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Photo Credit: © Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Looking Back, Looking Forward: The starting rotation wound up being a strength in 2021, but the Blue Jays have a lot of work to do to repeat that success

The Blue Jays pitching rotation was a huge question mark coming into the 2021 season.

Back in 2020, the team managed to navigate the 60-game sprint despite only really having one reliable starting pitcher most of the way. Until the team acquired Taijuan Walker, Robbie Ray, and Ross Stripling ahead of the trade deadline, Hyun Jin Ryu was the only one who you could bank on to go out there and throw a good start consistently.

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By the end of the 2021 season, though, starting pitching was a team strength. It didn’t look like anybody expected it would, as Ryu, ironically, was the weak link in a five-man group that went out and gave the Blue Jays a chance to win nearly every single game.

Can the rotation again be a strength for the Blue Jays in 2022?

The acquisition of the ultra-consistent Jose Berrios and the breakout showing from Alek Manoah gives the Blue Jays a nice place to start, but replacing what the team got out of Ray and Steven Matz won’t be easy.

Apr 7, 2021; Arlington, Texas, USA; Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu (99) pitches against the Texas Rangers during the fifth inning at Globe Life Field. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Looking back…

The Blue Jays kicked off the 2021 season with a five-man rotation of Hyun Jin Ryu, Ross Stripling, T.J. Zeuch, Steven Matz, and Tanner Roark.

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Nate Pearson, who was expected to take a step forward and fill a major role in Toronto’s rotation, got injured right off the hop in spring training. Robbie Ray, one of the team’s reclamation projects who had some very nice flashes in 2020 after getting acquired from the Diamondbacks, also got injured in spring when he fell down a flight of stairs.

Nobody would have blamed you if you weren’t optimistic about the Blue Jays starting pitching at this point.

The plug was pulled on the Roark Experiment after one start. The Diesel Engine was tagged for five earned runs over three innings in Texas. He was pulled from the rotation after that, made two relief appearances, and then got designated for assignment.

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Same thing with Zeuch. After a solid debut in which he tossed four shutout innings against the Yankees, Zeuch allowed 11 earned runs over 11 innings in his next four outings. He was sent down to Triple-A and wound up getting traded to the Cardinals for cash in July.

The Blue Jays tried to fill the two gaping holes in their rotation with the likes of Trent Thornton, Anthony Kay, Tommy Milone, and bullpen days, which unsurprisingly wasn’t very successful. On the bright side, two of their reclamation projects were going well. Matz was effective early on and Ray suddenly stopped walking anybody and became very good.

The hope was that one of the spots in the rotation could be filled by Pearson, who had returned from injury at the beginning of May. Pearson made one start in Triple-A before getting called up to the Blue Jays. He would get shelled by the Astros in his debut, allowing three earned runs on four hits and five walks over two-and-one-third innings. Pearson was returned to Triple-A immediately after.

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While Pearson was struggling to find his groove with the Bisons, another young starter was dominating. Alek Manoah, the team’s first-round pick from the 2019 draft, allowed just one earned run over 18 innings in his first three Triple-A starts. Keep in mind, Manoah only had 17 innings of pro experience, all at Low-A, heading into 2021, so this performance was wildly impressive.

Manoah was called up in late May and he dazzled in his debut, shutting out the Yankees at Yankee Stadium over six innings. There were a few rough starts and growing pains in there, but Manoah took the opportunity and never looked back. He ultimately put together the season that we had expected or hoped Pearson would have.

Through June and July, the Blue Jays had a pretty good rotation rolling. Ray was excellent, Ryu was effective but not dominant like he had been in the past, Manoah continued to make good starts, and Stripling rebounded after making an adjustment to his delivery, which was important because Matz would spend some time on the COVID Injured List and struggle upon his return.

The rotation really got stabilized at the end of July when the Blue Jays pulled the trigger on their big mid-season trade. They traded Austin Martin and Simeon Woods Richardson to the Twins in exchange for Jose Berrios, a legitimate top-end starter known for his consistency and durability.

The Blue Jays rolled with Ray, Berrios, Ryu, Manoah, and Matz pretty much the rest of the way, a significantly different group than the one that came out of spring training and limped through April and much of May.

Berrios settled in nicely and posted a 3.58 ERA over 12 starts with the Blue Jays. Ray had a rough go against the Yankees in his final outing but was incredible all year, leading the way with a 2.84 ERA. Manoah also exceeded expectations, putting up a 3.22 ERA in his rookie season. Matz, who looked like he was toast in July, finished strong and ultimately wound up with a 3.82 ERA, the best of his career since his rookie season in 2016.

Ryu would wind up being the weak link down the stretch. At the beginning of August, Ryu made his first start as a Blue Jay in Toronto, allowing two runs over seven innings in a win over Cleveland. He had a 3.22 ERA after that gem. The rest of the way, Ryu struggled mightily, posting a 7.43 ERA over his final 10 outings. He finished 2021 with a 4.37 ERA.

Mar 14, 2021; Dunedin, Florida, USA; Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Alek Manoah (75) looks on during their game against the New York Yankees at TD Ballpark. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Looking forward…

When you put it all together, the 2021 Blue Jays wound up getting a different-looking version of the best-case scenario envisioned in spring. Ray had the season we assumed Ryu would have (and vice-versa), and the same goes for Manoah who essentially filled in for Pearson as the rookie that broke out and grabbed a rotation spot. Matz was as good as anybody reasonably could have hoped and Berrios was an excellent mid-season addition to fill the remaining spot.

Can the team replicate that success in 2022?

It’s safe to assume that three of the five starters that Toronto had in their rotation over those final two months of play will be back next season.

Ryu has two more years left on his contract, Berrios is eligible for arbitration this winter and is set to become a free agent after the 2022 season, and Manoah proved more than enough as a rookie to suggest he’s a big-league starter.

The other two, Ray and Matz, are currently free agents and it’s no guarantee that either will be back.

The Blue Jays issued Ray a qualifying offer, one that he’ll obviously reject because he’s looking to cash in on what’ll surely wind up being a Cy Young campaign. They didn’t give Matz a qualifying deal because $18,400,000 is too rich for a backend starter, but the Blue Jays have been in contact with the lefty about a multi-year deal.

If Ray and/or Matz don’t return, the Blue Jays will need to add somebody else through trade or free agency to compensate because there isn’t anybody in the system who appears ready to step in and be an effective starting pitcher.

The likes of Thomas Hatch, Trent Thornton, and Anthony Kay are fine as organizational depth and injury replacements, but penciling any of them into a starting role wouldn’t be ideal for a contending team. At this stage, it’s also a bit difficult to envision Pearson as a full-time starter because he’s only thrown 187 innings over five professional seasons.

Fortunately for the Blue Jays, there are quite a few options out there, both on the free-agent and trade market, for them to put together a starting rotation as good as the one that they had to finish the season this year.

Carlos Rodon, Anthony DeSclafani, Alex Wood, and Jon Gray all had good seasons in 2021 and didn’t receive qualifying offers. Another interesting name out there is Justin Verlander, who missed all of 2021 after having Tommy John surgery. He was qualified, but the assumption is that he’ll leave Houston and look to rebound elsewhere. The Blue Jays were among the many teams who attended his throwing session last week.

And then there are also names who are showing up on the trade market. Oakland is ready to blow things up again, meaning Chris Bassitt, Sean Manaea, and Frankie Montas are all available. The Reds are another team ready to rebuild, so Luis Castillo would be the name to watch there. There’s also the Marlins, a team badly in need of bats with quite a few high-quality arms that they could look to move.

It’s difficult to predict what the Blue Jays starting rotation will be next season, but, ultimately, having Berrios, Manoah, and Ryu gives the team a nice foundation for a quality starting rotation and there are multiple different avenues to flesh the rest of it out. We’ve also seen Walker work wonders with a few different pitchers now, which should lead to some optimism with whoever they wind up bringing in.

Maybe Ray and Matz both re-sign and the band gets back together. Maybe the team pulls the trigger on a huge trade with Oakland and adds another top-end starter. Maybe they spend a lot of cash on an impact position player and opt to fill the rotation with new reclamation projects for Walker.

Who knows.

It’s hard to say if 2022’s rotation will be better than the one that finished last season, but it’s pretty much a lock that it’ll be better than the group that started off in April of 2021. There’s a lot of work to do but this is a good place to start.

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