Photo Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

2018 Review: Injuries to the rotation opened up opportunities for rookie starters to shine

I wrote yesterday about how the Blue Jays’ starting rotation was supposed to be a position of strength for the team but it ended up being a disaster. In the wake of injuries to Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman, the trading of J.A. Happ, and ineffectiveness from Jaime Garcia, the Jays ended up having to use 14 different starting pitchers throughout the season.

Obviously that wasn’t the plan, but beyond random spot starts for guys like Mike Hauschild and Luis Santos and more starts than you’d like for Sam Gaviglio, Toronto’s disaster rotation ended up presenting sooner-than-expected opportunities for three young starting pitchers.

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Ryan Borucki was the first one to get an opportunity with the big league club. He was recalled from Triple-A Buffalo in late-June and didn’t look back. Borucki made an impressive debut against the Houston Astros, which is a hell of a task, allowing two runs over six innings of work. He continued to pitch extremely well in the early going, recording quality starts in six of his first seven outings, and finally picked up his first Major League win with a dazzling eight-inning shutout performance against the Mariners in Seattle.

Borucki, beyond also being a lefty and wearing his old No. 56, had an uncanny resemblance to Mark Buehrle on the mound. Of course, this was by design as Borucki, a Chicago native, idolized the legendary workhorse growing up. Borucki worked quickly, threw strikes, and pitched to contact, and effectively mixed speeds, much like Buehrle did over his successful 16-year career.

Also like Buehrle, Borucki overachieved his peripherals. For the season, Borucki would make 17 starts, 11 of them quality, posting a 3.87 ERA while striking out 6.17 and walking 3.04 batters per nine. His ERA was quite a bit better than his 4.63 xFIP, but Borucki did a good job keeping the ball on the ground (46.8 %), which is generally a recipe for success.

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Next up was Sean Reid-Foley. After a disappointing season at Double-A New Hampshire, Reid-Foley enjoyed a breakout year in the Blue Jays’ system that rocketed him back up the prospect depth chart. He started the year as a repeat in Double-A, but quickly got promoted to Triple-A after a tremendous eight start stretch for the Fisher Cats in which he posted a 2.03 ERA while striking out 52 batters and walking just 20. Save for a couple of rocky starts with Buffalo, Reid-Foley continued to pitch well and eventually earned the call to the Blue Jays in August.

He made his debut in Kansas City against the Royals and gutted out five innings, surrendering three runs on six hits and three walks. In his next start, Reid-Foley would get smacked around by the Yankees in New York before being sent back down to Buffalo. He came back up in September and looked much more composed. Reid-Foley earned his first win with a dominant seven-inning performance against the Marlins in which he scattered just four hits while striking out 10. Perhaps more impressively, he would throw five scoreless innings against the Yankees a couple starts later, again striking out 10.

The key to Reid-Foley’s success and failure is command. When he struggled in New Hampshire in 2017, he wasn’t throwing strikes. He got that under control and tore through the minor leagues. Then, when pitching with the Blue Jays, he could go from overpowering opposing batters to completely coming unglued and walking three guys in a row. There were certainly flashes of brilliance in which Reid-Foley looked unhittable, but the key for him will come down to an ability to consistently throw strikes.

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Mar 7, 2018; Lakeland, FL, USA; Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Thomas Pannone (45) throws a pitch during the first inning against the Detroit Tigers at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Finally, there was Thomas Pannone. The lefty, who was acquired from the Cleveland organization in the Joe Smith trade last year, got suspended for PED usage (the Chris Colabello one) during spring training and didn’t make his minor league debut until June.

Pannone got called up to the Blue Jays in August and made a few appearances out of the bullpen before finally making his debut as a starter against the Orioles. He would go seven shutout innings allowing just one hit and walking two batters. It was the Baltimore, so he probably faced stronger lineups in Triple-A, but still, it was a hell of a debut.

He would end up making six starts, four of them very good, and two not so good. Like Borucki, Pannone pitched a lot to contact and over-performed his peripherals a little bit. He would strikeout 6.1 batters per nine while walking 3.1 batters per nine, but, again like Borucki, kept the ball on the ground and limited hard contact.

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Heading into next season, it seems the Jays have Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman pencilled into the starting rotation. I can’t imagine all three of last year’s rookie starters will remain north with the club after their two games in Montreal, but it would be pretty shocking if Borucki, at the very least, wasn’t one of the team’s opening five starters. You have to expect the team will add at least one veteran starter to the mix, but both Reid-Foley and Pannone will be in the mix to compete for a rotation spot.

To carry on with what I was talking about yesterday, the Jays have an interesting crop of starting pitchers who could match up with their contention window that seems like it’ll open in 2021. Sanchez and Stroman have this year and maybe next, their final control years, to prove they should be a part of it, while Reid-Foley, Pannone, and Borucki will still be in their cheap, pre-arbitration years when it rolls around. Beyond them, you also have former first-round pick T.J. Zeuch, who was excellent in Double- and Triple-A last year, knocking on the door, and Nate Pearson, who probably has the best stuff of anybody in the system.

Starting pitching is extremely important and it’s even more difficult to predict. I mean, a few years ago, we all thought the team was set with Stroman and Sanchez moving forward, so there’s really no guarantee that all of them are going to pan out and become good big league starters. That said, Borucki, Pannone, and Reid-Foley give the organization some nice pitching depth moving forward and into their contention window, and you can never have too much pitching depth.