The Toronto Blue Jays have several interesting options for their 2021 rotation. Which should they pursue?
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The Blue Jays are in an unfamiliar position going into 2021. They have more mlb-calibre arms (and options) than they have positions in their rotation. The issue will not be finding a warm body who can pitch, but finding the appropriate balance between developing young pitchers for the future and supporting a legitimate contender in 2021.
Let’s start by defining what an optimal-but-realistic 2021 rotation would look like. If Manfred is successful in expanding the playoff field to something like 14 teams in 2021 and beyond, it will mean fewer playoff days off and it will be harder for teams to have a single elite ace pitch three times in a 7-game series. It follows that teams will need at least two ToR (top of rotation) pitchers, and ideally a third pitcher with ToR upside (yes, I know that 3x Max Scherzer would be great, but remember that I said “realistic”). For a team like the Jays who hope to compete for several years, it would help if the #4 and #5 starters were younger pitchers with multiple years of team control, but ideally at least a little bit of mlb experience so they are not total wild cards.
So let’s see how the Jays fit that profile.
Their #1 starter in 2021 will almost certainly be Hyun-Jin Ryu. He is an ace by any standard, and shows no signs of slowing down.
You could make a case for Nate Pearson as the #2, but that is a lot to ask of a kid with only 18 mlb innings under his belt. Far better, IMO, to pencil Nate in as the #3 with #2 upside, and to reduce the pressure on him by protecting him with a veteran #2.
I like Stripling for the #4. Prior to his 2020 meltdown, his 3.51 career ERA was 29th in baseball (min 300 IP). And his 3.60 SIERA was 20th, so his 2016-19 performance does not appear to be a fluke. Plus, Ross is under team control for 2021 and 2022, so he is not a one-year solution.
There are several legitimate options for #5 (or perhaps I should say for #5-10). Trent Thornton would be my first choice, but Ryan Borucki and Anthony Kay are right on his heels. Thomas Hatch has also shown promise, and if Julian Merryweather can start games at anything close to his 2020 bullpen pace (0.5 fWAR in 13 innings) he could be a beast. Shun Yamaguchi was originally signed as a starter, and Jacob Waguespack, Patrick Murphy, Thomas Pannone and T.J. Zeuch are also in the conversation for #6-10. Simeon Woods Richardson and Alex Manoah could (?) be wild cards as early as the second half of 2021.
Which means that the only major “hole” is that ToR #2 spot.
The Blue Jays do have internal options, but they are not ideal
Toronto has a $9.5 million option on Chase Anderson for 2021. Chase has a poor 7.67 ERA in 2020, but his xFIP is 4.32 and his SIERA is 4.22. So he appears to be the victim of poor luck (and likely of poor defense). The Blue Jays might want to exercise his option and keep him around as veteran insurance, but he might not be quite the ToR option the team needs in the #2 slot.
Tanner Roark is under team control for 2021 under the two-year contract he signed last December. As with Anderson, his advanced stats indicate that his 7.01 ERA in 2020 might be misleading. But Roark will play 2021 at 34 years old, and is likely not a candidate to be re-signed after he becomes a free agent at the end of 2021. So it makes little long-term sense to keep him as the #4 or #5 if it means sitting a Thornton or Borucki (both of whom are under team control through 2024). And, while Roark is a solid mid-rotation pitcher, the #2 position requires more of a supersonic jet than a diesel engine.
Walker’s 2020 ERA of 2.70 is excellent. But his xFIP is 4.80 and his SIERA is 4.59. His current batting line against is a stellar .214/.286/.368 (think 2019 Grichuk without the power) – but his statcast expected line is .263/.348/.473 (think 2019 Paul Goldschmidt – WITH the power). Put another way, his xSLG-SLG difference of .105 is 7th of the 88 pitchers with 200+ PAs … which means he is the 7th luckiest starter in that group. Add to that the injury issues (Walker pitched 14 innings total over 2018-19, and has never pitched 170 innings in a year in his career) and Walker becomes a questionable fit for the #2 stud role.
Robbie Ray is similar to Stripling in that his 2015-19 was excellent – his 12.3 fWAR was 34th in baseball, and his 3.80 SIERA was 31st. He could well fill the #2 role. But the operative word is “could”. First, even in the upcoming crazy offseason, Ray will likely command multiple years and top dollars. And second, while it is prudent for the Jays to gamble on a Stripling as their #4 (who is already “paid for”), it would be a far higher risk to make a similar gamble on a Ray at a much higher price.
Matt Shoemaker is a solid-or-better pitcher when he is healthy. But (a) the Blue Jays need more than solid for their #2 and (b) “when healthy” has averaged 35 innings over the previous 3 years. Like Anderson, potentially valuable as veteran backup but not a solution to the #2 dilemma.
So the Blue Jays might have to look outside the organization for that #2. What should they be looking for? First and foremost, the player should be a legitimate ToR talent. Ideally a veteran (a young controlled ToR would likely cost too much anyway). A player on an expiring contract would be OK, as (with luck) Nate would be ready to move into the #2 role after 2021.
So who would I target?
Zack Greinke has one more year and $25 million (the other $10m is being paid by Arizona) left on his contract with the Astros. But might the loss of Verlander to Tommy John, and the possible losses of George Springer, Michael Brantley and Yuli Gurriel to free agency tempt the ‘Stros to part with the last year of a (then) 37 year old Greinke? Zack is no longer a #1 ace, but his 3.83 xERA in 2020 is still a clear #2.
Similarly, Lance Lynn has only a single year left on his contract at a very reasonable $9.3 million (for a player with a 2020 xERA of 3.25 – tied with some Yank named Cole for 12th best in baseball this year (250 IP)). Texas was actively marketing Lynn at this year’s trade deadline, and given that they are not expected to be contenders in 2021 it is likely they will be doing so again this off-season.
And is it possible that, now that his full no-trade clause has become a limited 12-team no-trade. the Cubs might be willing to listen on Yu Darvish? Darvish still has 3 years and $59 million left on his contract (through his age 36 year). Yu is having an excellent 2020 – his 2.97 xERA is 5th in baseball (250+ innings).
On the free agent front, Trevor Bauer might be the most obvious fit. He is having a monster 2020, but his performance has been erratic over the last few years (4.48 ERA in 2019, 2.21 in 2018, 4.19 in 2017). But he has indicated a preference for one-year deals, which could be a plus for the Jays, and might well be worth the gamble.
And on the subject of gambling … my dark horse candidate would be Yusei Kikuchi of the Mariners. Yes, I know – his 2020 ERA is 5.17, which hardly sounds like a #2. But his advanced stats are much stronger – in fact, his xERA of 3.59 is 32nd in baseball, just ahead of guys like Greinke and Scherzer. Yusei has an unusual contract in that he is signed for 2021 at $17 million and his team then has an option to extend him for 4 years at $66 million. Not cheap! But might the combination of a superficially poor 2020, a relatively expensive contract, and covid-driven financial constraints make Kikuchi available? And would he waive his no-trade to a city like Toronto?
The bottom line
The Blue Jays are in a good position to field a strong starting rotation in 2021, with plenty of solid #6-10 options for when the inevitable injuries occur. The only pressing need (in my view) is for one more ToR arm to protect Nate Pearson, improve the Jays’ playoff chances, and give SWR and Alex Manoah an extra year of development. I see several possible options to fill that hole. If the Jays do, 2021 could be a fun year to watch!
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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A Jays fan since pre-Series, Jim’s biggest baseball regret is that he did not play hooky with his buddies on 7 Apr 77. But hearing “Fanfare For The Common Man” played from a rooftop on 24 Oct 92 helped him atone.