Blue Jays, Position by Position: The starting pitching conundrum and how the Jays may have to fill two spots
Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
7 months ago
As we learned this season, pitching is crucial
I don’t think it’s unfair to say that the Jays had a solid pitching core in 2022, both with starters and the bullpen. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t concerns heading into the 2023 season, especially with a few spots in the rotation.
Let’s look at who’s penciled in, which pitchers are depth pieces, and which prospects could impact the Jays in the 2023 season.
Side note: I’m not including Hyun-Jin Ryu in this article. There’s an outside chance he’ll be able to pitch in the back end of the season, but I find it super unlikely. Would be nice to get the 2020 form of Ryu though.
Penciled in starters for the 2023 season:
There are three starters that are already penciled into the rotation. I think it’s likely another one will come via trade, while they’ll sign a fifth starter. Here’s the rotation as it stands:
Starter 1: Alek Manoah
Starter 2: Kevin Gausman
Starter 3: N/A
Starter 4: Jose Berrios
Starter 5: N/A
Swingman/Longman: Yusei Kikuchi/Mitch White/Casey Lawerence
So as you can see, the #3 spot in the rotation will have to be filled (likely via trade), while the #5 spot could be filled via signing, or by way of Yusei Kikuchi or Mitch White.
2022 starters, a flashback:
Thankfully enough, starting pitching wasn’t really a problem for the 2022 Blue Jays. They had two aces, a pitcher who pitched well two-thirds of the time, and a hero that stepped up when the team needed him most. Granted, they also lost a lot of games because of a lack of a fifth starter, but it wouldn’t have changed much in the grand scheme of things.
Big Puma showed up and broke out. The 24-year-old took over Robbie Ray’s role of “ace” this season, posting a 2.24 ERA and 3.35 FIP in 196.2 innings pitched. In a sense, he was less dominant than last season, as he only had a 22.9 K% compared to a 27.7 K% in 2021. However, his BB% dropped from 8.7% to 6.5%, meaning he didn’t really give runners a free base.
In the month of September, Manoah had a 0.88 ERA and 3.09 FIP in 41 innings pitched. The 24-year-old was a big reason why the Jays were able to secure home-field advantage for the Wild Card Series. He’s only going to get better with experience and with the development of his changeup.
Gausman was brought in to replace the departing Ray, and oh my, did he ever live up to standards. In 2022, the 31-year-old righty posted a 3.35 ERA and an incredible 2.38 FIP in 174.2 innings pitched.
The reason his FIP was so low was due to the fact he had an above-average 28.3 K%, with a 3.9 BB%. Gausman also limited the number of homers, as he only allowed 15 in the season. Gausman would have been an ace on most teams, but on the Jays, he formed a nice one-two punch with Alek Manoah.
The right-hander signed a five-year, $110 million dollar contract last offseason. He’ll have a base salary of $21 million in 2023, with a luxury tax salary of $22,000,000. If you want a comparison between Gausman and Ray, you can read that here.
Originally meant to be the swingman or the longman, it’s not unfair to say that Stripling helped preserve the Jays’ season once Hyun-Jin Ryu went down with an injury.
Stripling posted a 3.01 ERA and 3.11 FIP in 134.1 innings pitched this season, with 24 starts. While his 20.7 K% was slightly below average, like Gausman, the 32-year-old had an incredible BB% of 3.7%. A big reason for his success was the development of his changeup, which genuinely became one of the best in the MLB.
However, it’s possible that Stripling will now be too pricey for the Jays to sign. It wouldn’t surprise me if the soon-to-be 33-year-old is looking for a deal with term, potentially around the $15 million a year range. With the Jays already on the brink of reaching the luxury tax, it seems unlikely to me that they would be willing to do that much with term.
I could see the Jays offering him a qualifying offer for that very reason. If the Jays believe that this will be Stripling’s last chance at a long-term payday, it may make sense to get that compensation pick.
Either way, I hope that Ross gets that money, as he has always been a good pitcher, and he was my MVP of the 2022 Blue Jays.
Last season, Berrios was brought in as the number three in the rotation. Unfortunately, he didn’t pitch to standards in 2022.
The 28-year-old posted a 5.23 ERA and 4.55 ERA in 172 innings pitched. Last season, he had a 26.1 K% with the Twins and Jays, but it dropped to 19.8% this season. It’s a confounding season that made absolutely no sense.
After the 2021 season, Berrios signed a seven-year, $131,000,000 contract with the Jays, but he was the absolute definition of consistency. Between 2017 to 2021, he had a 3.74 ERA and a 3.79 FIP, along with a 24.86 K% and a 6.8 BB% in 793.1 innings pitched.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Berrios bounces back next season, as he has a great track record of being a good middle-of-the-rotation starter.
The fifth starter role:
Unlike the other four starters above, we’ll look at three different starters that filled this role in some capacity, not including Max Castillo. Let’s start with the pitcher they signed last off-season to do so.
Like Berrios, Kikuchi struggled in the 2022 season. He had a 5.19 ERA and 5.62 FIP with a 27.3 K% and a 12.8 BB% in 100.2 innings pitched.
The 31-year-old signed a three-year, $36 million dollar contract, and was seen as somewhat of a project, as his career numbers weren’t great in his three seasons prior. However, Kikuchi has shown flashes of promise in the past, as he throws very hard and is a lefty, but he hasn’t been able to be consistently good over a full season.
Hell, even when he was in the bullpen for the Jays in the second half, he had a K% of around 40%, so the tools are there, the team just has to unlock them.
The 27-year-old had a 7.74 ERA and 3.76 FIP in 43 innings pitched with the Jays after a midseason trade.
While I don’t want to give my thoughts on the trade (again), White had a 3.70 ERA and 3.95 FIP with the Dodgers in 56 innings pitched before the trade. In 46.2 innings pitched with the team last season, he had a 3.66 ERA and 3.83 FIP. Like Kikuchi, he’s shown flashes of being a serviceable MLB pitcher in the past.
Yes, he did struggle down the stretch, but that tends to happen when you move to a different team midway through the season. The human element is often forgotten about, but White likely left friends in Los Angeles and also probably had to find a place to rent, which isn’t easy to deal with regardless of who you are.
Not just that, but look at both the Stripling trade and Ray trade in 2020. Both those guys didn’t do so great in the following months, but at some point or another, were a huge part of being in the playoff conversation.
White will be out of options next season, meaning that if he’s demoted to Buffalo, he’ll have to be DFA’ed and a team could pick him up on waivers.
One of the only minor league pitchers on the Jays’ 40-man roster, the 35-year-old was successful with the Buffalo Bisons, but not so much with the Jays.
With the Jays Triple A team, Lawrence had a 2.79 ERA and 4.16 in 126 innings pitched. This included a 21.9 K% and a very low 3.5 BB%. However, his success didn’t translate to the majors, where he had a 7.50 ERA and 6.34 FIP in 18 innings pitched.
Granted, Lawrence was used as a guy who was told to eat innings no matter what, and he wasn’t actually as bad as the stats suggest. However, he may end up being outrighted off the 40-man roster to make room for a Rule 5 eligible prospect.
Speaking of prospects…
Prospects that could make an impact soon:
If we’re looking at solely just starting pitching prospects, there are quite a few that could impact the Jays in 2023. Who may they be?
This may be a surprise, but I really like Zulueta as a starter. Pitching at all four “A” levels, Zulueta had a 3.72 ERA in 55.2 innings pitched, along with a 33.87 K% (which was still high in Triple A) and a 12.90 BB% (which increased at every level).
While his 100 mph fastball may help out the bullpen tremendously in 2023, his other pitches aren’t too shabby either. His slider has a nice sweeping action and has developed as his second-best pitch. Zulueta’s changeup is also a plus pitch, although it’s behind his slider. Hell, even his curveball can be used as a get-me-over pitch.
Yes, there are some concerns about his command (or lack thereof), but don’t forget that Zulueta suffered two massive injuries and hadn’t pitched since 2019. The command will come as he gains more experience.
If he makes camp out of spring training, it’ll be as a reliever. However, I really think the Jays have something with Zulueta as a starter, so I hope they give him an opportunity in Buffalo in 2023.
Zulueta will be Rule 5 eligible in December, but I’d be willing to bet my life savings that he is added to the 40-man roster.
Another 24-year-old pitcher who missed 2020 and 2021, Robbins had a fairly accelerated ascent like Zulueta.
At the three levels he pitched at in 2022 (Low A, High A, Double A), Robbins had a 2.59 ERA with a 30.15 K% and a 9.85 BB% in 76.1 innings pitched. He spent the last part of the season with the Double A New Hampshire Fisher Cats, where he posted a 1.52 ERA and 3.33 FIP in 23.2 innings pitched. The 24-year-old lefty also had a 26.8 K% and a 6.2 BB%, which was a drop from his 12.3% in Low A and 11% in High A.
Robbins features a four-seam fastball, cutter, slider, and changeup arsenal, and sits around 91-93 mph. However, he did touch 95 mph in the spring, and his deception makes the ball play up.
He’ll be Rule 5 eligible in December, but coming off an injury, the Jays may not add him, and he may not be drafted. Either way, Robbins could be an option to fill the fifth starter’s role if injuries occur next season.
Why am I including a 20-year-old pitcher here? Well, because he’s insanely good. Like Robbins, he pitched in Low A, High A, and Double A, where he amassed a 2.17 ERA in 78.2 innings pitched. He also had a 38.87 K% between all three levels, which is bonkers.
You’d think that he’d slow down once pitching as a 19-year-old in Double A? Nope. With the Fisher Cats, he had a 2.45 ERA and 2.23 FIP in 11 innings pitched, which also saw him have a 34.1 K%. Again, Tiedemann was a 19-year-old in Double A, one of only two pitchers that young.
The team has clearly been aggressive with him, and I don’t see that slowing down if he continues to absolutely dominate hitters who have much more experience than him.
What’s more is that Tiedemann is a left-handed pitcher who sits in the mid-90s, and has touched as high as 98.2 mph in-game action. Rumour has it he’s hit 100 mph, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he hits it as soon as next season.
Like Alek Manoah, Tiedemann just has “it”, the thing that makes an ace, an ace. I wouldn’t say there’s a good chance we see him next season, but it isn’t out of the realm of possibilities. The kid is absolutely insane.
What will happen:
I’ll be honest, I genuinely have no idea. I think the Jays will probably not be able to re-sign Stripling, but getting a compensation pick certainly isn’t off the table. With the team already pretty close to the competitive balance tax, I doubt there’ll be any big free agent signings for the position (so yes, no Justin Verlander).
That means that to fill the third in the rotation spot, the Jays will likely need to make a trade to acquire a controllable pitcher. More unlikely is the team going all in for Shohei Ohtani, but a man can dream, right?
As for the backend of the rotation role, it may annoy some people, but I could see either Mitch White (who’ll hopefully be better) or Yusei Kikuchi filling that role. The question is, are either of them fifth starters on a team that wishes to contend? I’m not too sure.
If they do what I perceive to be right (Kikuchi to the pen, White as a longman), they’ll likely look to sign a fifth starter free agent. Drew Smyly is a guy who I’d have an interest in.
Heading into the 2023 season, the biggest need the Jays have is to fill those two holes in the rotation.
As always, you can follow me on Twitter @Brennan_L_D. Fun fact, I’m now running the Prospects Live social media page (mainly Twitter, I’m addicted to the Bird App). You can follow my adventures there @ProspectsLive.
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