MLB’s August 2 trade deadline is fast approaching. Among the many rumours surrounding the Toronto Blue Jays is their interest in acquiring a starting pitcher. Who are some starters who could improve Toronto’s starting rotation?
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Before the 2022 season began, the Toronto Blue Jays were picked by many MLB observers to be the American League East Division winner and a World Series favourite. One of the features that would propel the Jays to regular season and postseason success would be Toronto’s starting rotation. The Blue Jays’ starter group had both depth and quality. However, the starting rotation has not lived up to its billing.
Among American League starting pitchers, Toronto ranks 6th in ERA (3.95) and 4th in FIP (3.81). Those marks are slightly disappointing compared to the preseason projections. However, those ERA and FIP scores vary widely at the player level. ZiPS DC projected the Blue Jays starters (Alek Manoah, Kevin Gausman, Jose Berrios, Hyun Jin Ryu and Yusei Kikuchi to post better than median ERA scores. After the conclusion of the games on July 25, the median ERA for MLB starters was 4.02. Only Manoah (2.24) and Gausman (3.30) have produced as projected, if not better, in ERA terms. Ryu started just six games before his season-ending injury that required Tommy John surgery. Fortunately, Ross Stripling moved into a starter’s role and posted a terrific 2.94 ERA in fourteen starts.
The substandard performers are Berrios and Kikuchi. Berrios’s ERA and xERA are 5.20 and 5.25, respectively. His Statcast metrics illustrate that Berrios’s pitches have been hit hard this season. Berrios has HardHit% and Barrel% grades that are 9th percentile. Kikuchi’s HardHit% and Barrel% are worse; both rank in the 2nd percentile. Regarding ERA and xERA, Kikuchi’s marks are 4.89 and 6.26, respectively.
I think Toronto will want to add another starter before the trade deadline for a few reasons. First, in the postseason, Toronto will likely need four starters. In 2021, Atlanta used four starters on the way to their World Series Championship. During the 2019 postseason, Washington started four different pitchers en route to their World Series win. I excluded 2020 because it was an unusual campaign due to COVID-19-related factors.
Second, MLB will introduce a revised playoff format this Fall. Instead of a one-game Wild Card tilt, there will be two best-of-three-game American League Wild Card series. If the Blue Jays win a Wild Card series in three games, Toronto might need to start the fourth pitcher in the early stages of a Division Championship and possibly throughout a long playoff run.
Third, given the inconsistency of Berrios, Toronto may want to acquire a front-of-the-rotation starter, move Berrios into the #4 slot, keep Kikuchi in the regular-season rotation and move Stripling into the long-man role in the bullpen.
For the reasons listed above, Toronto may be active in the starter-trade market. How good should the new starter be? Table 1 illustrates how the current Blue Jays starters stack up against other American League contenders. Because xERA, FIP and xFIP are thought to be better predictors of future ERA than ERA, I used these metrics to understand how these American League rotations will fare for the rest of the regular season and postseason. The highlights are as follows:
- In terms of the number of starters with better than median performance, Toronto’s three starters (Manoah, Gausman and Stripling) lag the Houston and New York rotations, who rank first and second in American League starter ERA, respectively.
- Toronto trails Houston and New York in xERA and xFIP when one considers the number of starters with performance better than the 70th percentile.
Suppose Berrios pitches to a level that approaches preseason expectations (74th ERA percentile), and Toronto acquires a starter who projects to generate an ERA similar to Berrios. Toronto would have one of the best collections of four starters for the rest of the 2022 season and the postseason. What are the names of these desired starters? Table 2 has the answers.
My sample includes starters from teams unlikely to make the postseason or mainstream media outlets have reported may be available for trade. I then whittled the dataset down to starters with xERA, FIP and xFIP scores near or better than the 70th percentile in each metric. The final target list comprises the following: Luis Castillo, Merrill Kelly, Pablo Lopez, Tyler Mahle, Frankie Montas, Martin Perez, Carlos Rodon, Tarik Skubal and Jose Quintana.
An important consideration is the health status of the targeted pitchers. Montas experienced shoulder tightness in a July 3 start. He returned on July 21 and pitched three scoreless innings, including five strikeouts. He made his next start on July 26 but was not as impressive in his five-inning outing (38 GameScore). Mahle’s health issue concerns his rumoured COVID unvaccinated status. If Mahle refuses to comply with the Government of Canada’s regulations, he will not become a member of the Toronto Blue Jays.
Another question to consider at this juncture is what is the player cost needed to acquire any of the noted starters? I prefer to use Baseball Trade Values (“BTV”) to understand what a reasonable trade package would look like for each pitcher. I use BTV because it is an objective, third-party resource that uses a rigorous process to determine trade values.
Table 3 shows the trade value needed to acquire each starter. Recognizing that these values and packages are estimates is critical. Teams place different values on MLB players and MiLB prospects for many reasons, including team needs and future performance projections. The critical takeaway is to note the relative trade values of the starters. For example, Skubal, Lopez or Castillo will likely cost more in player capital than Montas, Mahle or Rodon. Furthermore, the probable package to acquire a Castillo is considerably more than it would be to acquire Quintana, for example.
The trade package for Castillo, Skubal or Lopez could very well cost Ricky Tiedemann and others. Baseball America recently updated their Top 100 Prospects List, and two Blue Jays (Gabriel Moreno #1 and Tiedemann #34) made the list. These MLB starters are very good but are not cheap acquisitions.
The Last Word
Toronto currently holds the first American League Wild Card slot and is 11.5 games out of the American League East Division lead. The Blue Jays have roster issues to address if they want to enhance their chances of making the playoffs and advancing in the postseason. I think a Romano 2.0 and another high-leverage reliever are needed to bolster Toronto’s bullpen. Perhaps a left-handed power bat is on Toronto’s wishlist. However, the Blue Jays should endeavour to improve their starting rotation. Adding a good starter, benefitting from a Berrios return to form, would provide Toronto with one of the best collections of four starters among American League teams. Let the trades begin!
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Bob was a St. Louis Cardinals fan until the Blue Jays arrived on the baseball scene, although he still has a soft spot for the Cards. Similar to straddling the Greenwich Meridian, as depicted in the avatar, Bob applies sabermetrics when applicable, but his heart tells him that Lou Brock belongs in the Hall of Fame.