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Looking at the Blue Jays’ internal options for the fifth spot in the rotation

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Photo credit:Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Brennan Delaney
19 days ago
The big question is, will the Blue Jays add a fifth starter?
Although they had been previously linked to Johnny Cueto, Jim Bowden of The Athletic (article here) noted that the Jays are just looking for an outfield bat and more bullpen depth
So, if the Jays aren’t looking at external options for a fifth starter, which pitcherscould the Jays look at internally? That is what this article will seek to answer.

Mitch White:

Was Mitch White great with the Blue Jays after the trade? Not really. However, I think people are really discrediting what he can offer due to a very unlucky 7.74 ERA with the team. There’s also what was sent the other way, as Nick Frasso and Moises Brito were sent to the Los Angeles Dodgers. With that being said, White was incredibly unlucky in his brief time with the Jays..
For the 2022 season, he had a 5.45 ERA and a 3.87 FIP in 99 innings pitched. While his 17.7 K% was on the low side, he had an average BB% of 8%.
With the Jays, that ERA increased from 3.70 with the Dodgers to 7.74. However, it’s notable that his FIP actually decreased to 3.76 (down from 3.95). He didn’t strikeout batters with the Jays (15.3 K%), and his walk rate was average (7.9%), so why was his FIP so low?
Well, White excelled at home run prevention, as he only allowed three home runs in his 43 innings pitched as a Toronto Blue Jay. Even his batted ball numbers were promising, as he had a relatively low 19.6 line drive percentage. As you may know, line drives drastically increases a batter’s batting average compared to a fly ball or ground ball. 
Now, there are concerns about a lack of an out pitch, but White had a 24.9 K% in 46.2 innings pitched. He may or may not be able to find that form again, but there’s still hope, as Ross Stripling was able to develop his changeup at the age of 32 years old.
There’s a lot of parallels between the two pitchers, and that turned out pretty well. Let’s be patient.

Yusei Kikuchi:

One reason the Jays can be patient with White is because he has years of control remaining, as he hasn’t even hit arbitration. The same cannot be said for Yusei Kikuchi.
The 31-year-old lefty had a dismal season in his first year with the Jays, posting a 5.19 ERA and a 5.62 FIP in 100.2 innings pitched. While he had a pretty impressive 27.3 K%, his 12.8 BB% was not great, and he struggled with hard contact.
There’s a lot to like with Kikuchi, as he just sits a tick below 95 mph and has great stuff. However, without great numbers, that three-year, $36 million contract may handcuff the Jays.
A promising development in his 2022 season was once he was moved to the bullpen. While both his ERA of 4.91 and FIP of 4.15 weren’t great (the latter was okay), Kikuchi had an insane 39.8 K% in those 18.1 innings pitched. What’s more is that his BB% dropped to 10.8%.
My hope is that Kikuchi pitches in relief and develops into a swing and miss lefty that throws heat, something the Jays could be looking at externally. Heck, I’d settle for a long-man in garbage time who strikes out a ton of batters.
There’s a lot of good things about Yusei Kikuchi, he just hasn’t put the pieces together… yet.

Drew Hutchison:

This idea was in the works before the Jays re-signed Drew Hutchison, so I think he’s worth including. Last season, Hutchison posted a 4.53 ERA and a 4.93 FIP in 105.1 innings pitched. He had a 14.7 K% (he’s never had a high K%), and a 9.1 BB%, higher than his career average.
It seems unlikely that he’d feature in the Jays rotation unless there are a ton of injuries, but he’s good depth to have in the minor leagues. It’s nice to have Hutchison back though, perhaps if he pitches, he’ll get that crazy run support he always seemed to have in 2015.

Nate Pearson:

Like Hutchison, Nate Pearson pitching in the Blue Jays’ starting rotation seems unlikely, but for a whole different reason. You know the story by now, Nate Pearson still has the talent, the velocity, and the secondary stuff, but he just can’t seem to stay healthy.
Between Low-A and Triple-A, Pearson had a 3.52 ERA and a 31.7 K% in 15.1 innings pitched. In Triple-A, he had a 3.55 ERA and 4.38 FIP in 12.2 innings pitched, along with a 36 K% and a 14 BB%.
The encouraging aspect of his 2022 season was after the season ended stateside. Pearson absolutely dominated the Dominican Winter League, posting a 0.75 ERA in 12 innings pitched. He also had a 36.4 K%, and his BB% of 9.1% seemed to indicate that he has cleaned up the control issues. It’s a small sample size, but I believe the place for Nate is as a high-leverage, one-inning guy.
He has options, so he’ll likely start the 2023 season in Buffalo unless he really impresses in spring training.

Bowden Francis:

On a surface level, Francis’ 6.59 ERA and 6.02 FIP in 98.1 innings with the Buffalo Bisons looks pretty damn bad. He was able to strikeout 24.3% of batters and had a relatively solid BB% of 9.5%, but those numbers look rough.
However, when looking at the arbitrary date of July 6th (basically when I started taking note), Francis has a much better 4.47 ERA and a 3.42 FIP in 46.1 innings pitched. Moreover, his K% increased to 29.8%, while his BB% decreased to 8.3% for a K-BB% of 21.5%. The 26-year-old had a few tough outings to end the season (through no fault of his own), but it was encouraging to watch him.
An even more encouraging sign is witnessing what he’s doing in the Puerto Rican Winter League. While the competition isn’t fantastic, Francis is dominating, and his stuff looks absolutely fantastic. He has a 1.51 ERA in 35.2 innings pitched, along with a 34.6 K% and a 6.6 BB%.
His fastball is sitting 93-95, but has touched 96 mph. His curveball (his best pitch, you can read an article about that here), looks absolutely filthy with a ton of vertical break. His slider which has been developing is also looking great, generating a sharp downward sweep.
What’s more impressive is that he’s doing this as a starter in early January. I think he’s an under the radar option to win a spot out of spring training, and he’s definitely deserved it.

Yosver Zulueta:

Moving on to the two players I consider prospects (both Pearson and Francis are 26 years old), we first have Yosver Zulueta.
If you’ve read any of my articles, you know the Zulueta story. He signed in 2019, missed 2020 due to a plague and Tommy John surgery, and missed 2021 due to freak ACL injury. Well, he was relatively healthy throughout the 2022 season (a shoulder and knee injury kept him out for a month), and he rose up the ranks quickly. 
Between Low-A Dunedin, High-A Vancouver, Double-A New Hampshire, and Triple-A Buffalo, he had a 3.72 ERA, along with a 33.9 K% and a 12.9 BB%. While the BB% could be considered alarming, keep in mind he missed two full seasons with injuries, so the high BB% is understandable.
He spent the first half of the season as a starter, before transitioning to the bullpen after two starts in New Hampshire. While he’d be a luxury out of the bullpen, it’s quite possible that he had an innings limit, and the Jays wanted to give him experience as a reliever.
Zulueta features a fastball that sits in the high-90s (and touched 101 mph as a starer) as well as a plus slider and changeup, as well as a solid curveball. The soon-to-be 25-year-old has the potential to be a front-end of the rotation starter, so I hope the Jays continue to stretch him out. However, that may happen with the Buffalo Bisons to start the 2023 season

So who gets the spot:

My belief is that either one of Yusei Kikuchi or Mitch White will get the fifth spot in the rotation. I’m a little more hopeful that White will rebound, but the Jays may see him as a swingman, while Kikuchi gets the spot. If that’s the case, we just have to hope that Kikuchi makes the necessary adjustments to be a serviceable fifth starter, because he has the tools.
Pearson and Hutchison are long shots for two different reasons, but they may factor into the Blue Jays plans in 2023. Francis has made some adjustments that make him an appealing option, but it’s to be seen if the Jays plan to stretch him out as a starter.
I reckon Zulueta could be up at some point next season, but like Francis, it’s undetermined what his role will be. Hopefully, he’s stretched out as a starter, but who knows.
This doesn’t include external options either. Just because Jim Bowden (not Bowden Francis) hasn’t heard that the Jays are looking for a fifth starter, doesn’t mean they aren’t. Johnny Cueto is the most appealing option, but Zack Greinke, Michael Wacha, Chris Archer, and Dylan Bundy all remain available.
Also who knows, maybe the Blue Jays make a trade for a middle of the rotation starter, effectively making José Berríos the fifth starter.
This is to say that the Jays have quite a few internal options (and external options) for the rotation spot, and it’ll be interesting to see how they fill it heading into 2023.
As always, you can follow me on Twitter and Instagram @Brennan_L_D. A few hours after this will go live on Saturday, I’ve scheduled a Patreon Exclusive regarding Yosver Zulueta. If you like my content, consider becoming a Patreon here!

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