Headed into 2013, the Blue Jays added significant depth to their rotation by bringing in three respected veterans to potentially give them one of the strongest starting staffs in the American League. So much for potential.
The Blue Jays lost J.A. Happ and Josh Johnson to the disabled list and sent Ricky Romero, who they had prematurely brought up, back to the Minors. As a result, the Jays are down to a rotation of R.A. Dickey, Brandon Morrow and Mark Buehrle. To make things worse, it was not as if Toronto’s staff was performing well prior to the injuries. Overall, as of the writing of this article, the Blue Jays have the second worst ERA in the American League as well as the second to worst starter’s ERA. So can this club turn things around? When will their injured pitchers come back from the disabled list? And what, if any, other options do the Jays have to push into their rotation?
On the injury front, reports are mostly encouraging on both Happ and Johnson, as they are tentatively scheduled to return the first week of June. Whether or not they will be effective upon their return remains to be seen.
The Blue Jays also have Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison on the shelf. Both are returning from Tommy John surgery. Neither pitcher is even scheduled to begin anything much more than bullpen sessions by the end of May or early June. If those progress well, the duo will move into rehab assignments and go to the Minors from there. As long as the rest of the rotation gets healthy and can be somewhat effective, it’s quite possible both could remain in the Minors for the rest of the season. Hutchison, at the time of the injury, had been acclimating well to the Majors, successfully translating his strikeout and control skills. As for Drabek, I have never been sold on him being a starter. The righty, when healthy, has two plus-pitches but no off-speed pitch and mediocre at best command. If he can regain his stuff, his best bet for a MLB career may be as a reliever.
As for the pitchers currently in the rotation, R.A. Dickey finally looked more like the R.A. Dickey from 2012 with a 10 strikeout/2 walk performance which raised his strikeout rate nearly a full point from 7.1 to 8.0. It has been widely noted that Dickey’s velocity has been down this year a few mph on his hard knuckler (averaging 74 mph rather than 77 mph last year) and it is possible a combination of that and a variety of day-to-day issues have compromised his performance in the early goings. A rebound may be coming, but keep in mind that at age 38, aches and pains may become more and more common for Dickey. If you are trying to buy low, your chance may have passed. It's also possible Dickey owners may still be trying to deal him, pointing towards his most recent performance as a selling point.
Mark Buehrle’s numbers in the early goings are actually fairly in line with his career norms from a skills perspective. The lefty’s walk rates are up slightly, but not egregiously high at all, at 2.4 BB/9. What has been happening, unfortunately, has been a case of gopheritis. Buehrle has produced a HR/9 almost twice his career norms as well as a 16.4% HR/FB rate to go along with a 6% rise in fly-ball rate over his career norms. Given no significant change in velocity or change in pitch selection, this strikes me as a short-term struggle that should correct itself given the context of Buehrle’s career. While I might not go out of my way to have Buehrle active in most formats, it is still a good buy-low moment if you are in the market for innings and a typically reasonable WHIP.
The main holdover, Brandon Morrow, has also been inconsistent but has maintained his strikeout skills. Command and control, which have always been Morrow’s primary weaknesses, have regressed slightly, though not dramatically, and overall he’s really only had two sub-par outings. In five of Morrow’s seven starts, he’s allowed three earned runs or less. Morrow was scratched from his most recent outing due to back spasms and that could easily be to blame for the former Mariner’s recent wildness. Keep an eye on this situation, as back issues can easily recur.
Veteran right-hander Ramon Ortiz is one of the current part-timers. The former Angel will turn 40 years old next week. Throwing strikes has never been much of an issue for Ortiz. Throwing quality strikes and commanding his pitches within the zone has, as his career 1.4 HR/9 can attest. Ortiz has not been missing bats, not even in the Minors. In 27 Triple-A starts last year, Ortiz managed a 5.5 K/9. A 42% fly-ball rate and four strikeouts in 15.1 innings of work mean an adjustment is coming to the 2.35 ERA he’s sporting thus far.
Chad Jenkins is manning the fifth spot for now. The 25-year-old has been in the Majors before but lacks Triple-A experience. The righty has four pitches and decent control, but has no out pitch and produced a 4.5 K/9 at Double-A in 2012. Pass.
The upper levels of the Minors are barren. The Jays' best bets for fill-ins are journeymen Justin Germano and David Bush, both of whom have already been up in the Majors this year.
The Jays are in last place in the AL East, eight games back, and have the second-worst record in the AL overall. If Johnson and Happ can return healthy in early June and so can Jose Reyes later that month, there’s still time for a turnaround. But, they may need to reach outside of the organization once again to supplement their starting staff as there isn’t anything within it to give them the boost they need.