Blue Jays: Rebuilding The Rotation Will Determine 2021 Success

BUFFALO, NEW YORK - AUGUST 12: Nate Pearson #24 of the Toronto Blue Jays walks off the field after a pitching change during the third inning of an MLB game against the Miami Marlins at Sahlen Field on August 12, 2020 in Buffalo, New York. The Blue Jays are the home team and are playing their home games in Buffalo due to the Canadian government’s policy on COVID-19. (Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)
BUFFALO, NEW YORK - AUGUST 12: Nate Pearson #24 of the Toronto Blue Jays walks off the field after a pitching change during the third inning of an MLB game against the Miami Marlins at Sahlen Field on August 12, 2020 in Buffalo, New York. The Blue Jays are the home team and are playing their home games in Buffalo due to the Canadian government’s policy on COVID-19. (Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images) /

As Free Agency begins, the Toronto Blue Jays have an opportunity to add some big names to their starting rotation and make this team a contender in 2021.

With the MLB off-season upon us, Blue Jays fans are eager to see what kind of moves the team has in store. Toronto has already been linked to numerous free agents by various insiders and website predictions, while also being name dropped on twitter by this year’s biggest fish. The Jays are an organization of interest around league circles, as they clearly have money to spend and multiple positions in need of an upgrade.

The current line-up looks solid beyond the big question mark that remains at third base. Depth concerns exist as well, particularly in the outfield, but beyond that, much is already set in place offensively. The bullpen looks solid and will look even better if the team chooses to bring back Anthony Bass. Minor additions and internal growth should be expected for that unit, but drastic changes are unlikely.

That makes the starting rotation a clear and obvious priority, with Hyun-Jin Ryu, Tanner Roark, Nate Pearson, and a bunch of young arms currently making up the Blue Jays depth chart. At least two spots are up for grabs at the moment and I would argue that the Jays should plan to add three quality arms to this rotation, with at least two being of the high-impact variety. Any ideas for reclamation projects and minor league deals with spring training invitations can come after those impact arms are locked in place.

How We Got Here

Ever since the 2017 season went off the rails, Toronto’s rotation has been a major weakness. As a unit, they have not been able to log enough quality innings to give the team a fighting chance. In 2018, virtually everyone disappointed. Marco Estrada led the team in innings at just over 140 but posted an ugly 5.64 ERA. The only regular in that rotation to post an ERA under 4.00 was Ryan Borucki, and he now finds himself as a key piece in the bullpen.

In 2019, things got worse. Only three pitchers managed to make 15 starts and Trent Thornton was the only one among them to clear 150 innings. The other two, Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez, were traded away mid-season. In just three years, a team strength was turned into a complete wasteland.

Then last winter, the front office finally began the task of rebuilding the rotation. Ryu was added as the club’s ace in this regime’s finest moment. Roark and Chase Anderson were also brought in but they failed to meet expectations. Anderson is gone, while Roark remains in place for now. The prevailing sentiment entering this off-season around the fanbase is that Toronto should look to add two more starters, trade Roark if possible, and let Pearson and the kids fill out the rest of the group. In my view, that plan falls short of fixing the problem.

While trading Roark would be nice, it’s wishful thinking at best. In a market where many teams are hard-pressed to spend big on arms, why would anyone want to trade for his $12 million in salary? The Jays could always retain some money to move the 34-year-old, but if you are going to pay most of his salary anyway he might as well be given a chance to help the team. As bad as last year was, it is an outlier for his career, not the norm. I see him competing for a backend rotation spot in spring training, albeit with a short lease. If things go south again early in the season, the Jays can just accept the loss and move on.

Tempering Expectations

At the top of the rotation, Ryu is locked in as the ace and Pearson will be one of the next three guys up after that. Beyond Pearson, however, the idea that any of the young arms will be ready to step in and make regular starts for the big club out of spring training is a massive reach.

Thomas Hatch threw 26 innings out of the bullpen last season, but never appeared above AA before that. Julian Merryweather missed 2018 with Tommy John surgery and has pitched 25 combined innings the past two seasons. Anthony Kay has 25 innings of big league experience with mediocre results, TJ Zeuch has 34 innings, Elvis Luciano is 20-years-old and didn’t pitch in 2020, and Thornton has elbow concerns and is no sure thing to be ready for spring training. After losing a ton of development time this past season, all of these guys should be starting the year in the minors. I do like Hatch and Zeuch to emerge from this group in the near future, but I think Buffalo is the smart move for both in April.

Not mentioned in the above tweet is Jordan Romano who made just three starts in Buffalo in 2019 and has now found a home in Toronto’s bullpen. Elsewhere on the roster, Ross Stripling projects as a swingman and Jacob Waguespack is a secondary depth option, if not a DFA candidate, at this point.

Strengthening the Rotation

Rotation depth has killed Toronto the past three seasons. In all honesty, they got lucky that the shortened 60-game slate and expanded rosters allowed them to patch things together on the fly at the trade deadline. Over a full 162, the 2020 Opening Day rotation would have sunk this team below .500.

That’s why two impact arms are needed to fill out the top four alongside Ryu and Pearson. In a best case scenario this means Trevor Bauer and someone else. It could also mean two of Taijuan Walker, Charlie Morton, or Stroman, among others. The market will dictate which guys are realistic targets and who is asking too much, but regardless, two high-impact guys should be Plan A for Ross Atkins.

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Once that job is done, the Jays should also look to bring in another starter to add to the mix with Roark and Stripling in the battle for the fifth rotation spot and the bullpen’s swingman role. This could be where a reclamation project like Chris Archer appears or a guy like Matt Shoemaker comes back for another go. Ideally, this third guy comes in on a one-year deal. Then by 2022, both he and Roark are off the books and a path to the rotation is open for someone in the minors.

Under this scenario, Toronto would suddenly have five or six veterans with big league starting experience alongside Nate Pearson in camp. The team will most likely run out an opener from time to time and make call ups for spot starts along the way. Meanwhile, the young arms get an opportunity to work on their game in the minors and recoup some of the innings lost to the shortened season. Then when the injuries arrive, or someone disappoints, hopefully guys like Hatch and Zeuch are prepared to step in and succeed. For the first time since 2017, it would be nice to see the Blue Jays enter camp with an excess of starting options instead of a group held together by optimistic projections and wishful thinking.

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As Sportsnet’s Shi Dividi has pointed out, Toronto should have at least $43 million to spend this winter and possibly a fair bit more. With so many teams not in position to do the same, the Jays have an opportunity to rebuild their starting rotation in a hurry and give themselves a legitimate shot at contending in 2021. Whether or not they choose to take it remains to be seen.