What direction are the Toronto Blue Jays going in with their rotation?
Earlier this off season, Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins stated that improving the starting rotation was high on the off season priority list. On December 28, 2018, they signed 32 year old right handed Matt Shoemaker to a $3.5 million contract. Two days later, they traded for 35 year old left handed pitcher Clayton Richard. The Jays will be on the hook for $1.5 million of his 2019 contract. Mission accomplished.
Or is it?
Let’s start with some parameters. The front office has made no secret of the fact that their priority is building for the future. The number one way to do so is by developing young, controllable players into good major leaguers. For a team that keeps saying they want to get younger, Shoemaker and Richard don’t seem to fit that bill.
While the number one priority is rebuilding through development, there is no reason why they can’t try to win as many games as possible in 2019, provided that doing so doesn’t interfere with priority one. Now isn’t the time to “mortgage the future” to try to win it all, there are too many holes for them to fill all at once. But let’s say they can improve over last year’s win total of 73. Maybe they can win somewhere in the neighbourhood of 80-85 games. Probably wouldn’t be enough for a playoff spot, but it’s a step in the right direction. The more a team wins, the more fans want to come out and see that team play.
The Blue Jays can bank that ticket revenue and use it in the future when the time comes back around to go all in and try to win. In terms of player development, it would be beneficial for the young players to get used to a culture of winning. The 2017 Dunedin Blue Jays (A+ ball) were co-champions of the Florida State League (due to their playoffs being shortened by Hurricane Irma). The 2018 AA New Hampshire Fisher Cats were Eastern League champions. Keeping that winning mentality for the younger players as much as possible would be beneficial.
So, priority #1 – win in the future. Priority #2 – win now, as much as they can without compromising priority #1.
The intention apparently is for Shoemaker and Richard to round out the 2019 rotation, along with Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez and Ryan Borucki, assuming of course that all of the above are healthy and still with the organization. I’m not quite certain how Shoemaker/Richard being in the rotation helps with priority 1 or 2. Shoemaker pitched very well in 2014, going 16-4 with a 3.04 era and finished second in AL rookie of the year voting. He continued to pitch well in 2015-2016; however in 2017-2018 he was limited to 21 MLB games due to injuries. In those games he posted ERAs of 4.52 and 4.94 respectively. Richard’s best days also appear to be behind him. He did start 27 games in 2018 but didn’t fare very well, going 7-11 with a 5.33 record.
Shoemaker is under team control through 2020. Richard is eligible for free agency after 2019. There are questions with both in terms of health/the ability to pitch well in MLB. It seems unlikely that either will be around when the Blue Jays’ next competitive window is expected to begin. While it is possible that one or both could pitch well enough for the Toronto to trade them to a contender for prospect help, that doesn’t seem like the most likely scenario.
Believe me, I understand the need for depth, especially in the pitching rotation. You need more than 5 starters to get through a 162 game season. Even in 2016 when the Jays’ rotation outperformed anyone’s wildest dreams they still used 7 starters and that was below league average. I just think that this is the time they should be giving the young guys every opportunity to finish their development at the major league level.
If all of their top pitching prospects were as far away as, say, Nate Pearson, the Jays’ top pitching prospect, then this would make total sense. It would be very counter productive to rush a talented arm to MLB before he is ready for that step. The 22 year old Pearson was limited to 1.2 innings at A ball in 2018 due to injuries. He did start 6 games in the Arizona Fall League but he was understandably rusty and posted a 6.20 era. The best thing for Pearson and the Blue Jays is for him to start 2019 in the minors.
So outside of Shoemaker and Richard, who are the other candidates for the final two rotation spots?
Sam Gaviglio started 24 games for the Jays in 2018 but didn’t do particularly well, with a 5.32 era. I remember watching several of his starts, thinking that he was off to a good one, only to see him get lit up later on and was usually gone by the 4th or 5th inning. The stats bear this out – first time through the order, Gaviglio did much better than his overall numbers with a 2.94 era. It seems like he is best suited to a relief role.
David Paulino is an interesting prospect who came to the Jays from the Astros in the Roberto Osuna trade. He has pitched in 16 MLB games from 2016-2018. He got in to 7 games for the Toronto in September 2018, all in relief and did very well with a 1.35 era, much better than his overall numbers, although the sample size is very small. They could certainly take a look at him as a rotation option but it may be that his best role is also out of the bullpen.
Julian Merryweather will always be the player Toronto got in exchange for 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson. Merryweather pitched well in AA in 2017 with a 3.38 era, but not well at AAA with a 6.58. He did not pitch at all in 2018 due to having Tommy John surgery in March of 2018. If nothing else, the front office would love to get anything useful from Merryweather in order to redeem themselves with the fan base for this unpopular trade. It will be interesting to monitor his progress, although I’m thinking he starts 2019 at AAA when he’s recovered.
For me, the best young candidates for the rotation are Sean Reid-Foley, Thomas Pannone and Trent Thornton. Reid-Foley spent part of 2018 at AA, AAA and MLB. He was 5-0 with a 2.03 era at AA, 7-5 with a 3.90 era at AAA. The 22 year old didn’t do as well in 7 starts with the big league club. He went 2-4 with a 5.13, but at times he showed great promise. He already has two 10 strike out games in MLB, September 2 vs the Marlins and September 15 vs the playoff bound Yankees. Clearly he has the stuff to get MLB hitters out. He just needs to work on being more consistent in commanding his pitches.
Thomas Pannone was 4-1 with a 4.19 era with the Blue Jays in August and September of 2018 after serving an 80 game suspension for PEDs. In his first MLB start on August 22, he took a no hitter in to the 7th inning. Then, after allowing the Orioles’ first hit of the game and the next hitter reached on an error, Pannone had the poise and discipline to get three outs in a row and ultimately the win. He reminds me a bit of Tom Glavine, although admittedly that is very much the best case scenario for the young lefty. Neither one throws hard. Both are “finesse” lefties who rely on control, location, and changing speeds to get hitters out.
Trent Thornton was acquired by the Jays in an off season trade with the Astros in exchange for Aledmys Diaz. Thornton started 22 games in AAA in 2018, finishing with a 4.42 era (10th best in the Pacific Coast League).
Shoemaker/Richard are fine as rotation depth options, in case Stroman/Sanchez are injured or traded. However I don’t see that any of the trio of Reid-Foley, Pannone and Thornton has anything left to prove in the minors, nor do I think that any of them would be better pitchers in 2-3 years if they play any part of 2019 at AAA. Giving them the opportunity to pitch in MLB and every opportunity to succeed there should take priority over Shoemaker/Richard being used as starters.
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