Toronto Blue Jays: Projecting the Opening Day Rotation
While the Toronto Blue Jays may be more known for their offense, it’s their starting pitching that will determine the team’s success this season.
It’s no secret that a disappointing performance from its starting rotation played a major factor in Toronto’s struggles last season.
Injuries and underperformance were the biggest reasons why that rotation put up a 4.81 ERA, which was 14th in the American League. It also allowed the third-most home runs in the AL with 136.
Heading into the 2014 season, the team will bring back four members from last year’s rotation and will replace the departed Josh Johnson with a player from its minor league system.
So does this mean that the rotation is likely to struggle again this season? Not necessarily.
Three of those four returning starters faced injuries last season that either compromised their performance or caused them to miss starts entirely.
This forced the team to rely on unprepared prospects and minor league veterans to make a significant amount of fill-in starts. These replacement players struggled and contributed greatly to the rotation’s poor numbers.
Provided that its regular starters stay healthy this season, Toronto should see its rotation rebound.
That being said, here’s the Blue Jays’ projected rotation for 2014 with an outlook on each starter.
All stats are from baseball-reference.com
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1. R.A. Dickey
The Blue Jays expected big things from R.A. Dickey last season after giving up two of their top prospects in Travis d’Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard to acquire the 2012 Cy Young Award winner from the New York Mets.
While it wouldn’t be fair to say that Dickey was a bust like former Blue Jay Josh Johnson was, it would be appropriate to say that more was expected of the 39-year-old knuckleballer than what he displayed last season.
Dickey did pitch a team-high 224 innings and won 14 games, but his other stats were far from spectacular. He had an ERA of 4.21, an AL-high 35 home runs given up and a WHIP of 1.24.
That’s a far cry from his 2012 season where he went 20-6 with a 2.73 ERA.
No doubt it was a struggle for Dickey adjusting to pitch in the hitter-friendly Rogers Centre last season as was evidenced by his 4.80 ERA at home compared to his 3.57 ERA on the road. He also gave up almost twice as many home runs at home (23) than he did on the road (12).
Aside from the move to a different ballpark, Dickey also pitched through a back injury during the first half of the season. This reduced the velocity of his knuckleball and made it easier to hit.
This would help explain why Dickey had a 4.69 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP in the first half of the season but went on to post a 3.56 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in the second half.
Dickey also dealt with a lot of distractions last offseason. He underwent the trade to the Blue Jays, signed a new contract with the team, went to a charity mission in India and pitched in the World Baseball Classic all the while having a 60 Minutes crew following him around.
Going into the 2014 season after a healthy offseason and not dealing with those distractions should put Dickey in a better position to start off the year at a high level and build off his strong second half last season.
2. Mark Buehrle
It would be fair to say that Mark Buehrle was the only pitcher in the rotation last season who pitched according to expectations while staying healthy.
Last season marked the 13th-straight year the 34-year-old lefty pitched more than 200 innings and won at least 10 games. His 4.15 ERA was a bit higher than his 3.84 career mark, but that was to be expected considering the move to the more hitter-friendly AL East.
Like Dickey, Buehrle was another pitcher who had a terrible start to his season last year. He went just 5-6 with a 4.89 ERA in the first half of the season but recovered nicely in the second half where he went 7-4 with a 3.18 ERA.
Buehrle is a notorious slow starter, which might help explain those extreme splits. With Blue Jays manager John Gibbons’ plan to use his starters more often this spring training, the hope is that a pitcher like Buehrle will be able to get into game speed much more quickly.
Buehrle’s increasing age shouldn’t be much of a concern as he’s always been a soft-thrower who relies more on command than on velocity to get hitters out. But it’s worth noting that his lack of velocity also means that he’s less likely to get away with “mistake” pitches if he has issues with his control.
Heading into the 2014 season, the Blue Jays don’t expect Buehrle to be the ace or put up elite numbers. Rather, they’ll be looking at him to be a dependable innings eater in the middle of the rotation.
3. Brandon Morrow
Out of all the Blue Jays pitchers last year, Brandon Morrow arguably had the most disappointing season.
Big things were expected out of Morrow, who opened last season as the No. 2 pitcher in the rotation behind R.A. Dickey.
But the 29-year-old right-hander made just 10 starts in April and May. He then spent the rest of the season on the DL with an entrapped radial nerve in his right forearm.
The freak injury cost Morrow a chance to build on his excellent 2012 breakout season, when he went 10-7 with a 2.96 ERA. That season was an injury-shortened one as well. He only pitched 124 innings while dealing with an oblique strain.
This highlights the biggest concern with Morrow. Since 2010, he has repeatedly battled injury and inconsistency, pitching more than 150 innings in a season only once.
The fifth-overall pick from the 2006 draft remains an enigma because he has all the tools to be a front-line starting pitcher. He possesses a mid-90s fastball, a nasty slider and has the ability to generate a ton of strikeouts when he’s on his game (as evidenced by 9.5 K/9 ratio since becoming a starter). But injuries and inconsistent play have so far prevented him from realizing his potential.
So can he be relied upon in 2014? According to Morrow (via Gregor Chisholm of MLB.com), he’s completely healthy and in great shape after adding 25 pounds of muscle in the offseason. The team apparently trusts him as they’ve opted not to sign any starters from free agency as insurance.
If the Blue Jays want to have any chance of competing this season, they’ll need a huge season from Morrow.
4. J.A. Happ
J.A. Happ’s 2013 season will forever be remembered by the line drive he took to the head off the bat of Desmond Jennings and the scary scene that followed as his body crumpled to the ground.
It’s fair to say that injury in May completely ruined any chance of Happ having a successful 2013 season after winning the fifth spot in the rotation out of spring training.
Not only did he suffer a head injury from the line drive, but the 31-year-old left-hander also sprained his knee as he fell to the ground after the impact.
After posting a 3.86 ERA in April before going down with the injury, Happ came back and struggled, posting a 5.36 ERA in his first eight games back.
Another knock on Happ was also his inability to pitch deep into games due to high pitch counts in the early innings.
The struggles led to Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker and Happ coming up with a new arm slot which would slightly alter his delivery. The new approach worked for Happ as he posted a 2.33 ERA while striking out 16 batters in his final three starts of the 2013 season.
Heading into the 2014 season, Happ is considered to be a lock for the rotation and he’ll look to carry over the success he had at the end of last season with his new pitching mechanics.
5. Drew Hutchison
There will be plenty of candidates for the fifth spot in the rotation as the Blue Jays have declared an open competition for the job during spring training.
While Kyle Drabek, Marcus Stroman, Dustin McGowan, Esmil Rogers, Todd Redmond and Ricky Romero are the other high-profile candidates in the mix, Drew Hutchison should have the inside track for the job.
While his stuff is certainly not as overpowering as some of the other names on the above list, Hutchison’s maturity and command of his pitches should give him the edge over the competition.
The 23-year-old right-hander made his debut for the Blue Jays in 2012 and suffered an elbow injury after making just 11 starts. The injury required Tommy John surgery, which immediately shut him down and kept him out of action for the entire 2013 season as well.
Hutchison was performing relatively well during his rookie season before the injury.
While his overall ERA was 4.60, it was inflated by a couple of early bad starts and didn’t reflect his performance accurately. Hutchison got better as he made more starts and his ERA over his final seven starts was 3.41 with opposing batters hitting just .217 against him.
After pitching in the Arizona Fall League last offseason and being declared healthy, Hutchison should get a chance to resume his career with the Blue Jays and will be the front-runner for the fifth spot in the rotation.