Toronto Blue Jays: Mark Shapiro’s Mixed Record on Starting Pitching

Feb 19, 2018; Dunedin, FL, USA; Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins and president and CEO Mark Shapiro look on during batting practice at Bobby Mattick Training Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 19, 2018; Dunedin, FL, USA; Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins and president and CEO Mark Shapiro look on during batting practice at Bobby Mattick Training Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

The one huge outstanding question mark for the Toronto Blue Jays, besides where they’re going to call home for the April 8th home opener against the Angels (looking more and more like Dunedin), is starting pitching.

After six off seasons in Toronto, CEO and team president Mark Shapiro and General Manager Ross Atkins have a mixed record on trading for and signing elite starting pitching, which continues a mixed record in Shapiro’s 19 years of senior front office executive work. So far in their Toronto tenure, current ace Hyun Jin Ryu is the only proven top of the rotation starter they’ve added.

With pitchers and catchers officially reporting to Dunedin on February 17th, the Toronto Blue Jays start spring training in less than two weeks. Ryu flew from Korea to Florida this week, and fans will get a chance to see the new additions George Springer, Marcus Semien, Kirby Yates, Steven Matz and Tyler Chatwood along with some highly touted top prospects with the first full-team workout scheduled for February 22nd.

Why is Starting Pitching So Important?

A look at the playoff rotations of the last four World Series Champions highlights the need for elite starting pitching with rotations including Cy Young winners.

2017 – Justin Verlander, Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton, Lance McCullers Jr.

2018 – David Price, Chris Sale, Eduardo Rodriguez, Rick Porcello

2019 – Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin

2020 – Clayton Kershaw, Tony Gonsolin, Walker Buehler, Julio Urias

As currently constructed, the Blue Jays starting rotation for 2021 looks something like:

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#1 – Hyun Jin Ryu

#2 – Nate Pearson (rookie)

#3 – Robbie Ray

#4 – Steven Matz

#5 – Tanner Roark

Depth – Ross Stripling, Tyler Chatwood, Francisco Liriano, Thomas Hatch, T.J. Zeuch, Anthony Kay, Julian Merryweather, Trent Thornton, Ryan Borucki, Elvis Luciano and Patrick Murphy.

With the Trevor Bauer sweepstakes seemingly no longer involving the Blue Jays after he reportedly agreed to a three year, $102 million deal with the Dodgers, there remain a number of tier two starters available like Canadian James Paxton, 2020 Blue Jays Matt Shoemaker and Tijuan Walker, and former Rays and Twins starter Jake Odorizzi. Any of these project as better alternatives than Stripling, Matz and Roark at the back end of the currently projected Jays rotation.

Or could they swing a trade with LA to reunite with big lefty David Price, whose payroll hit is reduced by Boston picking up $32 million of the remaining $64 million left on his contract which runs through the 2022 season? If the Dodgers are signing Bauer, they might be motivated sellers on Price, who could be a nice bridge to some of the Blue Jays younger pitching prospects?

This Blue Jays rotation as constructed currently doesn’t look like it can help with the “run prevention” and depth that GM Ross Atkins highlighted as priorities last August. Paxton certainly projects to be able to help here with a career ERA of 3.58 to go along with 9.9 strikeouts vs 2.7 walks per nine innings, playoff experience as recently as 2019, and a FanGraphs projection using ZIPS for a 2.7 WAR in 2021 with a 3.78 FIP, i.e. top of the rotation potential.

Steven Matz (ZIPS projection for WAR of 1.1, FIP 4.67) and Tanner Roark (ZIPS projection for WAR of 1.4, FIP 4.91) do not appear to improve upon Matt Shoemaker and Tijuan Walker from 2020. Ryu – who had a long history of injury in LA – has to stay injury free (ZIPS projection for WAR of 3.0, FIP of 3.75), and rookie Nate Pearson (ZIPS projected WAR 2.1, FIP 4.04) has to prove he’s an MLB starter.

Tanner Roark, Ross Stripling (ZIPS projected WAR 1.5, FIP 4.29), Ray (ZIPS projected WAR 2.7, FIP 4.21) and Matz will all have to revert to career averages after outright bad campaigns in 2020, and one or more of Hatch, Kay, Merryweather, Zeuch, Borucki, Luciano or Thornton have to break out in to a legitimate MLB starter.

With Paxton, Odorizzi and Walker all available without draft pick compensation tied to signing them, shouldn’t the Blue Jays be spending another $20-30 million to add two of them instead of the $25-26 million they’re currently planning on spending on Roark, Ray, and Matz? And at some point these excess back of the rotation arms will also block a 40-man roster spot for a developing starter. The 40-man roster is currently full up, hence the trade speculation around Roark in order to upgrade at the starter position.

But as Shi David and Ben Nicholson-Smith point out,

"Intriguingly, they appear to be focused on a shorter-term acquisition, a stance that would cut them off for free agent arms seeking multi-year commitments."

Apart from marginal defensive upgrades with Springer in CF, Randal Grichuk likely shifting to his more natural RF, and Semien and Biggio likely moving around the infield, the pitching additions this offseason to date suggest run prevention has not been the key priority. If the pitching staff and team defense doesn’t improve on the 5.33 unearned + earned runs allowed per nine innings last year, the bats and overused bullpen are going to have to do a lot of heavy lifting. And if Ryu (who is entering his age 34 season) and Pearson are injured again, this team conceivably could finish 4th in the AL East behind NY, Tampa and Boston, even with the powerful offense.

And sadly, Ross has talked about adding starting pitching and improving on “run prevention” for a long, long time without any tangible results beyond the free agent signing of Ryu. Here’s an example from five years ago:

Mark Shapiro’s Mixed Record on Starting Pitching in Cleveland and Toronto

In Mark Shapiro’s 19 years of front office work in Cleveland and Toronto, he’s acquired four legitimate aces, trading for Cliff Lee, Carlos Carrasco and Corey Kluber when he was the General Manager in Cleveland, and signing Hyun Jin Ryu as a free agent in Toronto.

However, he also traded away aces Bartolo Colon, Cliff Lee and Jake Westbrook, respectively, to acquire those pitchers, and signed Ryu ahead of the 2020 season because Blue Jays owner Ed Rogers was willing to offer a 4th year at $20 million for Ryu’s age 36 season, something the LA Dodgers (and every other team) weren’t willing to do.

He also traded away ace CC Sabathia, who’d been drafted by his predecessor John Hart, on July 7, 2008. This came after the surprising 2007 ALCS run, when the 2008 Indians team collapsed to a 37-51 record by July 6th that year. Shapiro did acquire then 22 year old OF Michael Brantley in that deal.

Among other top of the rotation starters in Cleveland, John Hart had also signed Roberto Hernández who had a huge 2007, helping power the Indians along with Sabathia to the ALCS after which Shapiro was named Sporting News EOY.  Carl Pavano was signed as a FA in 2009 but then flipped for nothing later that August.

In terms of player development, Shapiro drafted Josh Tomlin, Drew Pomeranz and Chris Archer as GM in Cleveland, but flipped the latter two in trades as prospects. Trevor Bauer (2012) and Mike Clevinger (2014) were acquired by then General Manager Chris Antonetti and his Assistant GM Mike Chernoff while Shapiro focused on the Progressive Field renovations, not baseball operations.

And it was Chris Antonetti, Mike Chernoff and Derek Falvey who drafted Shane Bieber, Dan Plesac and Aaron Civale in 2016.

Front Office’s Mixed Success With Starting Pitching in Toronto

The pattern evidenced by Shapiro’s time in Cleveland has continued in Toronto, with homegrown starter Marcus Stroman traded away for Anthony Kay and top prospect Simeon Woods Richardson, J.A. Happ and Aaron Sanchez moved for effectively nothing of value in terms of MLB talent, and bad FA signings like Jaime Garcia and Tanner Roark.

Ryu has very clearly been a good signing so far, but he’s 34 and has a long injury history which is why the Dodgers wouldn’t offer him a 4th year.

Trades for Clayton Richard and Chase Anderson were just bad, and I personally don’t think Robbie Ray, Ross Stripling or Steve Matz improve upon this large sample size much either. Hopefully I’m proven wrong in 2021.

There’s certainly hope for top pitching prospects like Nate Pearson, Alek Manoah (who fellow contributor Nick Prasad just looked at here), SWR and Adam Kloffenstein, but they’re all still unproven at the MLB level, and we all know that not all prospects pan out. However, Ross Atkins was involved in player development when he was in Cleveland, serving as director of player development and later vice president of player personnel when Carlos Carrasco, Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer and Mike Clevinger came through the Indians’ system. Let’s hope they keep developing under current Jays’ farm director Gil Kim.

dark. Next. Blue Jays: What if the 2021 season started today

The concern for fans should be that this front office has assembled the baseball equivalent of a Ferrari for the offense, but they’re driving it with only one high-performance tire and three bare treaded and worn tires, plus one wildcard new spare tire in Pearson for the starting pitching. They’ve come this far, so why not just finish the rebuild with a fair offer to one or two of Paxton, Odorizzi, Walker or Shoemaker?  Or a trade for former ace David Price?