Latest Blue Jays injury scares highlight serious organizational depth issue

Bowden Francis the favourite now to win the fifth starter role.

Feb 19, 2024; Dunedin, FL, USA; Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Ricky Tiedemann (70) stretches at the Blue
Feb 19, 2024; Dunedin, FL, USA; Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Ricky Tiedemann (70) stretches at the Blue / Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Recent one-year deals for utility infielders like Gio Urshela (Tigers, $1.5M), Amed Rosario (Rays, $1.5M), Luis Guillorme (Braves, $1.1M) and Joey Wendle (Mets, $2M) highlight the absurdity of the Blue Jays offering Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who owns a career OPS+ of 81, a two-year contract at an AAV of $7.5M.

Heck, even two-time Gold Glover Kolten Wong (career OPS+ 96) signed a minor league deal with an invite to spring training with Baltimore, as did Tony Kemp (career OPS+ 91) with the Reds. The Jays have former All-Stars Eduardo Escobar and Daniel Vogelbach in camp to see if they can stick, too.

Which is to point out that the inability to re-sign Matt Chapman, extend any of their homegrown core to long term contract extensions, or make any more significant additions this offseason may all to point to payroll capacity constraints; and, exceedingly poor roster management.

Per Spotrac, the Jays currently have the 5th highest projected MLB payroll for 2024 at $223M, more than the Braves ($221M), Rangers and Dodgers (both at $216M). They’ll most likely trigger the luxury tax again for a second consecutive year in 2024, and yet FanGraphs only gives them a 47% chance to make the playoffs, whereas the Braves are at 98.5% and the Dodgers are at 94%.

So with 22 pitchers on the current 40-man roster, fans would be forgiven if they believed the Jays had enviable big league-ready starting pitching depth. However, news that former Cy Young finalist Alek Manoah, top prospect Ricky Tiedemann and newly signed righty Yariel Rodriguez are all dealing with minor injuries brings into question that depth once again.

Should the build-up of those three pitchers — who are all mentioned as part of the Blue Jays rotation plans this year — be delayed, that leaves Bowden Francis and Mitch White fighting for the fifth starter’s role. Dreams of signing free agents Blake Snell or Jordan Montgomery to a one-year “show me” deal are likely just that: dreams.

Recall this is a team that experienced extreme good health in their rotation in 2023, with four starters combining for 128 starts and 742.1 innings. All of Chris Bassitt, Kevin Gausman, José Berríos and Yusei Kikuchi made more than 30 starts and pitched more than 165 innings last year. They helped drive a 3.85 ERA for the starting rotation, good for third lowest in baseball.

That core four is being counted on heavily to repeat that type of a season. Anything that Manoah can give, in what is expected to be a rebound-like season for him, would be a bonus. And fans expect to see Tiedemann make his big league debut at some point in 2024, as this is clearly a “win-now” year, and he has some of the best pure stuff in the organization. As for Rodríguez, after only pitching 7.1 innings in last year’s World Baseball Classic, he was expected to be built up slowly.

With what appears to be little wiggle room on payroll, the lack of MLB-ready starting pitching depth has been exposed by these recent setbacks. Whereas last year’s good health masked the depth issues, if one of the core four were to be injured for a significant amount of time, those playoff odds would likely drop further.

Has Mitch White truly reinvented himself at age 29, or is he the guy who put up a 7.60 ERA over 55.2 innings for the Blue Jays over the past two years, and was designated for assignment last July and passed through waivers before being outrighted to Buffalo?

He was added back to the 40-man roster in November after a strong finish at Triple-A (1.89 ERA with a 31% strikeout rate over 33.1 innings in his last seven starts for the Bisons), but is out of minor league options and would have to be passed through waivers again if he doesn’t make the team.

Arden Zwelling of Sportsnet notes that White hit 98 mph at the knees on a pitch to Juan Soto last Sunday, and again up-and-in to Josh VanMeter: “Those two pitches were both harder than White’s career high in a big-league game — 97.5 mph — which he notched back in 2021. In all, he threw five pitches in his Grapefruit League debut that registered higher than the fastest pitch he threw in the majors last year: 96.2.”

Zwelling notes that on Thursday in Dunedin, White again touched 98 mph, carrying that velocity into his second inning. He seems to be healthy, and as manager John Schneider said, “It’s electric stuff.”

As for Bowden Francis, his success out of the bullpen last year (1.73 ERA in 20 games and 36.1 innings, with a 0.826 WHIP) put his name on the radar for an expanded role this year. He made 7 starts with Buffalo last season, after 23 starts for them in 2022.

Entering his age 28 season, the Florida native was solid on Saturday in Dunedin against the Braves, working 2.1 innings of no-hit ball, with 3 strikeouts and a walk, and a fastball that touched 97.1 mph.

The 6-foot-5 righty is an imposing presence on the mound, and as Keegan Matheson of reports, “Francis feels like the front-runner [for the 5th starter role], though, and has earned praise from coaches and teammates alike in camp.”

Manager John Schneider said, “[Francis] added the splitter this year, which I think will be good against lefties to go with his heater and curveball. I think it’s just about seeing what his stuff does. We tried to do this a bit last year as camp went on, trying to get him up to 50-60 pitches. His stuff is so good in short spurts, but can you harness that as you get your pitch count up?”

With the injuries to Manoah, Tiedemann and Rodríguez, it certainly looks like we could see Francis and White working their way through multiple innings in spot starts to begin the season. As Matheson notes, “If the Blue Jays could get Francis through the lineup twice and then hand off to a bulk reliever, like White, then that’s a fine way to patchwork the rotation spot.” You just don’t want to tax your bullpen too much early in the season.