While the Toronto Blue Jays made two veteran starting pitching acquisitions over the last few weeks, they seem prepared to give their young starters a real chance in 2019.
The title of this topic might be a little confusing to those who have kept track of the rather quiet off-season by the Blue Jays so far. After all, their two most recent acquisitions were veteran starting pitchers Matt Shoemaker and Clayton Richard, and there has been no indication that either one was acquired for the bullpen.
For now, those two are the favorites to occupy the last two rotation spots behind Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, and Ryan Borucki, although it is still the first week of January so obviously a lot can change from now until the start of the season.
Karen Soutar summarized the plethora of young starting pitchers in the farm system that could use an opportunity to start at the big league level and potentially develop into long-term pieces, and no doubt there are quite a few, especially on the 40-man roster.
So why after acquiring two veteran starters can it be concluded that the Blue Jays are planning on trusting their young starting pitching in 2019? The reasoning behind these moves is not overly complicated, but does have layers to it.
For one thing, there is an old adage; ‘there is no such thing as a pitching prospect’.
Young pitchers get hurt very easily. They struggle. Those with less experience might require innings restrictions. They can break down. Despite good minor league numbers they might require more work on their secondary pitches. And so on.
In other words, having a rotation of young starters to begin a season is a very risky proposition, even for a team that is not looking at wins and losses in 2019.
The Blue Jays need pitchers that will eat up innings. Maybe those innings will be mediocre from the starters they acquired, but someone needs to provide them over the course of a long season, and putting that type of stress on young pitchers can backfire.
Another reason why these moves make sense is the fact that there is a pretty good chance that Shoemaker and Richard were acquired not to hold the young pitching back, but to give those young pitchers an easier path to the big leagues.
Let’s be realistic. If the Blue Jays signed J.A. Happ for example, then it would have taken a guaranteed three year deal to get it done, and regardless of performance his spot in the rotation would have been set in stone. If the team signed an established veteran innings eater like Gio Gonzalez, then he would have gotten an extremely long leash due to his track record and acquisition cost.
Shoemaker and Richard, regardless of performance, are flexible assets. They can be moved to the bullpen at a moment’s notice. They can be used creatively should the team decide to use openers. They can move to the pen, and then easily be moved back to the rotation if need be without worrying about stress on their arms.
In other words, nothing is set with these two. If a young pitcher shows up to Spring Training and absolutely rips the door off the hinges to earn a rotation spot, then it can be arranged without any sort of difficulty, and there is history with this front office to illustrate that possibility.
Three years ago, the Blue Jays traded reliever Liam Hendriks to the Oakland A’s for pitcher Jesse Chavez, and later in the off-season signed reclamation project Gavin Floyd with the intention of using him as a rotation option. That made sense at the time. While the team signed Happ and re-signed their own free agent in Marco Estrada to join Stroman and R.A. Dickey in the rotation, they did not have a dependable fifth starter.
Chavez and Floyd joined Drew Hutchison as fifth starter options, with a young Sanchez having an outside shot depending on which role they chose to use him in.
Fast forward to Spring Training 2016, and Sanchez came in looking like a new pitcher. He was utilizing his secondary offerings a lot better in the spring and suddenly looked like a real starting pitcher. Despite Floyd also having a good spring and being a veteran with a track record of success, the fifth starter spot ended up going to Sanchez. Floyd along with Chavez were subsequently moved to the bullpen, while Hutchison began the season in Buffalo to remain stretched out in case the team needed him during the season.
Ultimately, Chavez and Floyd were not acquired to hold down the number five spot in the rotation. They were acquired to provide depth for a team that lacked it in the upper minors, and knew it needed many starting options in case of injury. The beauty of having them as depth was that neither one was a long-term piece, nor were they good enough options to have a spot locked up. They were depth pieces that were easy to push aside when a younger, better option became available.
The chances of that type of scenario playing out again seem pretty good. Maybe none of the young pitching projected to start in Buffalo will win a spot in the spring, in which case the veterans can hold the fort down until that happens.
However, the Blue Jays have six young rotation options who will be slated to begin in Buffalo unless they win jobs out of Spring Training: Sean Reid-Foley, Thomas Pannone, David Paulino, Jacob Waguespack, Trent Thornton, and T.J Zeuch. A seventh option, Julian Merryweather, might be available at some point during the season, but it is unclear when that will be given the time frame of his Tommy John Surgery.
Six of those seven starters are on the 40-man roster, three already having some big league experience, and all have varying degrees of upside. It would not be surprising if at least one of those options made a strong showing and earned a big league rotation spot right out of Spring Training.
It is possible that one or two of those pitchers might be used out of the bullpen as well, but given the front office’s track record with how they view relievers, that seems unlikely. Paulino might be the exception since he lacks innings, but two years ago he was a top 50 prospect in baseball, and while a PED suspension and injuries severely hurt his big league trajectory, the club might still prefer to see what he has as a starter rather than give up on that potential so soon.
The front office might also look at the advantages of holding some or all of them back for service time reasons, either to gain an extra year of control or avoiding a Super Two situation a few years from now, but in reality, none of those pitchers are elite pitching prospects. It would seem excessive to follow a Vladimir Guerrero Jr. path with any of them, and I do not expect that to happen.
Another real possibility is a trade involving Stroman and/or Sanchez, either prior to the season, or more likely at the trade deadline. Both also had injury shortened 2018 seasons, so they along with Borucki (who has some injury history of his own in his career) are not 200 IP locks by any stretch of the imagination. Spots could open up for any number of reasons.
All that being said, while the off-season moves do leave a lot to be desired, there seems to be a larger plan involved that gives the team a lot of leverage in potentially putting their younger pitchers in a position to win big league spots, both prior to and during the season.
I would imagine, much like in 2016, that the Blue Jays front office will be more than happy to accommodate a young pitcher into the big league rotation if they come into camp and “Aaron Sanchez” their way into a rotation spot. If anything, these moves were likely designed for that exact scenario, with enough hedging to make sure there is depth in case it does not happen.
Either way, barring injury and/or bad performance, expect to see a lot of the projected AAA rotation pitching for the Blue Jays in 2019, if not all of them.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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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.