Last year the Blue Jays' pitching corps was not really slated to be a huge strong point. However, by year’s end it was the pitching, especially the emergence of the young guns, that helped keep the injury-plagued team competitive.
Unfortunately, the injury monster that seems to haunt the Blue Jays is rearing its ugly head once again. The club found out in mid-March that they would be without 2007’s right-handed setup man Casey Janssen, who will be lost for the season due to a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder.
Although losing Janssen certainly hurts the Jays, it’s not the end of the world. The Jays still have a strong rotation and depth in the bullpen despite the loss of Janssen’s quality ERA. Hopefully this is not a sign of things to come though.
The Jays’ starting rotation looks to be fairly solid, with the same group returning from last year. The only major flaws are youth and the absence of left-handers, which might be cause for concern against teams with good left-side power at the plate. Nevertheless, the same rotation had one of the best ERAs in the league after the All-Star break last year, so there is reason to be optimistic.
Roy Halladay is the obvious choice for staff ace again this year. He struggled in the middle portion of last season after having an appendectomy, but regardless of his periodic struggles he was an important leader for the young group.
AJ Burnett will be the number two starter. His $11 million/year salary is incredibly steep for someone who’s only ever had a .500 record and spent half his career on the disabled list. However, his curveball and fastball can give hitters nightmares when they work and he pitched better down the stretch after Jays' GM JP Ricciardi called him out in the media for basically being a pussy.
The three and four slots in the rotation will be filled by two 26 year olds, Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum, who are polar opposites on the mound.
McGowan is one of the premier pitching prospects in baseball who has a fastball that can touch 98 mph, a power curve, and a solid changeup with movement. Marcum, on the other hand, doesn’t have the same kind of power, but uses a very good changeup and solid control to be effective, which was evidenced by his 12-6 record and 4.13 ERA in 2007.
Marcum also lost a number of quality starts due to the team’s sputtering offense. McGowan’s 12 wins and 10 losses were a record that was indicative of a young power pitcher, so the story this year will be if McGowan can turn a corner and emerge as a legitimate ace for the team.
At this point, the fifth spot in the rotation seems like it is Jesse Litsch’s to lose. Last year, Litsch was called up from AA as a replacement when Halladay went down. He struggled at times, but pitched well at others. His 3.81 ERA over 20 starts was pretty impressive for the 22 year old.
The club still has options though, and could bolster the fifth spot via free agency or possibly a trade. Litsch should take nothing for granted at this point, especially with southpaw Gustavo Chacin waiting in the ranks at AAA Syracuse.
Last year the Jays’ bullpen was a force to be reckoned with. Long reliever Scott Downs, set-up man Casey Janssen, and fill-in closer Jeremy Accardo each sported sparkling ERAs, all of which were 2.35 or under.
Brian Wolfe and Brian Tallet also put up solid numbers, posting ERAs of only 2.98 and 3.47 respectively. Wolfe also had a WHIP (Walks and Hits per Inning Pitched) just under 1.00, which left another quality arm in the mix for a job during Spring Training this year.
While Janssen has been lost for the season, the Jays' relief core has been receiving some promising news in the form of All-Star closer BJ Ryan getting set to return from Tommy-John surgery. Jays’ fans started getting comfortable with a lead after seeing Ryan’s massive frame sprinting from the bullpen during the 2006 season, and given his performance so far in the Grapefruit League he looks like he’s returning to form nicely.
However, he still remains a month or two away from being game ready, so Accardo, who emerged as a solid closer in Ryan’s absence, will see spot duty at that role to bridge the gap before Ryan’s return. Once Ryan is back he will likely find a slot as the new set-up man, especially with Janssen out.
Downs is basically a lock to return to the roster this year as long relief, while Wolfe and Tallet have a leg up on everyone else based on last year’s efforts. Brandon League is another name to watch for since he has been having a solid spring and unfortunately spent all of last year recovering from a training injury that decimated his once blistering fastball. However, if League continues to pitch like he has then the Jays’ Brass would be hard pressed to send him back down to the minors.
Randy Wells, who was picked up from the Cubs in the Rule 5 Draft will likely be in the bullpen while Ryan is out, but probably get sent back to Syracuse once he returns. Chacin, who’s probably known more for his signature "Chacin" fragrance than his pitching, is also an option if anyone in the bullpen gets injured.
Projected Rotation: Roy Halladay, AJ Burnett, Dustin McGowan, Shaun Marcum, Jesse Litsch
Closer: BJ Ryan, Set-Up Man: Jeremy Accardo, Relievers: Scott Downs, Brian Wolfe, Brain Tallet, Brandon League, Jason Frasor, Randy Wells