Blue Jays need healthy, productive rotation to become contenders

Toronto Blue Jays infielder Ryan Goins joins Arash Madani to talk about the pursuit of the elusive .500 record this season.

TORONTO – When you look back at the production provided by the Toronto Blue Jays’ rotation to this point in the season, it’s indisputably disappointing.

Injuries weakened the group that led the American League in ERA and innings last year, and the Blue Jays’ depth was exposed when they called on their second tier of starters—Mike Bolsinger, Mat Latos and Casey Lawrence. The resulting 4.48 ERA reflects that inconsistency.

If you look ahead, though, a different picture emerges. Now that J.A. Happ and Francisco Liriano are pitching at full strength again, this group looks capable of more than it has shown to date. That’s essential to the Blue Jays’ chances of turning this season around, since they’ll need steady production from their rotation if they’re going to complete the jump from fringe contender to legitimate playoff threat.

“I like our rotation,” catcher Russell Martin said. “I feel like it’s rare where we have an outing where we get beat up a little bit. I’ve got to tip my cap to our pitchers.”

The Blue Jays’ recently-completed homestand offered a reminder of what this rotation can look like when healthy. Happ built on a strong Seattle start with 6.2 innings and a season-high nine strikeouts against the Chicago White Sox Sunday. With 17 strikeouts against just one walk in his last two outings, he has put together consecutive quality starts for the first time this season.

“The last two have been a lot better,” Happ said. “I’ve been throwing to my lanes better on each side of the plate. That’s a good sign for me. A little more life on the fastball as well.”

It took Happ a few starts to build back his strength after spending more than a month on the disabled list with an elbow strain, but he’s now where he needs to be.

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“He’s strong now,” manager John Gibbons said. “Everything’s behind him and his location’s a little better.”

You could say the same about Liriano, whose strikeout-to-walk ratio has improved since returning from the disabled list (30 strikeouts versus 23 walks before going on the DL; 19 strikeouts versus five walks in June). A seven-inning, nine-strikeout performance against the Rays Wednesday suggested that 5.36 ERA could continue dropping in the weeks ahead.

Combined with Stroman, who leads the rotation with a 3.15 ERA in 88.2 innings, and Marco Estrada, who now generates swings and misses along with weak contact, and you’ve got a strong rotation. If Aaron Sanchez’s rehab work continues progressing, another high-upside arm would join the rotation before mid-season.

Still, there are questions. As well as Joe Biagini has pitched since moving to the rotation, he continues adjusting to the demands of a new job, as Friday’s ugly outing showed.

The issue of depth hasn’t been resolved, either. As the spate of early-season injuries showed, the Blue Jays are ill-equipped to handle further injuries to their starting staff. A pulled hamstring or stiff neck would spell trouble for the Blue Jays. Like most teams, they’re better off avoiding their triple-A rotation.

Even considering those questions, the rotation appears to be as strong as it’s been all season. Should they play to their potential in the next six weeks or so, they’d be the rare contender that’s not seeking starting depth at the deadline, allowing the front office to focus on other potential upgrades—second base and the bullpen, for instance.

First things first, though. They have to win a lot of games before July 31 to position themselves as buyers. With a seemingly stable rotation, that goal now seems much more attainable.