Last year, the Blue Jays had some of the best pitching in the Majors. For 2009 though, they could be poised for a fall from grace.
In the offseason, the Jays lost bodies from their pitching staff to injury (Shaun Marcum, Dustin McGowan) and free agency (A.J. Burnett), and while the bullpen should perform well the starting rotation is riddled with question marks.
As mentioned in the hitting preview, the Jays organization is using 2009 as more of a bridge to 2010. By bringing along some of the younger talent, the Jays hope to be a force two years from now, and the pitching will be a key area to see growth in.
Here’s how it breaks down.
Roy Halladay is the obvious ace of the staff and barring injury should be in the hunt for an A.L. Cy Young once again. He had a 20-11 record and a league-leading nine complete games to go with his remarkable 2.78 ERA. Beyond Halladay though, the pitching picture begins to become more questionable.
Jesse Litsch is slated as the No. 2 pitcher, but he will pitch out of the three hole in order to alternate between left and right handed pitchers. This will be Litsch’s third season with the Jays after being called up from double-A in 2007.
Although he bounced between triple-A and Toronto a bit, Litsch still went 13-9 last year with a 3.58 ERA so if he continues to improve he could wind up with 15+ win season.
David Purcey will start the season pitching second after Roy Halladay. Last year Purcey’s efforts were fairly sub-par when he posted a 3-6 record over 12 starts and a 5.58 ERA and a 1.48 WHIP.
However, his strong spring (1.54 ERA over 23 innings) has convinced the Jays’ brass of his place in the rotation. Also heading north to round out the final two spots will be Ricky Romero and Scott Richmond.
Romero is an interesting choice for the fourth spot because some had been calling the 2005 first round pick (sixth overall) a bust. After winning the College World Series with Cal-State in 2004, Romero laboured in the Jays’ farm system and struggled with injuries.
However, this spring pitching coach Brad Arnsberg has taken the young talent under his wing and improved his mechanics to the point where Toronto wants to see more.
He can struggle with his control, and his spring ERA was up around 4.50, but his last two starts were excellent and his 20 K’s over 18 innings seems to have impressed manager Cito Gaston enough to punch his big league ticket.
Finally, Scott Richmond will round out the fifth spot of the rotation. Richmond missed a bit of time in spring training because he was on the Canadian national squad that went to the World Baseball Classic, unfortunately he never got into a game.
It didn’t matter though, because the Jays had seen what he could do before. He spent a bit of time with the team in 2008, but has yet to prove himself as a bona fide starter.
In 2008, the Blue Jays had the best bullpen in baseball. They had a league best 2.94 ERA and their .226 Batting Average Against was second only to Tampa Bay (.220 BAA).
Because of this, Toronto has decided to stick the same seven relievers from last year: B.J. Ryan (closer), Scott Downs, Jesse Carlson, Brandon League, Jason Frasor, Brian Tallet and Shawn Camp. Jeremy Accardo is the only notable absentee from the bullpen.
In 2007, he filled-in as the team’s closer while Ryan underwent Tommy-John surgery but spent last year sidelined with forearm problems. He has been optioned to Triple-A Las Vegas to start the year.
While the bullpen should be solid, there are still some points of concern. The first is the loss of quality pitching from the starting rotation. Last year, the Jays’ bullpen pitched a league low 425 innings, which contributed to their success, so if starters like Romero, and Purcey struggle in the Majors the bullpen could very well become overworked and begin to struggle.
The other concern is with closer B.J. Ryan’s apparent loss of velocity. Ryan, whose fastball used to be around 86-90 mph, is now reportedly down around 84-87 mph. This, combined with the fact that Ryan has been pounded by opposing batters all spring, has led Gaston to consider using Scott Downs in the closer role if Ryan continues to falter.