The Toronto Blue Jays have placed starter Ross Stripling on the 15-day injured list (IL) with a strained right glute/hip. With back of the rotation starter Yusei Kikuchi scuffling, and lefty Hyun Jin Ryu out for the season, the starting pitching depth after the top three is about to be tested.
Stripling has played a valuable role for the Jays since replacing the injured Ryu, with an fWAR of 1.9 that only trails top of the rotation starters Kevin Gausman (4.1) and Alex Manoah (2.5) on the pitching staff. His 3.16 ERA and 3.02 FIP over 82.2 innings includes an even better 3.01 ERA and 1.047 WHIP over 71.2 innings as a starter, with 56 strikeouts against only nine walks.
His 46.6% ground ball rate leads the starting rotation, and according to Statcast, his 4.6% walk rate places him top decile against a league average of 8.4%.
He’s been able to induce hitters to chase his 82.5mph changeup, which he throws 26% of the time, by setting them up with a steady diet of 92mph four-seam fastballs (35% of his pitches) and 87mph sliders (23% of his pitches). His location and control play well in the bigs thanks to him and his catcher mixing up pitches and keeping the hitters guessing.
With Stripling’s next turn in the rotation likely on Saturday, who will step up to provide starting pitching depth?
95 of the Blue Jays 105 starts this season have been handled by Gausman, Manoah, Jose Berrios, Stripling and Kikuchi. Hyun Jin Ryu made six starts before his season-ending surgery, but after that the other starters were the since traded Max Castillo (2), the since DFA’d Anthony Banda (1), and the ineffective Triple-A pitcher Thomas Hatch (1).
Other potential starting pitching depth pieces like Nate Pearson, Julian Merryweather and Anthony Kay have all been injured, and top pitching prospect, LHP Ricky Tiedemann, is only 19 and likely still a few years away from his big league debut, currently pitching for High-A Vancouver. Recent first round pick, LHP Brandon Barriera, is only 18 years old and just graduated from high school.
By default, Mitch White appears to be the best depth starter currently available
When asked who his starter would be Saturday in place of Stripling, interim manager John Schneider said swing man Mitch White, the recent trade deadline acquisition from the Dodgers “is an option, amongst others. He definitely has that skillset to jump right in there if needed.”
The 27 year old righty made ten starts for the Dodgers this year after joining their rotation on May 21st, with a 3.47 ERA and 1.264 WHIP over 46.2 innings pitched just in the games he’s started. He only strikes out 20% of batters faced versus the league average 22%, and he walks 8.3%, in-line with the league at 8.4%.
In his most recent start against the Washington Nationals on July 26th, he allowed two runs over six innings, allowing 9 hits with four Ks against zero walks. It took him 98 pitches to get through six innings against a bad Nationals lineup, but at least he’s built up to give the Jays 100 pitches if need be. He has a slightly different repertoire than Stripling, featuring a 94mph, four-seam fastball 45% of the time to set up hitters for his out pitches, including an 85mph slider which he throws for 26% of his pitches, and an 80mph curve (20%).
Other options include an opener and a guy, RHP Matt Peacock who was claimed off waivers from the Kansas City Royals on July 6th, RHP Trent Thornton who is also currently on the 26-man roster, or someone else from the Buffalo Bisons? Other pitchers on the 40-man roster in the minors include Thomas Hatch, Hagen Danner, Foster Griffin and Casey Lawrence. Nate Pearson (60-day), Julian Merryweather (60-day) and Anthony Kay (7-day) all remain on the IL. All of these potential starting pitcher choices are uninspiring.
More concerning for the Jays’ playoff hopes would be an injury to one of their big three. A healthy playoff rotation of Gausman, Manoah and Berrios could be intimidating in a short series, especially given that would push Stripling, Kikuchi and now de facto #6 starter White in to bullpen roles.
However, Alek Manoah has already surpassed his single-season high of 125.1 innings in 2019, which included 108.1 NCAA college innings at West Virginia. For a big athlete who depends on his legs to generate power, fatigue is a real risk. Ross Stripling should be on track to break his single season high of 122 innings in 2018.
Note also that Mitch White has only averaged a little more than 4.2 innings per start this season, while Yusei Kikuchi averages less than 4.1 innings a start. By comparason, Noah Syndergaard has averaged 5.1 innings per start in his first season back from Tommy John surgery, Frankie Montas averages almost 5.2 innings a start, and Carlos Rodon averages almost six innings; that means 1~2 less innings per start for the bullpen to handle, which is not insignificant.
After the recent comebacker off of ace Alek Manoah’s right pitching elbow on July 29th (precautionary x-rays were negative), and the 100 mph liner Kevin Gausman took off his right ankle earlier in July that caused him to miss a start, the Jays front office might have been reminded just how thin their starting pitch depth remains, and that they are one freak injury away from having a below average starting rotation. As Kaitlyn McGrath of The Athletic wrote, “The timing of this, with the trade deadline looming [last Tuesday], makes one wonder how the Blue Jays are factoring in their need for starting pitching depth with a bigger need for shutdown relievers.”
They also were certainly aware of the Stripling injury ahead of the Tuesday 6pm ET trade deadline. Instead, they traded Max Castillo to Kansas City in the Whit Merrifield deal, and sent two power arms to the Dodgers in RHP Nick Frasso and LHP Moises Brito for Mitch White. #4 prospect Jordan Groshans was dealt to Miami for relievers Anthony Bass and Zach Pop.
Certainly there were starters who changed teams at this year’s August trade deadline. In addition to swingman Mitch White, top of the rotation starters like Luis Castillo, Frankie Montas and Tyler Mahle were traded. Pending free agent Noah Syndergaard, a former Blue Jay farmhand, was dealt to the Phillies. The Braves acquired Jake Odorizzi from the Astros, and quality starters like Carlos Rodin, Pablo Lopez and Tarik Skubal were rumoured to be available.
If the Jays weren’t willing to pay the price for a top of the rotation starter with control, i.e. Luis Castillo, who cost the Mariners three of their top five prospects, then why didn’t they consider adding an available pending free agent rental starter, a group which included Nathan Eovaldi, Michael Wacha, Martin Perez, Jose Quintana, Zack Greinke, Drew Smyly, Wade Miley, Michael Lorenzen, Matt Boyd, Zach Davies and Chad Kuhl? Surely one or two of these pitchers could have provided depth down the stretch at a low prospect cost? Ross Atkins certainly took a flier on two pending free agent starters at the 2020 trade deadline in Robbie Ray and Taijuan Walker the last time the Jays went to the postseason.
Another question might be why the front office isn’t treating this season as a “win now” situation? The Jays have a history of making big “win now” additions when they see an opportunity to go deep in the postseason. Certainly, Hall of Famer and former Jays’ GM Pat Gillick said his August trade of Jeff Kent for David Cone ahead of the Blue Jays first World Series Championship in 1992 was one of his best ever trades. Adding David Price (9-1 with a 2.30 ERA in 11 starts) in 2015 helped the Jays explode down the stretch run to win the AL East pennant and advance to the ALCS, where they just missed going to the World Series. And, GM Ross Atkins swung for the fences in 2021, trading two of the top five Jays’ prospects in Austin Martin and Simeon Woods Richardson for José Berríos, who went 5-4 with a 3.58 ERA in 12 starts.
With the Gausman and Manoah July comebacker scares so fresh in their minds, and knowing what they did – and when – about the Ross Stripling hip injury, it’s puzzling that the front office didn’t attach more urgency to adding starting pitch depth beyond Mitch White at the August 2nd trade deadline.