The fifth spot of the rotation is usually the most volatile one, and teams can go through any number of pitchers in the last spot over the course of a season.
Ineffective, injury-prone or young pitchers usually find themselves bringing up the rear of the rotation, and short spouts of poor performance will get a pitcher pulled out of the rotation quicker than its more established members.
By definition the fifth spot is the least important of the five, but more innings get thrown from that position than any position in the bullpen. It comes up about 30 times or so a season, leaving a team to commit to at least 150 innings or so from somebody.
Even if a team went through two or three starters in the five spot over the course of a season, each one would still throw as many innings as most of the bullpen's top pitchers. It's far from a team's most pressing role, yes, but certainly not one to be overlooked either.
Whoever starts the season as the fifth starter is unlikely to last the whole season in the rotation, but it's still worth taking a look over who that man may be come Opening Day.
The Jays have as many as three in-house options for the fifth spot. This assumes that Kyle Drabek, as has been rumored, is penciled in as the fourth starter behind Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow and Brett Cecil. Whittling it down to the one who will get the assignment out of the gate may not be decided until some point in the spring, but let's take a look at the candidates and try to see who should be favored to win the spot.
Of all the Jays' candidates, one is practically guaranteed to get hurt and give way to someone else during the season. That would be Jesse Litsch, who hasn't worked over 100 innings since at least 2008. Litsch did however make nine starts in the second half of last season for the Jays and should be healthy to start the season.
Litsch threw 83.2 innings in 15 starts across three levels of the Blue Jays system, culminating in 46.2 innings over nine starts with the big club. He wasn't effective for the Jays, posting a 5.79 ERA and 5.44 FIP, but that's not a big surprise given that he threw a total of nine innings the year before.
Litsch did have back-to-back seasons of over 100 innings of work for the Jays back in 2007 and 2008. He had sub-4.00 ERAs in both of those seasons. His secondary numbers were much better in '08; he maintained a 2.54 strikeout to walk ratio despite only striking out 5.06 batters per nine.
Despite having been with the Jays for parts of four seasons, he'll only be 26 on Opening Day. It wouldn't be prudent to give Litsch a heavy workload, but 20 or so starts would probably be a safe increase over last year's work. Having pitched effectively at the top level before, coupled with his age, leaves little reason to put him in the minors or the 'pen if he's healthy enough to start.
Other than Litsch the Jays have two potential candidates who are both younger and less experienced than Litsch.
The completely unproven Zach Stewart is one of the two candidates. Stewart spent all of 2010 at Double-A and made 26 appearances, all starts, after only 14 starts in 34 appearances in 2009. He posted excellent numbers across four levels and six teams in two systems in 2008 and 2009 but didn't pitch a substantial number of innings at any of those six stops.
Last year was different though, as noted he stayed with one team, pitched only out of the rotation and logged 126 innings.
He had a nice and shiny 3.63 ERA, but his other numbers were a bit less impressive. His 0.83 homers per nine innings looks good, but it was actually slightly above the Eastern League average of 0.80. Likewise, his seven strikeouts per nine innings and 3.56 walks per nine innings were more or less league average as well. Average results in Double-A don't translate to average performance at the big league level.
It doesn't mean Stewart wouldn't be effective either, but another go-around with better results should be warranted before he gets promoted.
That bounces Stewart out of the competition and leaves only Litsch and Marc Rzepczynski left standing for the fifth spot. Rzepczynski has racked up 23 starts and 125 innings of about average results for the Jays in the last two seasons.
His control hasn't been great, as he's walked 4.32 batters per nine, but he's countered that with above-average strikeout rates in both seasons with a combined mark of 8.42 Ks/9 IP. Zep has also shown an ability to generate lots of ground balls, getting them on 51 percent of his balls in play.
Rzepczynski will be 25 for most of next season, and looking at his minor league numbers he still has room to progress towards more strikeouts and fewer walks. His ERA did jump from 3.67 in '09 to 4.95 last year, but his FIP was much less volatile, only rising from 4.14 to 4.57. The rise in FIP came from a drop, not a drastic one, in strikeouts and a slight increase in homers, but his combined numbers from '09 and '10 are more telling than either season by itself.
There's no reason not to let Rzepczynski start the season in the rotation and see what he can do with a full season at the big league level. With his above-average ability to miss bats and get ground balls, coupled with being young enough for further progression, he certainly has the potential for a breakout season.
Litsch, besides being hurt, hasn't done anything either to rule him out of a starting spot. Their past health issues tip the scale ever so slightly in favor of Zep to get the nod out of spring training. It's also too hard to get past Rzepczynski's potential to set down a batter for every inning of work to see him start another year in the minors or move to the 'pen.
If history is any indication, and it almost always is, Litsch will get his shot in the rotation for the Jays in 2011, but Rzepczynski should get his first.