The Toronto Blue Jays are in a nice situation having, not only, lots of pitching, but quality pitching as well
A year ago, Blue Jays fans were looking at the burgeoning pitching depth the team had at the MLB, Triple-A and Double-A levels and wondering how all of the pitchers would fit into the limited rotation spots in Toronto, Buffalo and New Hampshire. The conversation led me to write a post examining the good-problem-to-have situation. Ultimately, injuries to many pitchers at various levels “solved” the logjam.
This season, the pitching logjam appears to be even more….jammed up, something that’s become increasingly clear while I’ve been working on the pitcher edition of my 2020 Non-Ranking Ranking of 56 Blue Jays Prospects. I like to end each prospect blurb by guessing where they’ll pitch in 2020 and have found myself sending far too many prospects to fill up the limited rotation spots at each level of the Jays’ system.
The main difference from last year’s logjam is that the quality of pitching seems to be meaningfully better. With that in mind, I thought I’d once again examine the logjam to help Jays fans think through the situation. While I’ll suggest rotations for each level, these aren’t predictions so much as they are illustrations of just how jammed up this system is with quality pitching.
The Blue Jays’ long list of starting pitchers is headlined by four MLB veterans in Ryu, Roark, Anderson and Shoemaker, each of whom is almost certain to start the season in the big league club’s rotation. [I’ll use this opportunity to add the obvious caveat regarding health. If a pitcher is healthy right now, I will assume they will be healthy come Opening Day.]
Ryu is the obvious ace of the group and the one virtually guaranteed their spot over the coming seasons as talented young pitchers make their way up from the minors. That said, Roark, Anderson and Shoemaker can each pitch well enough to hold onto their jobs throughout 2020 — Roark has had four straight two-plus fWAR seasons; Shoemaker impressed Jays fans last April and has been average-or-better when healthy over his career; Anderson has been inconsistent year-to-year, but owns career ERA- (94) and xwOBA (.321) marks that are better-than-average.
These six pitchers seem to have a shot at the last rotation spot for the big league club, though their chances (and what happens should they miss out) varies from pitcher-to-pitcher.
My gut says that if Borucki looks good in Spring Training, the spot is his, mainly because of the fact that, of the six, his MLB track record best exhibits quality over a meaningful sample size (3.80 FIP/3.87 ERA over 17 starts in 2018). In that vein, Thornton’s solid rookie season (4.59 FIP/4.84 ERA over 29 starts) positions him to contend for that spot nearly as well as Borucki. One of the other four pitchers would have to look really good in Spring to jump ahead of these two.
Yamaguchi is very intriguing to me and could be more important to the 2020 Jays than most fans expect. He’s been a very good starting pitcher in Japan over the last two seasons, though his experience as a top closer might make it easier for the team to use him out of the bullpen, which would ease the SP logjam by one body.
Waguespack, Kay and Zeuch seem unlikely to be the fifth starter in Toronto come Opening Day, though they’ll certainly get their shot in Spring Training.
Waguespack has worked hard to transition from undrafted reliever to above-replacement level MLB starter. Should he miss out on the fifth MLB spot, he seems likely for a rotation spot in Buffalo (particularly since the Jays’ bullpen has long relief guys in Sam Gaviglio and Thomas Pannone). Kay and Zeuch each came up for a taste of the bigs last September, but would benefit from further development time at Triple-A, with both yet to crack 80 innings pitched at the minors’ highest level.
Two more for Buffalo’s rotation: Nate Pearson and Thomas Hatch
Let’s say that one of Borucki and Thornton make the Jays’ rotation, while Yamaguchi takes on a late-relief role in Toronto. In this case, Buffalo’s rotation would include one of Borucki/Thornton, as well as Waguespack, Kay and Zeuch.
Pearson, a near-consensus Top 10 MLB prospect who finished 2019 at Triple-A, represents a certain fifth starter in Buffalo. However, in Hatch, the Jays have a guy who should also be in the Triple-A rotation, given his 279 innings pitched at Double-A over two seasons. Moreover, Hatch dominated over six starts with AA New Hampshire after arriving from the Cubs’ system at the trade deadline and his near-term MLB potential is high enough that the Jays protected him from December’s Rule 5 draft.
While a six-man rotation is not ideal, it may be a logical way for Buffalo to start the season (if there isn’t a deal made before April that involves trading from this pitching depth). Besides allowing for all of these pitchers to start at the Triple-A level, it also allows the team to limit Pearson’s innings early on — he only pitched 101.2 innings last season, his first full one as pro. They may want to do the same for Zeuch, whose 2019 injuries limited him to 109.1 innings, as well as for Borucki, should he miss out on a job in Toronto, as he only pitched 24.2 innings last season.
If a six-man Buffalo rotation is a non-starter, I would strongly assume that Hatch is the odd man out.
While the MLB and Triple-A rotations do not seem to have any remaining openings, there are at least three more pitchers in the Jays’ system who’d normally expect to pitch in Buffalo this coming season.
Sopko is one of the Triple-A incumbents, having made 12 starts there last season. He had pitched at the Double-A level in the Dodgers’ system from 2016 to 2018, returning there to start 2019 in his first season with the Jays. With New Hampshire, he had his best performances at the level and was promoted to Triple-A after six starts, where he battled injury and poor performance. His MLB potential does not appear quite as strong as the other young pitchers in the Jays system, so moving him to the bullpen may be another way to ease the logjam.
Perez and Diaz have roughly similar cases for a Triple-A rotation role. They are both 23 years old and have pitched more than 140 innings at Double-A. While they haven’t dominated the level, they haven’t been overwhelmed either.
The main blemish on Perez’s Double-A resume is a high walk rate (12.6%) that reflects his struggles to throw strikes (59.9% strike rate). On the other hand, he owns a solid strikeout rate (23.1%) at the level and has effectively limited homers (0.55 HR/9). Perez has long been viewed as an eventual reliever, but I am not convinced that the Jays feel ready to give up on him as a starter.
Diaz was having a below-average season (4.34 FIP/4.15 ERA) prior to a one-game call-up to Toronto that went poorly, to be kind. He made five starts after heading back to New Hampshire and shoved, giving up only 0.28 HR/9 and limiting batters to a 4.8% walk rate, on his way to a 2.48 FIP and 2.27 ERA over that stretch.
Without any openings at Triple-A, these three would need to head back to Double-A.
If Sopko, Perez and Diaz each start the year at Double-A, there would be two rotation spots left for the four pitchers above (unless the team goes with another six-man rotation).
By June, Murphy looked destined for a promotion to Triple-A, until umpires determined his delivery, which included a subtle toe tap, was illegal. As such, he had to fix it before he could pitch again. This on-the-fly tinkering, as well as some shoulder problems, had him in and out of the lineup for the rest of the summer. Given all of this, it seems best that he starts 2020 at a level he has previously succeeded at, like Double-A.
Logue was quite sharp in 2018 at High-A, but saw his strikeout, walk and home run rates all take a step back at Double-A, where he spent the whole 2019 season. In particular, he posted the highest home run rate (1.34 HR/9) and FIP (4.61) among Eastern League starters (min. 100 IP). Further development at the level will be necessary.
Murray ended the 2019 season at Double-A after pitching effectively at Class A and High-A earlier in the year. He did the same in New Hampshire, striking out 28.3% of the batters he faced over eight starts, while posting a 3.42 FIP and 3.50 ERA. With this short Double-A resume, Murray may end up having to start off 2020 back at High-A, before a spot at Double-A is opened up via promotion or other means. Conversely, the organization might decide to let Murray start at Double-A and send Logue down to High-A Dunedin, where he can regain some confidence before taking another shot at Double-A batters.
Castillo is the lone member of this group without Double-A experience, making it more likely that he starts off 2020 at High-A, where he spent the entire 2019 season. His youth also works against him getting an Opening Day spot in New Hampshire’s rotation, as he’ll be in his age-21 season.
Nevertheless, the fact is that, without any roster space considerations, Castillo would absolutely be pitching at Double-A in 2020. He was one of the best pitchers across High-A last season, despite being one of its youngest. Indeed, the only pitchers in recent years to beat his 3.09 FIP in their age-20 season at High-A were each legit prospects: Tyler Glasnow, Ian Anderson and Triston McKenzie.
Even if we assume that Buffalo goes with a six-man rotation to start 2020, we are left with three full rotations, as well as a two-fifths-full High-A rotation. Additionally, the Jays system includes four more pitchers who started at the High-A level last season.
Johnston, the High-A veteran of the group, has already made 33 starts at the level (172 IP). While he’d typically be sent to Double-A at this point in his development, his numbers suggest that further seasoning at High-A isn’t a terrible idea. He’s run an average strikeout rate (20.4%) and a poor walk rate (11.6%) at the level. While he’s done well to limit homers (0.68 HR/9), his modest ground ball rate (42.4%) and super-low home run-to-fly ball ratio (6.2%) suggest he may have been a touch fortunate in that regard.
Allgeyer had a strong season at High-A in 2019, his first at a pro full season level. With an average strikeout rate (20.9%), very good walk rate (5.8%) and strong home run rate (0.76 HR/9), Allgeyer was among the level leaders in FIP (3.56). Like Johnston, his experience at High-A might normally have warranted a promotion to Double-A.
Winckowski and Woods Richardson spent most of 2019 at Class A, before promotions to High-A. As such, the two would be expected to return to High-A in 2020.
Winckowski struggled at the level more than he had at the two lower levels of A-ball, with his strikeout rate falling from the mid-20s to 16.3% and a previously-low home run rate rising to 0.84 HR/9. In contrast, SWR immediately took to High-A, running a very strong 2.46 FIP.
This group of four must fit into three rotation spots at High-A. This, combined with Winckowski’s (relative) struggles to start his High-A career, suggest that he may need to start the year at Class A Lansing, before moves further up the ladder open up space for him in Dunedin.
We’ll conclude with another six pitchers who might expect to start the season alongside Winckowski at Class A.
Luciano is a bit of a wild card. He ended the 2018 season at the Advanced Rookie level, but spent all of 2019 in the majors thanks to an old loophole making him eligible for the Rule 5 draft. Given all that we’ve already discussed, there isn’t any room for him above Class A (and limited room at that level, as well).
Wymer is sort of like Johnston, but a level down. He pitched enough at his highest level to normally expect a promotion. However, between the lack of space at the level one step up and his struggles at his current level — he posted a below-average FIP (4.16), driven mainly by a weak strikeout rate (15.2%) — he seems due to remain at Class A, at least to start 2020.
Pardinho is the other pitcher of the bunch with Class A experience, though the fact that injuries limited him to 33.2 generally-effective innings meant he was always likely to start the 2020 season back at the level. He ran a fairly average strikeout (22.1%) and walk rate (9.6%), but excelled at limiting homers (0.27 HR/9), on his way to a 3.21 FIP.
Manoah, Kloffenstein and Gonzales each spent 2019 at the Short Season-A level and each pitched pretty well.
Kloffenstein (64.1 IP) and Gonzales (62.1 IP) saw relatively extensive playing time for their level, both finding themselves in the Top 20 across Short Season-A in terms of innings pitched. Each pitcher also racked up the strikeouts, with Gonzales posting the top strikeout rate (29.4%) among high-use starters and Kloffenstein not far behind (24.7%). Manoah only pitched 17 innings but put on a show, striking out 39.7% of the batters he faced.
I could imagine a couple of these pitchers being held back for extended spring training, with the others filling up the remaining rotation spots at Class A Lansing.
Between the majors and the four full-season-minor league levels, there are 25 rotation spots up for grabs and I’ve highlighted 28 pitchers who would normally expect to find themselves filling one of those 25 spots. There is a particularly acute logjam at the upper levels — seven guys have pitched at least 100 innings in the majors, another seven have strong claims to a Triple-A rotation spot and another six have similarly strong claims to a spot in the Double-A rotation.
I stopped with those who have obvious claims to a spot in the Class A rotation. There are other prospects who pitched at a short season-level last season who, if there was room, might’ve ended up at Class A this coming season.
Moreover, I have left out a handful of guys who may or may not transition into relief roles this season, including Sean Reid-Foley, Julian Merryweather, Jon Harris, Graham Spraker, Justin Dillon, Turner Larkins, Fitz Stadler and others. These pitchers might’ve continued on developing as starters if there was room in the system (though, for all I know, they still might continue as starters this season). Ultimately, some of the pitchers I’ve assumed will be in one of the starting rotations my end up starting in long relief, which would help resolve the situation.
Last season, it was injuries that resolved the logjam that existed. While I obviously do not hope for that to be the case again, as long as guys are trying to throw a ball hard, over and over again, pitcher injuries will occur.
Another possible resolution is a trade (or trades) involving one or more of these pitchers, with centre field being an oft-noted area of need for the team. While I couldn’t find any high-quality centre fielders that were available, packaging enough pitching prospects together could motivate a team to make an unexpected move. In addition to fixing the pitching logjam, such a move would relieve some of the stress that exists on the 40-man roster.
Well have to wait and see how the next few months play out. I think the key point to make is that this organization is now bursting with good pitching depth that is very close to knocking on the door of the majors.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.