DUNEDIN, Fla. – There are others matters of consequence, without a doubt, but two things the Toronto Blue Jays simply must get right this spring are who their fifth starter will be, and charting the proper developmental course for their crown-jewel pitching prospects.
The decision by general manager Alex Anthopoulos to essentially stand pat in the starting rotation means the pressure is on in both regards.
Minus another proven arm for the staff, the Blue Jays can’t afford to cycle through different bodies in the search for someone to deliver stable, quality innings out of the five spot, frittering away wins and bullpen bullets in the process. At the same time, particularly with where the acquisition cost is headed for mediocre starting pitching, let alone elite arms, they must start converting on the potential of their own impact arms because it’s too difficult to get them in other ways.
It’s through those lenses that the spring of Marcus Stroman, in particular, but also those of Drew Hutchison, Kyle Drabek, Aaron Sanchez and Sean Nolin must be viewed. The Blue Jays will not only be counting on them to deliver this year, but for years to come, as well, meaning errors in the process now could have repercussions well into the future.
Stroman is especially complicated because of how tempting his mix of confidence and stuff will make opening the season with him in the rotation. Perhaps that will prove to be the right thing for him, and the team, but it also might not be, harming his progression, maybe significantly (think Travis Snider).
The 22-year-old right-hander showed signs of being ready for the big-leagues last year, and has done nothing but impress since arriving at spring training. Save for a 50-game suspension for taking a banned stimulant, Stroman has faced little adversity on the mound since turning pro, tearing through opponents at single-A Vancouver and double-A New Hampshire, and something the Blue Jays must consider is how the inevitable struggles he’ll face in the big-leagues could affect him.
When asked if he could remember a trying period on the mound, Stroman replies: “I’d definitely say my third outing last year at Portland, when I had one inning and seven earned runs. It was one of those games where you feel like you had everything and everything is getting hit. You’ve got to put things in perspective, some days you’re going to go out there with your best stuff and you’re going to get hit around. Nothing should deter you from working hard or should throw you off, and my confidence is always pretty high, regardless of the outcome.”
There's all the reason in the world to think he’ll succeed. But what if it’s too much, too fast, and the pressure of winning now for the Blue Jays serves to compromise the asset? Is that a risk worth taking?
“Pushing a guy through the minor-leagues because he’s got great stuff is not a great idea, it’s important to refine pitches, refine the mental aspects of the game, struggles are important to overcome, but there are exceptions to every rule,” says pitching coach Pete Walker. “There are guys who have that confidence and have the stuff to make the adjustment a lot easier.”
Stroman may very well be that type of guy. Generously listed at five-foot-nine, he’s spent so much of life silencing doubters he trademarked the slogan “Height Doesn’t Measure Heart” and frequently uses the acronym HDMH as a Twitter hashtag.
At a young age, his father drilled into him that he’d have to compete harder because of his size, and the ensuing tenacity that embedded is an important asset.
Even Blue Jays assistant general manager Tony LaCava, who oversees the farm system and leans toward protecting prospects rather than pushing them, notes that: “Nothing has been handed to him his whole life.”
“People doubted him as a shortstop, they doubted him as a pitcher, they said he couldn’t start, he wasn’t going to do well in college, he wasn’t going to do well as a pro,” he continues. “He’s had those negative comments, and he’s had his moments, although he’s not had any extreme struggles, but he’s had some games where it didn’t work out so well, and he’s bounced back every time so far. He’s got the kind of makeup that you think he should be able to handle it.”
The flip side is that the unexpected can quickly derail everything.
Look at the playing career of Blue Jays manager John Gibbons, for example. A highly touted first-round pick of the New York Mets, he made his big-league debut on April 11, 1984 at the tender age of 21. Like Stroman, he had never been above double-A to that point.
“I got injured, started the season and probably wasn’t ready, struggled and it was a battle,” recalls Gibbons. “I lost confidence, things like that, so if anybody feels for that or makes that argument, it will be me, because that’s very important. Time is on their side, so you’ve got to make sure they’re good and ready when they come because they’re going to fail along the way. But you look at a guy like Stroman, he seems a little bit different, he’s probably going to be tough to crack. He may not be one of those guys you worry about.”
There’s still an entire schedule of Grapefruit League games to play before any decisions are made, providing plenty of opportunity to evaluate Stroman in a highly competitive setting.
Along with incumbents Esmil Rogers and Todd Redmond, he’ll be competing for a rotation spot against Hutchison and Drabek, both ready to go after Tommy John surgery, and to a lesser extent Sanchez and Nolin.
The latter two are expected to open the season in the minors – Sanchez in double-A, Nolin in triple-A – but both can put themselves on the radar quickly. Sanchez is particularly critical given his ace potential, and while the Blue Jays have taken some criticism for bringing him along so slowly, visions of him fronting their rotation into the next decade make that caution worthwhile.
Hutchison and Drabek are different since they’ve already spent time in the majors and have experienced some success (failure as well in Drabek’s case). Anthopoulos has repeatedly pointed to Hutchison as someone ready to emerge, and while he made just 11 starts before his elbow blew, the maturity of his game was evident.
When push comes to shove, that may end up providing the tipping point.
“They’re a little bit more battle-tested,” LaCava says of Drabek and Hutchison. “That being said, we’ll see how things develop. They’re all candidates to hopefully help us soon. You don’t overweigh any one thing.”
So the opportunity is a legitimate one for Stroman, whose everyman appearance, engaging persona and dominating repertoire can really capture the imagination.
He’s got a chance to be special in a variety of ways.
“There are still some inconsistencies, sometimes he gets underneath the baseball and pushes the ball a little bit, but he’s got an above average major-league fastball, slider and changeup. It’s there,” says Walker. “It’s been a quick process for him, but he’s a college pitcher who has experience, he’s done well in the minor-leagues, pitched well in the Arizona Fall League. He’s here for a serious look, no question.”
Says Stroman: “It’s awesome to hear people mention that I could be the fifth starter. I know there’s a lot that goes into it and I will do everything in my power to be that guy but if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. I’ll be working hard to get there at some point this year.”
Timing that arrival won’t be easy, and the Blue Jays will need to consider the long-term as much as the short-term on this one.