There are a number of mlb-calibre pitchers still looking for a home for 2017. Might one of them be a particularly good fit for the Jays?
There are several good pitchers still unsigned for 2017. As many teams have already reported to spring training, might those pitchers be more reasonable in their demands, and might there be a fit for the Blue Jays?
What would a good fit look like?
From what we hear, the Jays do not have a lot of budget left. So this pitcher would have to be cheap. But he would have to bring real value – or at least, real potential. That usually means a pitcher with a few warts, or a reclamation project.
He would ideally be a left-hander with strong career splits against lefties but not exclusively a LOOGY. J.P. Howell helps, and Aaron Loup has upside, but another lefty would provide valuable insurance. He should be able to pitch multiple innings, and be a legitimate candidate for a swingman / spot starter / 6th starter role, ideally both in 2017 and beyond.
And if he does have warts, or is coming off a bad season, it should be something fixable.
Toronto Blue Jays
So let’s talk about Jorge De La Rosa.
From 2013-2015 Jorge averaged a 3.92 ERA and a 3.96 xFIP, despite pitching his home games in Colorado. He was an average strikeout pitcher, with a little under 7 K/9, and he had decent control with a 3.49 BB/9. He had a poor 2016, with an ERA of 5.51, due in part to a decline in fastball velocity from 91.4 mph to 90.1. At 36 years old in April, he looks like a classic example of a starter who has lost the battle against Father Time.
So why do I like him as a low-cost signing for the Jays?
First, because I see him more as a bullpen option with rotation upside. The Rockies tried him in the bullpen in 2016, admittedly in a very small sample size of 8 innings, and the results were spectacular: 10 strikeouts, 23 outs against 26 batters faced, and 1 earned run. Pitchers with marginal fastballs often benefit more than most from the additional 2-4 mph that a bullpen role often brings. And Jorge has said that he would welcome a bullpen role.
Second, many of Jorge’s stats from 2016 were not as bad as his ERA might suggest. So a regression from his .325 BABIP (pretty much the highest of his career) and a move away from Coors might bring him back into a more valuable performance range.
And finally, I am intrigued by the possibility of fixing his biggest problem from 2016: the inability to throw strikes. As Dave Cameron of Fangraphs put it (in an article entitled “The Biggest Free-Agent Bargain Still Out There”):
"Because he is often pitching behind in the count, he runs up his pitch count early, and was only able to average a little over five innings per start last year. Even at his best, he’s a guy who puts a strain on your bullpen, and teams generally prefer their not-great veteran starters to at least be innings-eaters, but de la Rosa’s command doesn’t really let him fit that role."
Which brings me to the Jays’ secret weapon: Russell Martin and his pitch-calling superpower. As other writers have noted, Russell has an exceptional ability to not only understand the strike zone – what pitches will get a favourable call at what counts from which umpires – but also to recognize a pitcher’s strengths and weaknesses, calling pitches on that basis. Consider 2016, for example: Jason Grilli‘s BB/9 with the Braves was 6.88, with Toronto 4.07. Joaquin Benoit was 5.55 with Seattle, but 3.42 with the Jays. Francisco Liriano was 5.46 with Pittsburgh but 2.92 with the Jays. Not to suggest that all the credit goes to Martin (Pete Walker is also highly underrated in my opinion – but that, as Kipling said, is another story), but Jorge is exactly the kind of pitcher that could be most helped by a superior pitch framer and caller behind the plate.
And the upside icing-on-the-cake is the chance of returning Jorge to the ~30-starts, sub-4 ERA and xFIP form that he maintained from 2013-15. Those stats would make him a solid #3 starter, which is something the Jays may need in 2018 with the possible loss of Estrada and Liriano. Or, alternatively, Jorge could strengthen the bullpen to the point where moving Biagini to the Buffalo rotation becomes a bearable option.
The bottom line
To succeed, a MLB team needs to gamble. The key is to identify those gambles that fit the team’s needs and have an appropriate cost/benefit ratio. Jorge de la Rosa on a $3-5 million contract, possibly with a couple of team options and a few incentives, could well be an intelligent gamble for the 2017 Jays.