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Photo Credit: © Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Pitching Depth and Roster Building, Part 1: The Big Leagues and Triple-A

The rust, the rust everywhere.

It’s been a very long time since I wrote anything significant about baseball (or really, anything, but let’s not go there) mainly on account of the fact that the narrow niche where I feel I might contribute something that’s not what several others are saying is often related to minor league action and last year there was simply not anything to write about apart from “events” like the miniature draft.

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Even the off-season has been achingly slow and I don’t just mean major league player movement but also the usual series of off-season minor league news, players acquired, players departing, players ranked, all suffered to some degree over the lack of an actual season last year. For example, with Spring Training less than two weeks away, we’re only now beginning to see an accumulation of prospect ranking that we can pour over and process.

So rather than begin the blogging season with a primary focus on such rankings I propose to discuss a topic about which we already have a good deal of raw information, though perhaps not all of it – the organizational starting pitching depth. Particularly at the upper levels. As always in my speculative posts, It’s necessary to frame the topic with certain basic assumptions just for consistency of thought (you’ll recognize these when you see them) and for length, I’ll divide the topic into two separate posts. We’ve been told that the players below Triple-A will not begin camp until the Major league and Triple-A squads have left. So that seems a natural sorting point.

First assumption: trying to project a five-man rotation is always problematic but even more so now, coming off bizarro year last year. Inning concerns abound across the league and observers speculate there will be more time in the injured list, cumulatively, as a result. It is said every year that a successful team will be eight or nine starters deep because stuff happens, but beyond that principle, THIS season it’s not just about having, say, a Jacob Waguespack who CAN plug into the rotation in an emergency but having more than five guys that you are comfortable with expecting to play more than an emergency role. Plus, particularly to the Blue Jays, if there were no more acquisitions (most assume there will be at least one more) there are as many as 16 nominal candidates for the two rotations in question and all of them have at least appeared in a major league game. So as I look at how the organization might sort out its rotations I’m going to suggest something no one is saying much about: a six-man rotation.

I’m no professional but for me, there’s a strong argument for committing to a six-man rotation, or at least a modified one, this year. It goes a long way towards mitigating the innings concern and the Blue Jays have the depth to do it without putting that really marginal guy (like, say, the departed Yensy Diaz) into one of those slots. More, if I’m wrong or assuming too much here it remains true that in any given ST one of your nominal top five might get hurt or whatever so it’s useful to think about (at least) who are your best SIX options.

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The second assumption is that the team will work to add another pitcher who at least should be their second-best starter. It’s true Mark Shapiro said, “the heavy lifting is done” (mostly, probably) but they certainly have some flexibility to do one more important thing and most think they should and they want to. There’s also the, perhaps not realistic, the possibility of a creative trade that moves Tanner Roark’s contract in a way that gives them more money to add that No. 2 guy.

But speculation down that path gets more complex than a digression from my purpose will allow. Speculatively I’ll mention eight names which might be available and might fit the definition of the need  (top half of the rotation guy): Free Agents James Paxton, Tijuan Walker, Jake Odorizzi and trade targets Kyle Hendricks, Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray, David Price, and Tony Gonsolin.

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Taking the trade options first: Sonny Gray is, or was at one point, widely rumoured to be available, but as fans, we really have no idea whether the Jays find the acquisition cost-prohibitive. I’ve no knowledge that Price is even on the market, that’s mostly wishcasting however Los Angeles having added Bauer does suggest the possibility they might deal from the excess which leads to speculation about whether they would like to move Price’s contract (which would cost the acquiring team a very reasonable $16 million per year over two years since the Red Sox are on the hook for half his contract.

Alternately, perhaps a more aggressive push could pry lose the younger and more controllable Tony Goslin who could produce more value for the Dodgers via trade return than as a very good but wasted No. 7 man in their rotation. I’ll also note that realistically the Jays would be unlikely to give up the prospect haul needed to get Castillo, and that since the Cubs have supposedly had a change of direction on spending, perhaps Hendricks is not a realistic option either, so the options might be even fewer than I’ve mentioned.

As for the free agents, now that Bauer is out of the way movement on the three best remaining options should pick up. One factor that hasn’t been much remarked upon until the latest episode of “At the Letters” seems relevant here – the likelihood that the jays spend most or all of the upcoming season playing in Dunedin suggests that possibly if you’re a fly ball pitcher you won’t find that inviting. That observation provoked me to do a little basic research. If you list the SP with at least 300 IP in the last three seasons you get 70 names. The No. 9 best ground ball percentage belongs to our own Huyn-Jin Ryu. The lowest? Jake Odorizzi. That, combined with his likely desire for a multi-year deal makes me suspect he’s the least likely signing of the three. But I’ve severely digressed.

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In any case, for the purpose of this exercise, I’ll assume that SOME worthy fellow not yet in the organization is going to be the No. 2 starter.

So, with all that said. I can name six OTHER guys that you would normally assume to be a strong candidate to break camp in the rotation. In that sense, I’m bending my premise a bit but let’s talk about it. Hyun Jin Ryu is a given, and in house, there are three other veteran starters about which there’s been no talk from team decision-makers about shifting roles: Robbie Ray, Steven Matz, and Tanner Roark. If we’ve assumed the addition of a No. 2 then that might be thought of as the default rotation in a normal year. But this provokes questions, primarily concerning Nate Pearson. Given his lack of work over almost his entire professional career, he (despite being a big ol’ boy) hasn’t had the chance to build up to what might be considered full season projectability (in 2019 he threw a collective 101 2/3 innings over three levels).

We’ve been assuming all along that within those limitations he’d be a rotation mainstay but – what if the team finds it prudent to start him off in a highly managed situation that’s not tied to the opening day rotation?

In my view, this is maybe a lot more possible than has been discussed. I do think that health-permitting he’ll be a key factor this season but maybe in a more creative manner than you’d expect in normal times. The other dangling thread is Trent Thornton. Apparently fully recovered from a relatively minor procedure, in a less crowded situation, he would have a leg up on a regular slot (laying aside the injury-marred 2020 season, he was a mainstay over the last two months of 2019 and seemed to have genuinely figured it out). Assuming everyone is healthy when April arrives, something has to give. So that’s six names we know (and maybe one we don’t) who are at the front of the line as camp opens. Others, possibly in a couple of cases maybe even better pitchers but pitchers with the flexibility to be sent down, might be looking at Buffalo.

While it’s not my purpose here to go deep on the bullpen, it should be noted in passing that Ryan Borucki is basically a reliever going forward and Tyler Chatwood was more or less pitched to fans as a bullpen piece as well. There’s also Russ Stripling whose whole career, basically, has been swinging back and forth between the pen and starting so I’m assuming that continues in this scenario (although I’m higher on him than many). The other guys on your mind right now that have you thinking “But whatabout…?” are likely, barring unpredictable events, staying stretched out in Triple-A.

Turning our attention, then, to that group let me first express a bit of relief. Sean Reid-Foley and Yensy Diaz would have been complicating to this discussion. Both almost certainly relievers if they make a dent in the majors, but studiously developed in various minor league rotations. It would have been obligatory, really, to just go ahead and shove them off into the Buffalo ‘pen to make any sense out of this rotation. This, then, is what we’re left with as of this writing:

  • Nate Pearson – Maybe? If this is part of the inning management process? But we’re not counting him here now for the sake of this speculation…
  • Julian Merryweather – Arguably could be one of the best five starters in the upper system including the veterans, but, like Pearson, needs a lot of inning management and has been gifted another option year based on his injury history. Still, watch this guy.
  • TJ Zuech – Really not the next best guy but probably the one they are most willing to put on the shuttle for spot start fill-in roles.
  • Thomas Hatch – As impressed as they were last year, they likely want to just watch him flex in a starter role as a real option if a big-league rotation spot opens up for more than a turn or two.
  • Anthony Kay – Similarly situated to Hatch except he left more questions unanswered last year and has maybe somewhat more to prove.
  • Patrick Murphy – Some speculate that his ultimate role in the majors will be in relief but he’ll surely continue to develop as a starter for now.
  • Jacob Waguespack – Like Zuech, more that he needs a regular rotation turn so they can pop him for either role in the majors should the need arise.

That’s six, without Pearson. It’s worth noting that Anthony Castro cleared waivers and has come up through the minors as a starter so with the right injuries or whatever he could be in this rotation too but since he had to clear off the 40-man to be assigned here, it seems less likely that he’d be on the shuttle since he’d need to be added back to the roster.

So, all in all, depending on your particular leanings, you could count the in-house depth of guys who could reasonably start at some point for the Jays up to as high as 12-14 arms. And more to the point, if, for example, Roark has another disaster or Ray can’t figure it out, or whatever – there are some actually talented guys a phone call away (as opposed to, say, Sam Gaviglio and hope for the best). Add in, say, Paxton and even six-man rotations can’t include everyone. Still, that assumes health and there are always two or three guys hurting to one degree or another.

Next time I’ll try to sort out the other three levels (and I say “try” because… well, let’s say the competition at Dunedin is going to be FIERCE.