After two years of questionable rotation depth, it appears the Toronto Blue Jays are finally starting to see some prospects in the upper minors.
When former Toronto Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos decided to make a run in 2013 through 2015, it resulted in many prospects being traded for big league help.
While the payoff to those trades was ultimately huge, resulting in the team’s first playoff appearance in 22 years, it also lead to a major issue for 2016 and beyond: a lack of prospects and depth in the upper minors.
The new front office, lead by Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins, inherited a veteran team with no depth and a farm system whose top prospects were many years away, which is typically a recipe for short-term disaster. The barren upper minors was apparent at practically every position, hitting and pitching, for two straight seasons.
The brunt of that problem was felt by the starting rotation. Throughout the course of a long big league season, teams will usually need about eight to ten starters. Injuries, ineffectiveness, and other issues will often require the promotion of Triple-A back-ups to log important innings.
The problem with the Blue Jays was that in 2016 and 2017, the team did not have a single meaningful starting pitching prospect in Triple-A for more than a cup of coffee.
Looking at the previous two seasons, here is a list of pitchers that started at least 10 games for the Buffalo Bisons in 2016 and 2017:
To put it mildly, that is not an impressive list of arms, which is not surprising. Pitchers good enough to be in big league rotations generally do not settle for minor league contracts, and the ones that are good enough to potentially win spots in Spring Training typically have opt-outs in their minor league deals to avoid pitching in the minors for the team that signed them.
The Blue Jays were lucky to avoid needing minor league rotation help in 2016 when they did not lose a single starting pitcher to injury. The starting rotation of Marcus Stroman, J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada, Aaron Sanchez, and R.A. Dickey started a combined 152 games (an average of 30 starts per starter) that year.
The only other pitchers who made starts for the Blue Jays that year were Hutchison and Francisco Liriano. The former was called upon to give a blow to the other starters, specifically Sanchez as they tried to limit his workload that year, and the latter was acquired at the July 31st trade deadline (for Hutchison) to form a six man rotation which the team employed for the final two months of the season.
That type of injury avoidance does not happen often, and that was proven to be true the following season when the team only got 117 starts from their Opening Day rotation, forcing the team to convert successful reliever Joe Biagini to the rotation, while also depending on Mike Bolsinger, Brett Anderson, Mat Latos, Valdez, Chris Rowley, and Tom Koehler to start games during the season. That was not a fun time.
The good news for the Blue Jays is that in 2018, and going forward, it appears the rotation depth is slowly start to become filled by actual prospects. Teams with minor league depth in the form of legitimate prospects, especially those already on the 40-man roster, can survive an injury or two without having to depend on pitchers not good enough to pitch in the big leagues.
The team has seen a drastic shift in that regard this season.
Ryan Borucki is already up with the Blue Jays due to injuries. He has had a very strong first impression, compiling a 0.7 WAR in 4 starts, with a FIP of 2.63 and K/9 of 8.22. At age 24 with six years of control left after this season, Borucki is exactly what the Jays need as they shift to the next phase in their development cycle.
Sean Reid-Foley has finally started to pitch to his potential, dominating Double-A for 8 starts before reaching Triple-A and not skipping a beat.
Reid-Foley has an impressive 10.71 K/9 since joining the Bisons to go along with a 3.18 FIP, and sports his best K/BB ratio since 2015. He turns 23 in August, and looks close to becoming a big league contributor, possibly when the team trades some starting pitching at the deadline.
However, he has found his way back in the Blue Jays depth chart since coming back from that suspension, with six starts between three different levels, and a strong 20.1 innings in Triple-A since his return. At 24, he is an option to reach the big leagues in the final two months of this season as well.
Aside from the three mentioned above, going down a level, the Blue Jays are seeing positive results from TJ Zeuch, Jordan Romano, and even Jon Harris who had a cup of coffee in Buffalo before being sent back down to New Hampshire. Of that group, only Zeuch is a “prospect”, so I would not expect much from the other two, but their results this season have been surprisingly positive.
The Blue Jays are nowhere near where they need or want to be as far as starting pitching depth. I am sure if you asked Shapiro and Atkins, they would want a larger quantity and quality at each level. However, considering where they started from in 2016, when seeing a prospect in the upper minors was like seeing Big Foot in a forest (you have heard stories about it but never actually seen it), this has been a very strong development for the team going forward.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of R Widrig- JFtC
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Srikant Kabse is a long time baseball fan, accountant, and writer. He currently resides in New Jersey, but grew up in Scarborough Ontario where his love for the sport and for the Blue Jays began as a child. Aside from baseball, Srikant’s interests include fitness, basketball, and traveling.