Pitching Concerns Could Force Jays’ Hand
As the Blue Jays approach the midpoint of the 2016 season, it’s safe to say they are within the performance range they hoped they’d be at its start.
They sit six games over .500 and have stayed right with the Baltimore Orioles and the Boston Red Sox at the top of the American League East, close enough that one hot week could put them in first place. If the season ended today, they would hold the second wild-card slot, a smidge ahead of the Kansas City Royals.
That’s acceptable, given that Toronto’s offence has been, for the most part, a shadow of the one that dominated opposing pitchers in 2015. The Jays have gotten much more production from their starting rotation than might have been expected, so it’s reasonable to expect that the recent regression in that department is more or less normal. Likewise, it’s also normal that the offence would start to pick things up after an inexplicably docile beginning, and it has.
All that said, where does this team go from here?
What can be expected on the pitching side, going forward? Can the offence sustain its recent surge? Most importantly, what are the weaknesses that might need to be shored up at the trade deadline?
The Jays are currently at the start of a section of their schedule that might be considered an opportunity. They won’t face AL East competition again until the last three days of July. In the interim, they will play 28 more games outside the division, leading up to the trade deadline.
There are two issues, and possibly a third, facing the Jays’ starting rotation immediately, as well as over the coming months.
First of all, Marcus Stroman needs to rediscover his mojo. Like, now. The expectation both from the team and from Stroman himself was that he would be the staff ace. Over his most recent seven starts, he has struggled mightily with the command of all his pitches within the strike zone. He is not walking scads of hitters but he is giving up far too much hard contact. When he is at his best, he is dotting his pitches on the margins of the strike zone. Just now, he’s throwing a lot of fat ones right where hitters love them.
In his past seven starts, Stroman has an unacceptable ERA of 7.59. Opponents are hitting a lusty .353 with an on-base percentage of .400. He has a big start coming up Sunday in Chicago and, if he delivers more of the same, then the Jays will no doubt have to consider giving Stroman some time at Buffalo to sort things out.
They have a viable option with the triple-A Bisons in Drew Hutchison who has compiled a decent 2.87 ERA over 13 starts, averaging better than a strikeout per inning, along with a WHIP of 1.09.
That brings us to the second pitching issue which, of course, is Aaron Sanchez’s workload. He has never pitched more than 130 innings and that was two years ago. As he prepares to make his 15th start of the season Friday night in Chicago, he is already at 91 innings. It’s reasonable to think that as long as he is strong and healthy, there will be no red flags until he gets past the 150-inning level.
That’s what they have been saving Hutchison for but, if he has to come up and give Stroman a breather, then it will be crucial for the latter to get his act together so he can be in the mix for a strong finish when Sanchez goes to the pen.
And then there is a third concern, that being Marco Estrada, who can be described as Toronto’s best, and most consistent starter over the last two seasons. There was enough angst with Estrada’s workload last year (200 innings, when you factor in playoff games) that they backed him off this spring to the point he missed one start at the beginning of the season.
In 2013 and ’14, combined, Estrada threw 279 innings. In 2015 and ’16, combined, he has already thrown 294 innings and we aren’t even at the halfway point. In a perfect world, Estrada might be expected to toss another 120 innings by the end of this season, including a potential playoff run.
That would put Estrada well over the 400-inning level for the past two seasons, more than 50 innings beyond any two-season total he’s ever reached in his career. This is not a big, strong, bull of a guy. He’s a precision pitcher and any level of fatigue could cost him in the command department, where he earns his salary. Beyond that, there is a chronic back problem that he occasionally has to deal with.
What all of these looming problems lead to is a need for more depth in the starting pitching department. Beyond Hutchison, there is not an obvious, reliable candidate in the minors so the front office might have to dive into a perilously thin crop of potential trade targets.
That possible need doesn’t even begin to address any issues that might need to be dealt with as far as the bullpen goes, not to mention what kind of havoc a serious injury among the everyday player contingent might pose.
What it all boils down to is that the second half of this season could present the first real test of the Blue Jays new administration’s willingness to spend prospect currency now rather than sit tight for an uncertain future.