January 10, 2014

Blue Jays Can’t Afford to Stand Pat with Pitchers

The last thing the Toronto Blue Jays front office needs is pressure. They have plenty of that already, after a dreadfully disappointing 2013 season, the expectation is that improvements will be made to salvage the new core assembled a year ago after adding Jose Reyes, R.A. Dickey, and Mark Buehrle. So naturally, GM Alex Anthopoulos is trying to ease the pressure, making it public that he may choose to “improve internally,” or more accurately, “stand pat”, particularly concerning the rotation.

Since the Blue Jays pitching had such a terrible year, almost every starter is a candidate for a bounce-back. The justification is that enough of the rotation will revert back to their effective selves, and pitch Toronto back into playoff contention.

Sounds painless right? No more purge of the minor league system, sacrificing the future for today’s roster. And with the hefty contracts acquired from the Miami Marlins in the big trade, it seems sensible not to push the envelope. Besides, there needs to be money five years down the road for extensions, when our prospects are not so young and cheap anymore.

The problem is, even if healthy Brandon Morrow rebounds like he should, and Dickey fights off age to regain his form, the rotation still looks pretty bland. If the Jays do not add any arms, it will be Dickey and Buehrle at the top, followed by Morrow and J.A. Happ. The fifth spot is there for the taking. With Ricky Romero’s foothold in the rotation now lost, he will need to outperform guys like Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison, both back from lengthy Tommy John’s surgery rehab.


If the placeholder fifth starter gives up a relatively replacement-level 125 runs in a 190-inning season, the rotation would pitch a 4.38 E.R.A, assuming each incumbent starter improves to their average over the last three years. In 2013 this would have been 12th in the American League. It’s tough to make the playoffs with the league’s fourth-worst starting pitching. Not impressive.

It’s one of those known as “solid,” which means “below-average.” It might be good enough, but every starter would need to pitch pretty close to the ceiling of their ability. Of course five pitchers all of a sudden having up-years and the same time is very unlikely. The odds of them even staying healthy are almost as minute, that lesson the Blue Jays have learned and re-learned.

So how many games would the Blue Jays win with this staff? Of course, its relatively easy to project their 2014 record using the well-known Pythagorean Record formula. Only two numbers are needed, runs scored and runs against.

To find their runs against, all three ways to concede must be considered: starters, relievers, and defense.

With an E.R.A. of 4.38, the rotation would give up 462 runs in 900 innings (900 innings is about average for A.L. starting pitching.)

The defense accounts for about 7.5% of all runs, so they would figure to contribute 37 to the previous total of 462, so the Blue Jays starters would give up 499 runs in all.

If the bullpen holds their 2013 form and allow 236 runs, all in all the Jays will have 735 runs against in 2014. In the American League last season, that would have ranked 12th.

Guessing how many runs the Jays will score is no exact science, however. With attractive long-ball numbers, they have deceptively posted very mediocre totals on offense. The best production in the last five years was 2010. Toronto lead baseball in home runs by a healthy margin, but still managed only 755 runs, sixth out of 14 in the A.L. But after stumbling to 720 runs last yea, a reasonable expectation for this talented offense is in the ballpark of 740.

740 runs for, 735 runs against. Convert those numbers into a record, and Toronto would go 82-80. Not a post-season team. An 82 win team is just about what Blue Jays fans have come to expect; an average team, out of contention by the time July winds down.

It makes sense, the way everything adds up. The Toronto rotation should be unremarkable at best. After all, they were second to worst in baseball last year.

It was totally realistic to expect the best starting pitching in the division after reloading with Dickey, Buehrle, and Josh Johnson? Unfortunately, the assumption was also that there would be two aces at the top, R.A. Dickey and Josh Johnson. In reality, they were far from premium starters. Now, Johnson is in San Diego, trying to re-establish his career.

And while Dickey is still a Blue Jay, he is no longer the Cy Young pitcher he was two years ago. His nagging neck and back problems showed he was not immune to aging after all. He will begin the 2014 season as a 39-year-old, his best years almost certainly behind him.

Still he should be equally, if not more effective than the workhorse Mark Buehrle. With these two quality starters, the Jays’ starting pitching can’t be that bad. It can’t be that good either. The rotation will need help, by trade or by free agency. Only after that can Toronto be somewhat poised to make a run at the post-season.

Alex Anthopoulos knows, with all the money spent and hype encouraged, his critics will expect nothing less. He cannot afford to sit back, saving money and prospects, minding the future. In fact, his own future with the club may rest on the results of the coming baseball season. A playoff birth is the only way to relieve the building pressure. He has to go for it.

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