Monday, January 2, 2012

Toronto Blue Jays: The Rotation 2012

Shall we take a look back at what the opening day rotation for the Toronto Blue Jays was last season? (2011 stats in brackets; the number to the left of the player's name indicates number of games pitched [note that only statistics as a Blue Jay are shown here])

32 Ricky Romero (15-11, 2.92 ERA, 1.14 WHIP)
18 (14 starts) Kyle Drabek (4-5, 6.06 ERA, 1.81 WHIP)
20 Brett Cecil (4-11, 4.73 ERA, 1.33 WHIP)
20 Jo-Jo Reyes (5-8, 5.40 ERA, 1.59 WHIP)
28 (8 starts) Jesse Litsch (6-3, 4.44 ERA, 1.29 WHIP)

Where are they now?

Romero was, by far, the best pitcher on the team last season.  His spectacular numbers earned him an All-Star selection and a Pitcher of the Month Award.  Romero proved his critics wrong and put up the type of season that was expected of him when he was chosen 6th overall in the 2005 amateur entry draft.  He has shown that he has the stuff to be a legitimate ace in the MLB and has solidified a spot in the Jays' rotation for next season.  Barring a blockbuster deal (and with Alex Anthopolous at the helm, this is always a possibility) Ricky will be the Opening Day starter.

Drabek has received mixed opinions.  Some believe that he still has the potential to be a solid big-league pitcher while others see him as a complete bust.  I find myself leaning toward the former, but the supposed top prospect in the Roy Halladay deal has a long way to go before he is ready to be an effective Major Leaguer.  Expect him to start the season in Triple-A and expect a high ERA--not that that's a particularly meaningful statistic in the Pacific Coast League.  Hopefully injuries will not force him to the majors too early and he will be a September call up--assuming he does not over-perform with the 51s.  Drabek needs to work on controlling his emotions, though, before he can go anywhere.

Brett Cecil was one of the biggest disappointments of the season.  After an unexpectedly good 2010 campaign that saw the 38th overall pick in the 2007 draft pick up 15 wins in 28 starts, Cecil dropped off the map in 2011.  A poor start had him packing his bags and heading to the minors before a late-season recall.  Where his velocity had dipped early he started to recover--although he could not equal his abilities of the past.  Cecil certainly showed promise during his second stint with the Jays in 2011 but struggled in the later innings.  He was often solid throughout the game, but when the seventh inning rolled along, he lost all ability to finish.  This could be attributed to fatigue.  An earlier start on next season and a bit of work on velocity and Cecil could make the team out of spring-training.  He may have to fight it out for the last spot in the rotation, but unless the Jays pick up another starter, it is probable that he will make the team.

Jo-Jo Reyes was picked up at the end of the 2010 season along with Yunel Escobar in exchange for Alex Gonzalez, Tim Collins, and Tyler Pastornicky.  Escobar has kept Jays fans generally happy with the deal, but Jo-Jo turned out to be a complete waste of time.  After tying the Major League record for most consecutive starts without a win (28), he picked up his first victory of the season on May 30.  A few solid starts later, he returned to early season form and was designated for assignment on July 23.  He was picked up by the Orioles, who let him go at the end of the season.  Now a free-agent, Reyes will likely be anywhere but Toronto next season.

Jesse Litsch endured injury and demotion before finally finding a permanent role in the bullpen.  He put up a 4.66 ERA as a starter, going 4-3, but he performed much better out of the 'pen (2-0, 4.08 ERA).  He was a solid and trust-worthy long man who looks like he will be a good contributor to the team next season--in the 'pen once again.  He will have to fight for a job (With Sergio Santos, Casey Janssen, Darren Oliver, and Jason Frasor as locks, he will have to battle it out with Luis Perez, Aaron Laffey, Danny Farquhar, Chad Beck, Joel Carreno, Trystan Magnuson, and possibly Carlos Villanueva for the final 3 or 4 spots).  This means, of course, that he will not be in the rotation unless severe injuries force the hand of Jays management.

An early season injury kept Brandon Morrow out of the rotation until April 23.  Morrow, who had a promising 2010 season (who can forget the 17 K one-hitter against the Rays?) had an up and down year in 2011.  He posted an 11-11 record with a 4.72 ERA in 30 starts.  There were many tense moments during Morrow's season and for the longest time he pitched like he had done at the beginning of the 2010 season (for those who do not know, this is not a good thing).  At the end of the year, however, he found his ability again.  While it was still impossible to predict which Morrow would show up for the game, the good one was almost unhittable.  His September 18 and 23 starts against the Yankees and Rays that showed off his best stuff.  Over the two games, he pitched 15 innings giving up 0 runs on 6 hits.  His 4 walks against Tampa Bay were not encouraging, but he only surrendered one against New York.  Morrow needs to find consistency, but he is assured a spot in the rotation next year--right now, directly behind Ricky Romero.

One of the most interesting pitchers for the Jays last season was Henderson Alvarez.  The 21-year old righty was called up in early August, all that most Jays fans expected was that he would throw hard.  In that respect, he disappointed a little--not to say that he did not throw hard, he was just a little over-hyped in that category.  He did not disappoint in any other area.  Over 10 starts, the rookie put up a 1-3 record with a 3.53 ERA.  Early in September, his ERA was below 3.00, rather near to Ricky Romero's.  While Jays management would deny it, Alvarez seems to be a lock for the rotation next year.  It is my opinion that he is the most valuable starter currently on the Blue Jays roster--no disrespect to Romero.  Of all the players on the team, he is one of two who I would not trade (the other being Jose Bautista).  He has the stuff to be a legitimate number one pitcher in the near future.  Note that he picked up 40 Ks and posted a 1.13 WHIP, as well.

One of the biggest surprises of the 2011 season was the return of Dustin McGowan, who had last pitched in 2008.  Although he finished with an 0-2 record with a 6.43 ERA, he showed that he could still pitch effectively at the big-league level.  Over 21.0 innings, he struck out 20 batters and held opponents to a .247 batting average against.  He is not assured a spot in the rotation, but the Jays do not have the luxury to send him to the minors and doctors recommend that he remain a starter (maintain a consistent schedule so that he does not injure himself again).  Right now, McGowan seems the most likely 5th starter, but he will certainly have to compete in spring training to win that title.

The remainder of the possible starters for 2011 who are currently on the team all spent time a relievers for much of last season.

Carlos Villanueva was stellar out of the bullpen at the beginning of the season.  Over 13 relief appearances from the start of the year until May 18, he posted a 1.48 ERA and picked up a win.  He also posted a 0.82 WHIP with an opponents average against of .132.  After taking over as a starter, his numbers dipped a bit.  He finished the season 6-4, 4.04 ERA, 1.26 WHIP over 33 appearances (13 starts).  He also missed most of August with an injury.  Villanueva was a reliable pitcher in 2011 (pretty good for a guy picked up in exchange for cash) and will certainly have a job in 2012.  If he wants it to be as a starter, he's going to have to work hard in spring training.

Luis Perez is a left-hander, which is to his advantage, and he pitched well in his first appearance as a starter last year after being a reliever for much of it.  He was always inconsistent, however, finishing the season with a 5.12 ERA over 37 appearances (4 starts).  He had some issues with the long ball, giving up 9 home runs on the season, and was especially poor in September.  Perez's first concern should be making the team at all, let alone as a starter.

Aaron Laffey: A recent free agent signing, Laffey has not proven himself to be a particularly good starter in the past.  He had his best season last year (3-2, 3.88 ERA), the first of his five Major League seasons in which he did not start a single game.  Laffey felt that Toronto was the place where he had the best chance at cracking the rotation, but he also signed a split contract--meaning that it is likely that Alex Anthopolous has much smaller plans for him (with Brad Mills gone to Los Angeles, the 51s need a new number one).  Like with Perez, making the team should be his primary intention.  His best hope at the starting rotation is an injury to Brett Cecil or Ricky Romero (seeing as the team would likely want to replace a southpaw with a southpaw).

Joel Carreno seems to be the final internal option who has seen big league time.  Over 15.2 innings as a reliever last season, he posted a 1.15 ERA and 0.96 WHIP.  He was one of the most consistently good pitchers on the team over the last two months.  He has certainly earned an opportunity at the rotation, but numbers like that make him an excellent trade candidate or, possibly, a future closer.  Carreno is often forgotten in talks of the rotation as many people forget that he was a starter in the minors.  With Double-A New Hampshire last season he went 7-9 with a 3.41 ERA in 24 games (23 starts).  Carreno may or may not make the team next season, but if he does, he is a viable option as a back-end starter.

All of those above have Major League experience.  The Jays, however, are famous for their highly regarded minor league system.  With Nestor Molina gone to Chicago, the Jays are left with four top pitching prospects, three of who may be ready by some point next year. 

Deck McGuire, the Jays' 2010 first-rounder, put up a 9-5 record and a 3.02 ERA in Single-A Dunedin and Double-A New Hampshire last year and may be ready as a September call up if not earlier.  He is 22-years old.  Chad Jenkins, now 24, went 9-12 with a 3.70 ERA over the same two levels as McGuire last year.  While these numbers are not quite as good as McGuire's, he is seen as a good-potential player, and his age may mean that he is mature enough to handle the Majors.  The final Major League ready prospect is Drew Hutchison.  Over 28 starts with Lansing, Dunedin, and New Hampshire, he put up a 2.53 ERA to go along with a 14-5 record.  He also struck out 171 batters in 149.1 innings.  The 21-year old was chosen in the 15th round of the 2009 draft and is certainly out-performing expectations.  He may be closer to the majors than the other two.

Another interesting prospect for the future is Daniel Norris.  While he has yet to pitch a pro game, he is seen as one of the biggest steals of the draft as the Blue Jays selected him in the second round.  Signability issues dropped his stock, but some believe that he was good enough to be a first-rounder.  While he will not be ready for next season, look for him in the near future.

These are all internal options, but there is always a possibility that the Jays will pursue free agent starters and those available through the trade market.  Matt Garza seems to be off the table, and if Anthopolous is not willing to pay what the Cubs want, it is unlikely that he would be willing to go after Jair Jurrjens.  Other pitchers like Jon Niese would probably also create the same problem.  Roy Oswalt, Hiroki Kuroda, and Edwin Jackson seem improbable, as well.  Canadians like Jeff Francis and Rich Harden are possibilities, but Harden is injury-prone and Francis has been a disappointment over his seasons in the Majors.  It does not seem likely that Anthopolous, who seems to love young arms, would go after a guy like Bartolo Colon, either.  The Jays will likely only trade away top prospects if it means a return of a major addition to the rotation (think Cole Hamels, for example).  Right now it looks as though no such move will be made before the season begins.

So what will the rotation look like in 2012?

1. Ricky Romero
2. Brandon Morrow
3. Brett Cecil
4. Henderson Alvarez
5. Dustin McGowan

This seems the most likely result, but Carlos Villanueva has a very good shot and, although they probably would like to give him some more time in the minors, Kyle Drabek cannot be completely written out.

It will be interesting to see what happens when the pitchers head south next month.

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