TORONTO – As the months go by and a dismal season for the Toronto Blue Jays’ rotation fades a little further into the past, it’s far easier to feel optimistic about the team’s starting pitching.
The additions of Matt Shoemaker and Clayton Richard add depth to a group that combined for an unsightly 5.14 ERA in 2018, and there’s hope building that Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez can rebound from injury-shortened seasons.
“If Stroman’s healthy and Sanchez is healthy, my money’s on my team,” manager Charlie Montoyo said at Winter Fest this past weekend. “We go to Boston, we go to New York. Anywhere.”
On paper, it makes sense. If Stroman and Sanchez return to their 2016 form, the Blue Jays really would have a chance against baseball’s best offences. And with Ryan Borucki leading the way for a group of promising young arms, reinforcements are now within reach.
Alongside that ideal scenario, however, there’s also risk. Shoemaker was on the disabled list for five months last year, while Stroman, Sanchez and Richard all finished the season on the sidelines. As the Blue Jays look to round out their pitching under these circumstances, it makes sense for GM Ross Atkins to balance the staff with some established starting pitching.
In the meantime, Sanchez’s progress seems especially significant to the Blue Jays considering how his 2018 season unfolded. He missed time mid-season after his finger got stuck and ‘mangled’ in a suitcase, but returned to start five late-season games.
He looked like his old self at times, never more so than on Sept. 12 when he held the eventual World Series champions to one run over seven innings at Fenway Park. But he still had trouble gripping the ball, which limited his feel for pitching. Perhaps as a result, he finished the season with a walk rate of 5.0 batters per nine innings, well above the league average of 3.0 per nine for starting pitchers.
Eager to find a solution after two years of various finger issues, Sanchez underwent surgery on his middle finger in September. Three months of rest followed, but he has since resumed throwing with encouraging results.
“I don’t want to say I’m re-learning how to play catch again, because I’m not, but in a sense I am,” Sanchez said. “I’ve got to make sure the ball’s coming off my fingertips the right way, and it has been.”
While Sanchez won’t rush his spring progression, he’s expecting to return to the form he showed three years ago, when he posted a 3.00 ERA over 192 innings on his way to an all-star selection.
“I’m anticipating making 32 starts and eating innings,” Sanchez said. “That’s what I do as a starter.”
As he prepares for his sophomore season in the big leagues, Borucki has similar goals. The 24-year-old hopes to build on a rookie season in which he pitched 174.2 combined innings over 30 starts in triple-A and the big leagues.
“I’m an innings eater,” he said. “I know I’m not going to be this guy that’s going to strike out 10 hitters every time. I’m there to eat innings and get ground balls, so if I could pitch 200 innings this year, I’d be really happy.”
To get there, Borucki knows he’ll need physical stamina. He has been working out in Toronto all off-season to rebuild muscle and recover from a debut year that left him physically tired throughout the season’s final month.
“I’m not used to September,” Borucki said. “Those last couple of starts were gruelling and I switched my program a bit just to get through them, but definitely this off-season I’m getting ready for September so my body still feels good at the end of September.”
While Montoyo and Atkins say Borucki’s competing for a starting job, he appears to have a clear path to a rotation spot if he has a strong spring. In that scenario, Thomas Pannone, Sean Reid-Foley, Trent Thornton, Julian Merryweather, Jacob Waguespack and Sam Gaviglio would be among those in the mix for triple-A rotation spots, while David Paulino would also be available depending on his role.
That certainly looks like a stronger triple-A rotation than the Blue Jays have had in recent years. The critique that team president Mark Shapiro offered soon after arriving in Toronto – that the triple-A rotation consisted of ‘five guys named blank’ – no longer applies.
But what happens if one or more of the Blue Jays’ top five pitchers encounters injuries this spring? Every team must prepare for that possibility, and that’s especially true in Toronto given that each of their top four starters missed time to injury last year. Are the Blue Jays comfortable breaking camp with two inexperienced starters? Three? Would they rush a prospect’s development to meet the needs of a big-league team?
If not, adding a pitcher with some starting experience on a low-risk, one-year deal makes sense. By the end of the year, the Blue Jays are hopeful that some of their pitching prospects will break through. That could be months away, though. To ensure that they don’t have to ask too much of them early on, another depth starter looks like a fit for this roster.