Blue Jays’ off-season needs: Starting pitching

The Blue Jays are expected to seek starting pitching upgrades during the off-season (AP).
September 18, 2013, 8:14 AM

The Toronto Blue Jays must improve their starting rotation this off-season.

That much is not up for debate. It’s simply a question of where the Blue Jays will seek upgrades and how much they’re willing to surrender for them.

After a season in which Toronto starters have posted a 4.88 ERA that ranks 29th among MLB’s 30 teams, general manager Alex Anthopoulos has no choice but to seek arms, and he knows it.

“We’re always looking ahead,” Anthopoulos said late last month. “I don’t know ultimately what will be there. I don’t think we’re going to look to force anything, but we’re always going to look to add.”

Here’s a closer look at Anthopoulos’s options, starting inside the organization before looking at free agents, trade chips and international players. Keep in mind that GMs regularly surprise fans and that Anthopoulos has typically limited information leaks with more success than most front offices:

INTERNAL OPTIONS

R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle provide the Blue Jays with two steady starters capable of providing consistent if unspectacular innings.

“My role is to put up 200-plus innings and hopefully win 15 games or more,” Dickey has said. “I know my role for every year that I’m here, so that doesn’t really change.”

Presumably Dickey and Buehrle aren’t going anywhere. After that, however, the rotation includes numerous question marks.

There’s Brandon Morrow, who has been sidelined since June due to an entrapped radial nerve in his right forearm. He’ll be re-evaluated at the beginning of October, at which point the Blue Jays will have a better sense of what to expect next year.

The Blue Jays must also make a decision regarding Josh Johnson soon after the World Series. Unless the injured right-hander astounds Blue Jays brass in upcoming bullpen sessions, extending a $14-million qualifying offer seems out of line with the market for starting pitching.

J.A. Happ, Esmil Rogers and Todd Redmond are all presently starting for Toronto, and will remain under team control through 2014. It’s possible Happ could be viewed as a trade chip in the coming months. Rogers is arbitration-eligible this winter and, like Redmond, will be out of options next spring.

Ricky Romero will likely be removed from the Blue Jays roster again this winter, but if enough goes right next spring, he could find himself competing for a starting role. Dustin McGowan would also like to start, and the Blue Jays haven’t ruled him out as a rotation candidate.

Don’t forget about Drew Hutchison and Kyle Drabek, who recovered from 2012 Tommy John surgeries this year and could be ready for increased roles in 2014. Finally, prospects such as Marcus Stroman, Sean Nolin and even Aaron Sanchez loom as possible difference makers.

There’s no shortage of options in the Blue Jays organization, and in a sport that depends more on depth than on superstar talent, those options matter a great deal. Even so, the Blue Jays will be looking to add arms.

EXTERNAL OPTIONS

Let’s start by acknowledging the futility of predicting the off-season moves of any organization. Far too many moving pieces play a role in determining the outcome of a winter for any person — including those in charge — to know precisely what a team will do months in advance.

That’s why the players below are best understood as possibilities for the Blue Jays, rather than predicted targets or recommended acquisitions.

Anthopoulos has said the Blue Jays “need to make changes” and acknowledged that the Blue Jays sought pitching from other teams at the non-waiver trade deadline.

In the past, the GM has pursued high-end starters. Now that the Blue Jays have a long list of options for the rotation within the organization, it stands to reason that Anthopoulos will continue seeking frontline arms. Here are five of the free-agent pitchers who may appeal to the Blue Jays:

AVAILABLE FREE AGENTS

Matt Garza, RHP, Texas Rangers

2013 stats: 3.79 ERA, 125 Ks, 37 BBs, 137.2 IP

Age: 29

Contract notes: Traded mid-season, so will not be tied to draft pick compensation

Garza, who began the season on the disabled list, will be among the most coveted starters available this winter. He relies on a fastball that averages 93 m.p.h. and a slider. It won’t be surprising if his representatives at CAA Sports seek a five-year contract.

Ricky Nolasco, RHP, Los Angeles Dodgers

2013 stats: 3.36 ERA, 152 Ks, 45 BBs, 187.2 IP

Age: 30

Contract notes: Traded mid-season, so will not be tied to draft pick compensation

Viewed as a mid-rotation starter entering the year, Nolasco has a 2.63 ERA since joining the Dodgers. The right-hander limits walks and logs innings, but has been hittable in recent years. He mixes in lots of off-speed pitches, relying heavily on his slider. Nolasco has a strong case for a three-year contract.

Ervin Santana, RHP, Kansas City Royals

2013 stats: 3.23 ERA, 155 Ks, 46 BBs, 197.2 IP

Age: 30

Contract notes: Would be linked to draft pick compensation assuming Kansas City makes a qualifying offer

Primarily a fastball-slider pitcher, Santana has seen his velocity tick upward in 2013. His home run rate has dipped this year, but it remains relatively high. To his credit, Santana logs innings while limiting walks. Like Garza and Nolasco, he’s well-positioned for a multi-year contract.

Ubaldo Jimenez, RHP, Cleveland Indians

2013 stats: 3.49 ERA, 165 Ks, 76 BBs, 162.2 IP

Age: 29

Contract notes: Contract includes a 2014 option, but Jimenez may opt out. Would still be linked to draft pick compensation if Cleveland makes a qualifying offer.

Jimenez has recovered from a dismal 2012 season to re-surface as a pitcher seemingly capable of pitching atop a rotation. He generates strikeouts in bunches, but has trouble limiting walks and has seen his fastball velocity drop below 92 m.p.h. Like others on this list, Jimenez is a fastball-slider pitcher in line for a multi-year contract.

Tim Lincecum, RHP, San Francisco Giants

2013 stats: 4.40 ERA, 181 Ks, 72 BBs, 184 IP

Age: 29

Contract notes: Would be linked to draft pick compensation if San Francisco makes a qualifying offer.

While the two-time Cy Young winner isn’t an elite starter anymore, he still generates strikeouts. His velocity has dropped off considerably in recent years, and his fastball now sits in the 90 m.p.h. range.

OTHER POTENTIALLY AVAILABLE STARTERS

The Blue Jays don’t have to lower payroll, and could add salary if the right opportunities present themselves this off-season. But free agency won’t be the only avenue for Anthopoulos to explore. Here are five alternatives and how the Blue Jays might obtain them:

Masahiro Tanaka, RHP, Rakuten Golden Eagles

2013 stats: 20-0, 1.24 ERA, 155 Ks, 27 BBs, 181 IP

Age: 24

Contract notes: If the Eagles post Tanaka, MLB teams will bid for the right to negotiate a contract with him. However, the Eagles may not post the right-hander, and the possibility of changes to MLB’s posting system only complicates matters for interested teams.

Younger than free agent starters, Tanaka reportedly intrigues a long list of teams including the Blue Jays. While it’s difficult to predict how he’d do in North America, his numbers in Japan are formidable.

Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP, Seattle Mariners

2013 stats: 2.87 ERA, 170 Ks, 39 BBs, 203.2 IP

Age: 32

Contract notes: $6.5-million salary in 2014, $7-million team option in 2015

Iwakuma would have considerable trade value if the Mariners made him available. While he allows his share of home runs, the 32-year-old limits walks and generates strikeouts. He relies heavily on a fastball in the 90 m.p.h. range and a splitter.

Chris Sale, LHP, Chicago White Sox

2013 stats: 3.08 ERA, 214 Ks, 44 BBs, 201.1 IP

Age: 24

Contract notes: $32.5-million contract through 2017; 2018-19 team options

The White Sox could lose 100 games this year, and if they choose to re-tool this off-season, Sale would be among their most valuable trade chips. Though Sale’s delivery has raised questions in the past, there’s no denying his stuff. He generates many strikeouts with a fastball that can touch 95 m.p.h. and a slider. His trade value would be extremely high.

Jeff Samardzija, RHP, Chicago Cubs

2013 stats: 4.44 ERA, 195 Ks, 72 BBs, 194.2 IP

Age: 28

Contract notes: Earned $2.64 million in 2013; arbitration eligible through 2015

Viewed as an intriguing trade chip at the non-waiver trade deadline, Samardzija has struggled since July 31, posting a 6.39 ERA in his first eight starts of August and September. He’s a hard thrower who relies on a fastball that regularly touches 95 m.p.h. and a slider.

Brett Anderson, LHP, Oakland Athletics

2013 stats: 6.41 ERA, 39 Ks, 20 BBs, 39.1 IP

Age: 25

Contract notes: $8-million team option for 2014 includes $1.5-million buyout. Will be arbitration eligible if option is declined.

Anderson hasn’t started a game since April and he has battled injuries for years, so he’s anything but a sure thing. But he has generally been effective when healthy, and young left-handers who throw strikes at 92 m.p.h. intrigue MLB decision makers. This would be a gamble for a Blue Jays team that may prefer sure things.

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