AA 2014 To Do list: Upgrade SP
The starting pitching rotation was another glaring need for the Jays after 2013. After trading for R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle prior to the start of the 2013 season, optimism abounded for the Jays as they would now feature a Cy-Young winner in Dickey, a former Cy candidate in Johnson and a certified innings eater in Buehrle, to go along with the upside of incumbents Brandon Morrow, J.A. Happ, Rickey Romero and another arm brought in via trade in Esmil Rogers. Spring training separated the wheat from the chaff and the Jays were confident in their starting 5 of Dickey, Johnson, Buehrle, Morrow and Happ, as Romero continued his downward spiral and Rogers was kept in the pen as long relief.
Then the 2013 season happened and Murphy’s Law kicked the Jays square in the rosin bag. Dickey did not pitch up to his hype, Johnson and Morrow combined for just 135 innings due to injury, and Happ struggled when healthy and then suffered one of the worst injuries you’ll ever see on a baseball field when he was struck with a line drive in the head, missing substantial time. Buehrle was the only Jays starter of the original starting 5 that was consistent, and he ended the year with a 4.15 ERA and 4.09 xFIP, 2.5 WAR. Todd Redmond and Esmil Rogers filled in as best they could over 34 starts combined, but ERA/xFIP of 4.32/4.16 and 4.77/4.06 were certainly not enough to give the Jays what they needed to win ball games. The debacle of arms was punctuated by 14 starts total from Chien-Ming Wang, Ramon Ortiz, Sean Nolin, Rickey Romero and Aaron Laffey that were just plain awful. Chad Jenkins gave the Jays 3 decent starts as well. All in all, the Jays rotation finished bottom 5 in all of baseball no matter if you use traditional or saber stats and to be any threat in 2014, they simply needed to be better.
So, what exactly did Anthopoulos do about it going into 2014? He claimed Liam Hendriks off waivers from the Orioles and signed Tomo Ohka to a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training with his newly developed knuckleball. Forgive me if I don’t start planning the parade route. Hendriks, who has been designated for assignment and claimed 3 times in this offseason alone and Ohka, who was actually the last free agent pitcher the Jays had signed to a major league contract back in 2007, constitute the entirety of Anthopoulos’ additions to the Jays starting pitching stable. In terms of addition by subtraction, Johnson was not given a qualifying offer and went to free agency, signing with the San Diego Padres, and Ortiz, Laffey and Wang were all let go.
Hendriks has a decent minor league track record, but that has not translated to the majors, as is the case with many arms before him. Recently, he’s bounced back and forth from AAA to the majors in Minnesota and done so to the tune of a 4.59 xFIP, 40% groundball rate, 5.77 K/9, 2.65 BB/9, and a downright awful 1.7 HR/9 innings with a 15.4% HR/FB rate, well below league average, and those HR numbers come from pitching a decent chunk of his games in a much more pitcher friendly environment that the AL East. No, I think it’s fair to say that Hendriks is not the Jays savior. I won’t even go into analyzing Ohka, since the chances of him being relevant to even the AAA rotation is slim.
It’s fair to say at this point that the Jays are going into 2014 with the same horses as last year, minus Johnson, and are expecting better results. Are they crazy? Probably, but let’s give it the old college try and see if there is any reason for optimism. In 2013 the Jays main 5 opening day SP managed to accumulate 6.9 fWAR, ahead of only the Giants, Brewers, Twins and Padres. For perspective, the entire Jays rotation contributed just 0.4 fWAR more than Clayton Kershaw did by himself for the Dodgers. The Jays lost huge chunks of time to the disabled list from Morrow, Johnson and Happ and that certainly contributed to the lack of results. Dickey also pitched through back trouble and did have a decent second half of the season once those troubles were behind him. While he probably will not recapture his Cy Young results from years past in the National League, a reasonable expectation would probably put him in a 3.75-4.00 xFIP range, with around 7 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9. These are not ace-stats, but if consistent from start to finish expecting 3-3.5 fWAR from Dickey is plausible. Mark Buehrle will likely be the same consistent Mark Buehrle as he has been in the past; 200+ innings of 2-2.5 fWAR. He’ll be solid, unspectacular and that’s just fine.
Brandon Morrow. If I knew what to expect of Brandon Morrow, I’d spend the next few sentences writing it out for you, but frankly I have no idea. There’s no denying his talent and his stuff. He can strike guys out, he doesn’t walk a ton. There’s plenty of denying his ability to stay healthy and on the mound. All expectations of Morrow are centered around his health and whether he can actually pitch 180+ innings, or if he’ll spend another 50-75% of the season on the DL with another strained elbow/forearm/neck/back. If Morrow stays healthy and does manage to pitch 180+ innings, he’ll likely be the most valuable pitcher in the rotation with around 3.5 fWAR. However, that’s best case scenario and the least likely to happen given his injury history. What’s more likely is around 100-120 innings which would come in around 1.5-1.7 fWAR.
J.A. Happ is probably a lock for a rotation spot as well. He’s a #5 starter as his best and does have the ability to strike batters out given his career mark of 7.58 K/9. The problem with Happ has always been walks. Quite simply, he walks too many batters. His career 4 BB/9 is not good enough. He’s also not a ground-ball pitcher, coming in at 36.5% last year and 37.5% career, so he does give up his share of homers. He’ll be good for 150 innings projections range from 1.5 – 1.8 fWAR, which is inline with his career norms. The Jays are tinkering with his arm slot in spring training this season, so we’ll see if that has any noticeable effect in the year to come.
That leaves 1 more guy in the starting 5, and by all accounts will be a battle between Sean Nolin, Esmil Rogers, Todd Redmond, Drew Hutchison, Kyle Drabek and one of the Jays’ top prospects Marcus Stroman. I’ll spend more time talking about Stroman, simply because I don’t think Nolin, Rogers or Redmond are all that mysterious and Hutchison and Drabek are both coming off Tommy John surgery (in Drabek’s case, his second Tommy John) and both will likely open the season in AAA with minor league options remaining to provide much needed depth if/when injuries happen. Rogers has no options, Redmond does, and either of them could probably provide 1-1.5 fWAR over 160 innings, with the chance of getting as high as 2 WAR if everything went their way. Stroman, on the other hand, is much more interesting.
Drafted in 2012 in the first round by the Jays, Stroman his impressed since day 1 in the minor league system. While pitching only 19 innings in 2012, he threw 112 in 2013, all at AA New Hampshire as a starter and another 12 innings in the Arizona Fall League as a reliever. Stroman features a mid-90’s fastball to go along with a good slider and changeup and a cutter. Stroman’s height is where all the conversations inevitably lead when discussing his future as a pitcher. Listed at 5’9″, some say that’s generous, Stroman doesn’t fit the mould of the tall, physically imposing figure whose body would be able to withstand the rigors of pitching a full major league season, and how much downward plane his pitches will have. Of course that just motivates Stroman whose slogan HDMD (Height Doesn’t Measure Heart) appears as a tattoo on his chest. Having pitched just 122 innings in 2013, it’s hard to envision Stroman being able to go a full season if he does break camp with the Jays, but there’s no doubt that he has the highest upside between all the remaining starters that have a shot at a rotation spot. Projections are difficult when it comes to minor league pitchers and Steamer, Zips and Oliver have Stroman anywhere from 0.5 WAR at 100 innings to 1.2 fWAR at 77 innings or 1.2 fWAR at 114 innings. Suffice to say that projections also feel that Stroman has the highest upside, but nobody is sure how many innings he will pitch in 2014. If we assume he does make the rotation out of spring training and can pitch 150 innings for arguments sake, the most optimistic projection would have him at 2.4 fWAR over that span, and the most pessimistic at roughly 0.7. That’s quite a gap and either one could be possible.
So it all comes down to what the Jays see in spring training as to who will ultimately get the last spot in the rotation. If they want the highest upside, they’ll probably go with Stroman and keep him on a somewhat strict innings/pitch count to try and get the most out of him this year. Or, if they are concerned with possibly losing arms that don’t have options left, they could start with Rogers and keep Stroman in the minors with the chance of Stroman coming up later if Rogers falters or injuries occur. There’s all kinds of scenarios that could play out with the Jays rotation this season.
But, with all those scenarios, we’re still left with a giant unanswered question; why didn’t Anthopoulos do anything to add to the rotation in the offseason? Is he really okay with counting on/hoping for the best case scenario for every starting pitcher happening in 2014? Recapping and using the most optimistic projections have Dickey 3.5 fWAR, Buehlre 2.5, Morrow 3.5, Happ 1.8 and Stroman 2.4. That’s a total of 13.7 fWAR and in 2013 would have placed the Jays 6th in all of MLB. But to get that number, we’re using the most rose-coloured glasses we can find and assuming nothing will go wrong, which is just not reasonable. Something will go wrong, because something always goes wrong in every rotation in baseball every year. There are just as many questions in the rotation at the start of 2014 as there were at the end of 2013 when Anthopoulos specifically said his #1 priority was improving the starting rotation for 2014.
Great news right? From the offseason get-go fans could be optimistic that Anthopoulos would be working the phones tirelessly in order to get better arms in the fold for 2014. Rumours were rampant about trades; Jeff Samardzija, Derek Holland, Brett Anderson and David Price’s names all surfaced in connection to the Jays. Of course, since Anthopoulos doesn’t comment on any type of trade rumours, we’ll never really know how much traction those rumours had, if any. Also rumoured via free agency were A.J Burnett, Bronson Arroyo, Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez, but here we are with spring training having started and the only name from that list that still remains available is Ervin Santana. Don’t hold your breath, recent comments from Anthopoulos have basically nixed any hope of a free agent starting pitcher being signed by the Jays.
So there’s your answer. Anthopoulos may have had the best intentions to add to the rotation, which was the teams most obvious need, but he failed to do so. From the start of the offseason the message changed from the #1 priority being improving the rotation by looking outside the organization to spring training arriving and being happy with the same rotation as last year with internal candidates as depth. The rotation could very well be 2-3 wins better this season with better health, which would put them in the middle of the pack in the major leagues, but that’s just not good enough in a year where your plan is contending for a playoff spot.
Synopsis of AA’s 2014 to do list:
Improve Catcher: C
Improve 2B: F
Improve SP: F
Overall Offseason Grade: F
One minor upgrade does not offset 2 glaring mistakes. Anthopoulos has basically told the fans of the Jays that last year’s team was good enough and just needed a new catcher and good health to get them to the playoffs. He’s standing pat and now we just have to wait and see just how right, or wrong he turns out to be.