Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

2018 Review: Stroman and Sanchez’s struggles highlight Blue Jays’ rotation implosion

This is one part of a multi-part review series in which I’m going to look back at interesting things from the 2018 Blue Jays season and what it means for the future of the team. 

I think the best way to summarize what went wrong for the Blue Jays’ pitching in 2018 is Sam Gaviglio finished second on the team in innings pitched. No offence to Sammy G, but there is no way that was the plan for the Jays rotation this season.

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On paper, the Jays were rolling into the season with a very solid starting rotation of Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ, and Jaime Garcia. Stroman was excellent in 2017 and appeared to be ready to emerge as the team’s ace, Sanchez had his year derailed by a freak blister injury but led the league in ERA in 2016, Happ had been nothing but good since he began his second stint with the team in 2016, Estrada struggled with back injuries in 2017, but showed positive flashes at the end of the season, and the veteran Garcia was a very fair bet to tie it all together at the back of the rotation.

But, again, given the fact Gaviglio tossed 123 2/3 innings… Actually, no, I don’t want to single out Sammy G. What really personifies Toronto’s pitching issues last season is the fact 14 different pitchers made a start for the team. It’s clear that something went very, very wrong. Where to begin?

How about with where it was supposed to begin. Marcus Stroman was set to be the team’s Opening Day starter given his excellent 2017 season in which he posted a 3.09 ERA and finished eighth in American league Cy Young voting. But Stroman arrived in Florida with shoulder inflammation and wasn’t able to make his spring training debut until mid-March against the Canadian Junior National team. He would only make two real spring starts and ultimately wasn’t able to be the team’s Opening Day pitcher — something he wasn’t happy about.

Stroman, being the proud, high-intensity type that he is, obviously wanted to be ready for that opening series against New York. The Jays ultimately decided he was ready to go for the fourth game of the season, which, in hindsight, was a little optimistic.

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Stroman would struggle in the early part of the season before hitting the disabled list with shoulder fatigue, the same issue that delayed his start in spring training. In his first seven starts prior to landing on the DL, Stroman posted a 7.71 ERA. He came back in late June, pitched on-again-off-again better for a little while, and then landed on the DL again due to a blister. Overall, Stroman made 19 starts and posted a career-worst 5.54 ERA.

Sanchez’s season was even more frustrating. He started off strong, posting quality starts in four of his first five outings, including a game in which he carried a no hitter against the Trash Birds into the eighth, but then started to struggle with command and velocity as time went along.

In late June, Sanchez went on the DL with a finger contusion. We all assumed it had something to do with that goddamn blister that derailed his entire 2017 season, but, what actually happened was far more absurd. Sanchez got his finger caught in a suitcase as it was falling down and that put him on the shelf for two months. He ended up with a 4.89 ERA over 20 starts for the season.

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The only starter that really performed as expected for the Blue Jays out of their original starting five was Happ, but as expected, the team dealt him and his expiring contract to the Yankees prior to the trade deadline.

Estrada battled nagging injuries and put up a forgettable 5.64 ERA, though he did much through 143 2/3 innings.

Garcia was horrendous, posting a 6.42 ERA as a starter before getting relegated to the bullpen. He would end up getting designated for assignment in August.

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The supposed starting five for Toronto ended up making 100 starts, meaning nine other guys had to fill up the remaining 62 starts. Gaviglio ended up having to toss the second-most innings on the team, the Joe Biagini starter experiment was opened again and finally closed for good, randoms like Mike Hauschild and Luis Santos had to make starts, and rookies Ryan Borucki, Sean Reid-Foley, and Thomas Pannone were also given extended looks (I’ll dive into them in another article later on).

Feb 16, 2017; Dunedin, FL, USA; Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Aaron Sanchez (41) and Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Marcus Stroman (6) sit on the bench at Cecil P. Englebert Recreation Complex. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The story here, though, really is about Sanchez and Stroman.

When Alex Anthopolous went all-in (both prior to 2013 and 2015), two of the players he adamantly kept around were Stroman and Sanchez. After the 2015 playoff run, Stroman and Sanchez — or Strochez before their bromance died — was going to be the core of the team’s rotation for the next decade.

There are key reasons why the front office felt comfortable sort of going for it in 2017 and then attempting to try again this year. Many asked why not blow it up sooner? 

The difference between this team being bad like they were and good enough to maybe compete for a wild card spot was Sanchez and Stroman. Had those two pitched to their best abilities like we saw from them in 2016 and 2017 respectively, or even something that resembled that, their 73-89 record suddenly looks a lot better, especially with their hitters combining for a *squints* 101 wRC+.

To this date, the duo has never been able to pull it together and form that one-two punch at the front of the rotation that we all expected. Stroman has gone from an exciting spark plug to the guy who gets mad online after arbitration hearings while Sanchez has gone from a future ace to the guy whose career was ruined by a blister. I mean, obviously that’s simplified, but you get it. The two faces of Toronto’s future rotation haven’t delivered, and, at this point, they’ve lost virtually all the hype that once surrounded them.

Is that valid? In one case yes, in the other, not so much. Stroman had similar peripherals this season to his strong 2017 season. His walks were a little up, his strikeouts were a little down, and his hard contact was up slightly, but there was no major difference to indicate some massive decline in performance. Sanchez, on the other hand, saw major struggles with his command and a decrease in velocity. There’s obviously a lot of talent there, but these trends create some worry about Sanchez’s viability as a starter.

2019 will be an important season for Sanchez and Stroman. I imagine both will be in Toronto’s rotation to start the season next year. Trading either right now would be weird given that both of them have diminished value after a disappointing season. They won’t be pitching to help the team compete. Instead, they’ll be pitching to prove whether they belong in the team’s long-term plans as the new wave of talent comes along.

Both pitchers are under control for two more seasons which makes their futures with the organization somewhat murky. It’s well known that the Jays are probably going to be trash in 2019 and likely again in 2020, which are Stroman and Sanchez’s final two control years. If things go according to plan, both pitchers figure things out and play key roles as veterans that help lead the organization through their rebuild years and into their contention years with Bo, Vlad, and so on.

There’s reason to be optimistic about Sanchez and Stroman’s role on the team moving forward, but it’s far from a guarantee.