Blue Jays need to bolster improving rotation

May 21, 2014, 11:26 PM

BOSTON – The issue that should be consuming the Toronto Blue Jays front office right now is finding ways to bolster an improving rotation, and ensuring that their relentless offence doesn’t go to waste this season.

Really, there are some good things happening with this team right now beyond the obvious of a share of first place in the American League East with the New York Yankees, plus 12 wins in the past 16 outings, including Wednesday night’s 6-4 victory over the plummeting Boston Red Sox.

While Edwin Encarnacion’s May mashing has certainly been key – he became the first player in franchise history with four multi-homer games in the same month by going deep twice off Clay Buchholz – two-out hits, productive outs, strong defence, and a restoration of order in the bullpen since Casey Janssen’s return from the disabled list have all played key roles in the Blue Jays’ current surge.

At 25-22, they’re three games over .500 for the first time since June 25, 2012.

Factor in that the much-maligned starting staff headed into Wednesday’s play with the sixth best earned-run average in the American League at 3.93, and that’s before the 5.2 innings of one-run ball from Drew Hutchison in this one, and the makings of something sustainable is there.

“That’s the main thing right now for us, when the pitchers do their job we’ve been winning a lot of games. That’s the No. 1 thing you need,” said Encarnacion, who has 11 homers in his past 15 games. “They’ve been doing their work, we (hitters) have been doing the work, we’re keeping together and winning games.”

Realistically, however, the Blue Jays need their starters to consistently get deeper in games to extend this success over the long-term, and to keep from running the bullpen into the ground. They ranked ninth among AL teams in rotation innings at the start of Wednesday’s action at 258.2 and with Saturday’s starter still TBA – all signs point to Liam Hendriks – there may still be rocky times ahead on that front.

They can’t keep using five relievers in a game the way they have the past two nights.

That’s why the addition of another starter could very well transform this period of burgeoning promise into legitimate contention in the up-for-grabs AL East.

In the revitalized Mark Buehrle and better-than-his-numbers R.A. Dickey, the Blue Jays have two pillars to build around, and Hutchison is quickly emerging into a solid power-arm complement. His 59 strikeouts lead the team, and he’s learning to be effective even when his stuff isn’t in peak form.

“I wasn’t locating as good, I wasn’t down in the zone, I was up in the zone a little more than usual, but I was able to come back and make a pitch when I needed to in situations,” said Hutchison, who allowed six hits and two walks in his 5.2 innings. “On nights when you’re a little bit off, the ability to grind through there and get through it is very good.”

J.A. Happ is also progressing, and if he can more often be as aggressive as he was in his first three innings Tuesday rather than being too fine the way he was in his final two frames, he’ll be productive in the fifth spot.

It’s the other slot that needs filling and while Hendriks – or Todd Redmond if the Blue Jays have a sudden change of heart – could take the opportunity and run with it, the reality is the coming outings are place-holding until Marcus Stroman gets stretched out again.

Whether or not he’s the answer is unknown, and someone more established picked up via trade would obviously offer more certainty on that front.
Jeff Samardzija quickly comes to mind, but if the Chicago Cubs’ ask doesn’t scale back from Aaron Sanchez and Stroman, that’s a one-phone-call dialogue. But if the conversation shifts to something like Stroman plus a lesser prospect, perhaps things become interesting.

The Blue Jays don’t necessarily need to go as high-end as Samadzija, either, especially with the way this team is hitting. Another reliable starter able to keep games in hand and give the offence a chance may suffice.

Regardless, trade talks are unlikely to pick up before next month’s draft, so that won’t distract the Blue Jays from their current efforts to try and push their starters deeper into games. If they can manage that, their entire staff will benefit, and they can put an end to the dreaded eight-man bullpen.

As pitching coach Pete Walker noted: “They’re doing a nice job in the early part of the game, but we need to get them into those later innings.”

“The key inning is that seventh inning,” he continued. “Once you consistently get into that seventh inning, it’s a more manageable situation at the end of the game, you bring guys back when they’re only facing a hitter or two the next day, possibly pitch them three days in a row.

“When your relievers are going one inning plus on a consistent basis, that keeps you from having a seven-man bullpen, you need that extra guy (in the bullpen).”

What they really need is an extra guy in the rotation. The right one could really bring a package with growing potential together.

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