapped from.