Something Has to Give in Toronto Blue Jays’ Rotation: Ranking the Starters and their Workload
BALTIMORE – When the Blue Jays embarked on their six-man rotation experiment about a month ago, they had to understand there would be times like this.
Times of uncertainty, times of confusion, times when hard decisions would have to be made.
The completed series against the Orioles was simple and straightforward. Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ and Aaron Sanchez had been pencilled in for as long as 10 days in advance.
But while that was going on, the immediate future beyond that was, and remains, murky.
Throughout the series against the Orioles, manager John Gibbons kept silent about his pitching plans for the three-game series that begins Friday in rain-soaked St. Petersburg, still awash in downpours related to tropical storm Hermine churning away in the Gulf of Mexico.
Indeed, there was more certainty regarding the confused nature of this tropical storm than there was about the Blue Jay pitching plans.
If the ballclub had stuck to its previous rotation, then Francisco Liriano, Marcus Stroman and R.A. Dickey would pitch in that order against the Rays. The fact that the manager wouldn’t confirm a rotation suggests they have something else in mind. On Thursday, the Jays announced Marcus Stroman as Friday’s starter, with the Saturday and Sunday starters still to be determined.
With a month to go – 29 games in all – and six starting pitchers, something has to give as the season dwindles down to a few games and weeks. Complicating the picture is the perceived need to protect Sanchez from overwork. How should it all shake out?
Ranking the starters and their workload:
After Monday’s sterling effort by Estrada against the Orioles, there seems to be some agreement that he is the one Blue Jay starter who needs to stay on normal rest. Estrada is a feel pitcher who likes to maintain his five-day routine. Monday, after a couple of starts where he seemed a bit lost, he looked like his old self against a difficult Baltimore lineup, tossing seven strong innings, allowing just one run on four hits, including J.J. Hardy’s solo home run. If that’s the case, then Estrada’s normal schedule would see him pitch Saturday at Tropicana Field, with other pitchers having to adjust their schedules to work around that.
Happ is having a career year and he, too, might benefit from getting back into a more regular routine though it’s not quite as obvious as Estrada’s need. Regardless, as the games dwindle down to a few, it’s important for Happ to be in a good place, both physically and mentally. He was not impressed with his overall performance on Tuesday, even though he was able to keep his team in the game without his best stuff. Whatever Happ needs, from a standpoint of work, the powers that be need to listen to him because he’s definitely in the playoff rotation.
In all the furor over Sanchez’s workload, it’s been easy to forget that Stroman is still building his strength and innings in much the same fashion. His biggest workload occurred in 2014 when he pitched 165 innings, counting 130 in the big leagues and 35 at Buffalo. A year ago, as he recovered from a torn ACL, he pitched only 53 innings, total. That includes the minor leagues, regular season major leagues and playoffs. That’s why the six-man rotation is probably a good idea for him as the team considers his future as bright and promising as that of Sanchez.
Because of his age and the unique pitch he throws, there don’t seem to be any rules for Dickey. He’s a workhorse who can throw as many or as few innings as his bosses require. There is always concern about a ‘feel’ pitch like the knuckleball, where control is so important and so elusive at times. Dickey is a reliable artist with the pitch, or at least as reliable as is possible, but the unpredictability of the knuckler makes him a difficult choice as a starter in a playoff scenario. He will continue down the stretch of this, his final season under contract with the Jays, to deliver important innings but, with so many options and regular off-days in the playoffs, it’s hard to see the Jays using more than four starters in the postseason. But first they have to get there and Dickey will be needed to make that happen.
If you’re ranking the six starters in terms of recent effectiveness, Liriano probably has earned a ranking of No. 6 and when changes to the rotation become necessary, he is likely to be the first to have his schedule altered. Over the long haul, and that includes next season, Liriano might turn out to be one of the shrewdest acquisitions at the 2016 non-waiver deadline. He’s currently working hard, with the help of Russell Martin, to recover from a difficult season in Pittsburgh and at time has shown some of the filthy stuff that has made him a star in the past. Unfortunately, he has joined a rotation that has been the best in the American League this year and that means there are many good options ahead of him on the depth chart. If the manager chooses to go back down to five starters, or even four, Liriano still has potential value as a lefty working out of the bullpen, either as a specialist or as a two- or three-inning reliever.
A year from now, all this posturing about Sanchez’s workload will be a distant memory. He is destined to be the ace of this pitching staff and he might already be that ace. That is why it has become so important, even though there is no definitive evidence at hand, to keep tabs on his workload. He’s now at 162 innings, with still three or four starts to go. That will put him in the 180-inning range and he’s never been above 130-some innings previously. It’s still not clear how many more innings he’ll be allowed to pitch before he’s shut down but the competitor in him is going to argue for some playoff work. Nobody in the organization wants to see him approach 200 innings and it’s unlikely they will allow that. He was once again brilliant on Wednesday, showing no signs of breaking down. Indeed, working on 10 days of rest, Sanchez was a fully-charged weapon. The earliest you’ll see him pitch again would probably be in New York on Wednesday in the finale of this three-city, nine-game road trip.