The Eternal Quest for Starting Pitching

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A little over a year ago the Blue Jays made headlines throughout the MLB community when they orchestrated a ten player blockbuster trade with the miserable Marlins of Miami. The trade was originally centered around 6’7 RHP Josh Johnson, but eventually grew to include one of the best shortstops in the game (Jose Reyes,) a savvy, veteran LHP (Mark Buehrle,) and a backup catcher (John Buck).

Less than a month after that trade, the Blue Jays went out and traded their two top prospects (Travis d’Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard) to the New York Mets in exchange for 2012 NL Cy Young Winner R.A Dickey. The Blue Jays and GM Alex Anthopolous were praised throughout the baseball world and were starting to garner attention as a possible World Series contender. There was even talk in some circles that the Blue Jays had one of the top rotations in all of baseball.

The only real concerns heading into the season was whether or not Josh Johnson, a free agent at the end of the season, would re-sign in Toronto, and if so, what would the cost be? But really, what else was there to worry about? The Blue Jays had gone out and shored up their one glaring position of weakness (starting pitching) in two “brilliant” trades, and all it cost them was some prospects from an already deep system. All there was left to do was to bust out the GPS and start planning the parade route.

*Cue sound of screeching brakes*

Here we are at the end of the 2013 season and in the midst of the frantic MLB offseson. Josh Johnson did re-sign today. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how you viewed his season, it was not with the Blue Jays. The San Diego Padres and JJ officially announced the signing of a 1yr/$8.5 million contract. This was a far cry from the rumoured 5yr/$100 million contract extensions that were being talked about prior to his disastrous 2013 season in Toronto.

To say that Johnson struggled during his one year tenure would be sugar coating it a bit. JJ laid an egg to the tune of a 2-8 record to go along with a 6.20 ERA through 16 starts. Although he did experience a positive career high in K/9 (9.2) he was also a negative WAR pitcher on the season (-1.5). Johnson’s decision to sign in San Diego isn’t overly surprising following his time in Toronto. It was no secret that he was looking to rejoin the National League, and was looking for a one year deal in order to “re-establish” his value. What better place for a pitcher to pad his stats following a dismal season than pitching friendly Petco Park in San Diego.

santana

It should be safe to assume that JJ will have a rebound year (could it get any worse?) and maybe will translate that into the payday that he was looking to land this year. Ideally for Johnson, he will turn out to be next years Ervin Santana. Santana, currently a free agent, was also a negative WAR pitcher following a miserable 2012 season in Anaheim. The Angels flipped Santana, as well as cash, to the Royals in exchange for a minor league pitcher. Last year, despite a sub .500 record, Santana pitched remarkably well for the Royals and is currently looking to parlay his season into a multi-year deal in the $100+ million neighbourhood. Are you telling me that former NL ERA champion Josh Johnson isn’t capable of doing the same thing?

Besides, losing their “centerpiece” in the 2012 Marlins trade, the Blue Jays have also seen the free agent pitching market shorten by another name. Josh Johnson’s signing with the Padres comes one day after veteran RHP Tim Hudson and the San Francisco Giants formalized a 2yr/$23 million deal. This years crop of free agent starters was already considered so-so to begin with and with players starting to sign, the rush to add players may be on. This years market features a group of retreads, question marks, “has-beens,” and even some “never-weres.”

The best pitcher available (Masahiro Tanaka) hasn’t even thrown a ball in the MLB, and the best of the rest are rounded out by Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana, Hiroki Kuroda, and Ricky Nolasco. In order for the Blue Jays, or any team for that matter, to sign any one of these guys is going to take a multi-year deal in excess of $100 million.

Are they worth it? No, probably not, but unfortunately that’s the reality of the current free agency market. If you don’t think they’re worth it remember that the Giants did infamously give Barry Zito 7yrs/$126 million deal back in 2007. More recently the Red Sox doled out 5yrs/$82 million to John Lackey in 2010, and the Tigers paid Anibal Sanchez $5yrs/$80 million just last off season.

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So where does that leave Anthopolous and the Blue Jays heading into the 2014 season? The one glaring take-away from last season was the importance of having depth in your rotation. Last season the Jays were forced to go to war with the Todd Redmond Chien-Ming Wang, Ramon Ortiz and the rest of the Buffalo Bisons starting rotation. I’m sorry, but in no world can you even dream of contending when you’re giving away (multiple) starts to those names; even spot starting them isn’t in the best interest of any (wannabe) contender.

Luckily, with Drew Hutchison, and Kyle Drabek returning from Tommy John season, and prospects Sean Nolin and Marcus Stroman expected to start in AAA, this years AAA call-up offer more hope than the turd sandwich that was served up last season. The Blue Jays are also counting on a healthy return from Brandon Morrow, but how much can you expect a guy coming back from forearm issues to contribute? Morrow isn’t the only question mark either; there is also the question of if and when Ricky Romero will ever be able to return to the starting rotation in Toronto. Despite spending nearly the entire season in AAA Buffalo, Romero didn’t put up the numbers that makes you believe that he is ready to return to the bigs.

That leaves us with two legit starters in Dickey and Buehrle (a combined 74 years of age come Opening Day,) and a handful of question marks in Morrow, Hutchison, Drabek, Romero, and converted reliever Esmil Rogers. Clearly the only real choice the Blue Jays have is to go out and add an arm or two via free agency or trade.

The top tier of the free agency market is most likely going to prove to be too rich for Anthopolous’ and the Blue Jays blood. The Blue Jays will be rumoured to be in on the Garzas, Jimenezs, and even Tanakas because a) the Blue Jays have had prior interest and b) Alex Anthopolous has a history of not quelling rumours in order not to tip his hat. That being said, expect the Blue Jays to search through the ‘buy one get one’ and bargain bins of the free agent market.

Cincinnati Reds v Philadelphia Phillies, Game 1

I’m sure I’m not the only Jays fan who has thought/dreamt of a possible reunion with the good doctor Roy Halladay (a current free agent) but Roy is not Roy anymore. Halladay is 37 and is coming off his worst season since his rookie year in Toronto, throw in the fact that he is coming off major shoulder surgery and his fastball is barely hitting 89mph and you have to wonder how much interest the Jays have in the Doc. It also doesn’t help that the Blue Jays already feature two soft tossing starters in Dickey and Buehrle, and play in the offensive friendly American League; more specifically in the meat grinder that is the AL East.

Other former Blue Jays who are looking for employment and a new team are Shaun Marcum and AJ Burnett. Both seem very unlikely candidates for Toronto though as Marcum is coming off major shoulder surgery and is throwing softer than R.A Dickey (minus the knuckleball), and Burnett is looking to stay in the National League. Perhaps the Blue Jays could take a flyer on a pitcher trying to re-establish their value following an injury plagued year like Gavin Floyd or Colby Lewis. They could also look to add an arm or two that have previously pitched in the AL East like Scott Feldman and Jason Hammel who were with the Orioles last season, or Scott Kazmir who pitched the bulk of his career in Tampa Bay before resurrecting it in Cleveland last season.

One interesting name would be one-time Yankees prized prospect Phillip Hughes who has fallen from grace and is currently looking for a new gig. Hughes has not only pitched in the AL East, but also has 40 innings of experience pitching in the playoffs. Yet Hughes is just another interesting candidate with an injury history; tis the tale of the free agent pitching market.

sanchez-alexisbrudnicki

It’s no secret that Anthopolous is not shy to pull the trigger on a trade, and he very well could look to dip back into his farm system to acquire the arm(s) he covets. The only problem with that is that the Blue Jays farm system isn’t as bountiful as it was a year ago. That being said it is not like the Jays are without prized prospects; the best being RHP Aaron Sanchez and RHP Marcus Stroman. Both are ranked in the MLB top 100 prospects, have the make-up of front line starters, and both are coming off exceptional showings at the Arizona Fall League. Any trade for a top caliber arm will most likely involve one of them, perhaps even both.

Stroman

The only downfall in moving one of Sanchez or Stroman is the redundancy of trading pitching for pitching. Even with the Blue Jays currently in year two of Anthopolous’ three year “window of contending” you have to assume that AA will only include one of his prized pitching prospects in a trade if the return outweighs the cost. The Blue Jays could also look to move some of their immense depth of bullpen arms and outfielders in order to land an arm or two in return. Possible trade partners could be found in St. Louis, Oakland, Arizona or even Atlanta. All those teams are pitching heavy and could use help in both the bullpen and outfield.

The most intriguing names available on the trade front are Tampa Bay ace David Price and current AL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer of Detroit. As exciting as landing one of those names would be, it does come at the cost of trading within your league, and within your division in the case of Price and the Rays. The Blue Jays have also been rumoured to be in talks with Theo Epstein and the Cubs regarding their ace Jeff Samardzjia; a trade that would see the rebuilding Cubs wanting a top prospect or two in return.

The feelings of optimism and hope that were there before the 2013 season have been replaced with those of unease and despair. Last season they were favoured to run away with the AL East crown and make it to the World Series only to wind up flat on their face looking up from 5th place in the East as their former manager won a World Series with a division rival. This year, the Blue Jays have the daunting task to prove that last year was indeed a fluke and that they are still the same team that was expected to contend.

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In order for the Blue Jays to have any kind of chance to even be in the conversation for contending in 2014 they must, MUST address their needs on the starting pitching front. Whether that is addressed by trade or free agency, the next few weeks should be more than interesting when it comes to wheeling and dealing.

– $

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