Thought to be the organizational weakness, the Blue Jays have had some solid pitching performances lately, and may not be that far from a great rotation.
The Blue Jays have an incredibly exciting core of young position players coming together, lead by the likes of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Cavan Biggio, and more. While they all have plenty of learning to do at the highest level, the Blue Jays are fun to watch again after a difficult first half, and they’ve been well above .500 since trading away several of their veterans before the end of July.
With the way these talented youngsters have performed so far, there’s been plenty of discussion about the timing of the rebuild, and in particular if the pitching ranks will be able to keep up with the fast-developing hitters. It’s why many of us were scratching our heads at the idea of trading Marcus Stroman, as he’s the type of pitcher than could help in the immediate term, assuming he was extended beyond 2020 when his current contract runs out.
That obviously didn’t happen, and now we’re looking at a pretty unclear future in the starting rotation. Or are we?
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I’ll concede that the Blue Jays don’t have an obvious future ace at the big league level right now, but that doesn’t mean they are lacking talent. In fact, it’s looking like they will have plenty of candidates that could do a more than adequate job of filling out the back of the rotation. Jacob Waguespack has been very impressive since his promotion, and Trent Thornton has had a good rookie season, even if it’s been a bit up and down at times. I’d be willing to bet that between those two the Blue Jays get at least a #5 starter for the future.
There are others I can picture as a #4 starter in the future, or possibly better, even if this season hasn’t provided the evidence that I expected. Ryan Borucki had a tough campaign dealing with elbow soreness and eventually surgery to remove a bone spur, but I still believe his future is very bright, assuming he can healthy. I’m intrigued by Anthony Kay lately and I’m looking forward to his eventual MLB debut as well. He was one of the pitchers that came back to the Blue Jays in the Stroman swap with the Mets, and he’s been pitching well in Buffalo lately and should warrant a call-up soon.
Call me crazy, but I also have faith that Sean Reid-Foley will eventually develop into a big league contributor, although I could see him eventually transitioning to the bullpen as a late-inning type of arm. He’ll have plenty of opportunities to keep starting though, and he’s got the talent to stick as a big leaguer but he just needs to put it together. There are others like T.J. Zeuch and Patrick Murphy who have upside as well. There’s another wave coming in the lower levels with the likes of Eric Pardinho, Adam Kloffenstein, Simeon Woods Richardson, Kendall Williams, and others, too.
As for the top of the rotation, Nate Pearson could be ready to pitch in the big leagues right now, but that’s not going to happen in 2019. That said, he was promoted to Triple-A Buffalo on Sunday, as he’s dominated at two levels of the minor leagues thus far this season. It’s probably a safe bet that he’ll arrive sometime in 2020, and while the Blue Jays can’t expect him to step in and become a 200-inning workhorse right away, he’s going to be a good one.
I expect that the Blue Jays’ front office will look to add to their rotation this winter, but it might not be until the 2021 season that they’ll really invest with eyes on contending. By then it’s possible that others like Alek Manoah, this year’s first round pick, will be ready to contribute as well, as college pitchers are usually older and more developed.
I’ve mentioned quite a few names so far, so let’s throw them into a bit of a depth chart and see what we’re looking at:
3- Pearson (Manoah)
4- Borucki, Reid-Foley, Thornton
5- Kay, Waguespack, Murphy, Zeuch
I feel like I’m being pretty conservative here, especially with Pearson’s potential, however I don’t think the Blue Jays can count on anyone but “Big Nate” turning in to more than a #3 starter, even if there is upside for more from a few of these guys.
I would argue that if the Blue Jays intend to compete by around 2021, they’ll need to add two top-end starters before they’ll become serious contenders. However, I can see a very reasonable path for them to get there, even if it’s easier said than done. First of all, they have next to nothing in payroll commitments going forward. They could back up a Brinks truck for any free agent that hits the market over the next couple of years. Gerrit Cole would be perfect, but he’s also going to have a lot of suitors. The strength of the young Blue Jays’ core should make Toronto a more enticing place for free agents to consider anyway, even if it might be tough to get a guy like Cole this winter.
If and when they dip into the free agent pool, that might be the time that Ross Atkins and company trade from their prospect riches as well. That approach requires a willing trade partner, but when the time is right the Blue Jays should be well set up to have some valuable pieces to put on the table. Their big league roster is already looking fairly well established going forward, and there is a lot of talent still on the way in guys like Jordan Groshans, Kevin Smith, Griffin Conine and plenty of others. There likely won’t be room for everyone and that means they’ll have talent depth to trade with.
For the sake of a hypothetical, let’s look at what a 2021 rotation MIGHT look like. (Please remember, this is just me throwing an example, I’m not claiming to be Nostradamus here)
1- Trevor Bauer (I don’t see him as the right fit, but he’ll be a free agent after the 2020 season and the Blue Jays will have the money to make a serious offer. It’s an example of the type of move they could make, especially because of their payroll set-up for the future)
2- Nate Pearson (He could be the ace by 2021, but he also hasn’t made the leap to the highest level, so I can’t be THAT optimistic)
3- Mike Clevinger (It’s not hard to see Cleveland’s playoff run coming to an end sooner than later, and eventually I can see them deciding that Clevinger is getting too expensive. Clevinger will be a free agent in 2023, so the Blue Jays could pay a bigger prospect price for two seasons of control)
4- Ryan Borucki
5- Trent Thornton
Depth options: Manoah, Kay, Waguespack, Zeuch, Murphy
Does that look so bad? I realize that Bauer is an imperfect fit, but the Blue Jays could chase someone else like Cole, Madison Bumgarner, or Zack Wheeler this winter, or maybe someone during the winter of 2020 like James Paxton, Mike Minor, Masahiro Tanaka, or who knows, maybe someone like Stephen Strasburg opts out of his contract and hits the market.
It’s hard to predict what free agency will bring over the next few years, but the good news is that the Blue Jays have some reasonable back of the rotation depth already developing, and all the resources they’ll need to add to the top when the time is right.
There’s no denying that the pitching is behind the position players when it comes to the rebuild, but that doesn’t mean things can’t change in a hurry. There are plenty of question marks around the future of the starting rotation in Toronto, but I don’t think it’s as shaky as many folks believe. In fact, the path to a pretty good rotation isn’t that hard to see.