TORONTO – A common platitude uttered around the Toronto Blue Jays this spring was how they boasted four aces in their starting rotation, and that they couldn’t go wrong with any of them as their No. 1.
Sure it was hyperbolic, but with R.A. Dickey, Brandon Morrow, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson on staff, such an outlook fit the euphoric optimism inherent to the times. Really, how could things go wrong?
Well, the 2013 season certainly chewed up that notion and spit it to the ground, and an interesting question to ponder as the finish line nears is who starts for the Blue Jays on opening day 2014, and will that be good enough in the American League East?
Dickey got the assignment at the beginning of this year of promise turned to woe, and while he wrapped up a solid campaign Friday with 7.1 innings of two-run ball in a 6-3 win over the Tampa Bay Rays, 14-13 with a 4.21 ERA isn’t quite what Alex Anthopoulos envisioned when he sent Travis d’Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard to the Mets.
Expecting Dickey to repeat his Cy Young numbers from 2012 would have been unfair, but his transition from the National League East was certainly rockier than expected, the back injury that dogged him early in the season contributing significantly to some early troubles.
He stabilized and made steady gains from June onwards, but something the Blue Jays must ask themselves is how much more he can bring to the table in 2014? Can he be the ace they need?
"I just think this year was an anomaly, I really do," Dickey said. "I'm not putting a lot of credence into the fact I gave up 35 home runs this year, that's going to end up in retrospect being a blip on the radar. I really link (2013) to 2011 with the Mets, I feel like it's a very similar year. I struck out more guys this year, I threw a lot more innings than I did, the next year after that I won a Cy Young. So there's some hope in what has happened this year from a personal standpoint."
At minimum, the ups and downs shouldn't take away from Dickey's value in joining Buehrle as the team's only starters to go wire to wire, making them the first Blue Jays duo to log 200 innings apiece since Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett in 2008. Dickey finished with 224.2 innings, Buehrle with 203.2.
Johnson, meanwhile, made just 16 starts, while Morrow only got through 10, and rather than being a pillar of strength, the rotation was a constant source of instability, with 13 different pitchers called on to start, Aaron Laffey and Ramon Ortiz sadly among them.
Pitchers who can reach the 200-inning plateau are a rarity in the game, and Buehrle's done it for 13 consecutive years, Dickey for three in a row. They can both be cornerstones of a very strong rotation, but neither is a prototypical ace, Dickey because of the knuckleball's unpredictability, Buehrle because of his finesse arsenal.
Still, if the Blue Jays had three other starters perform the way they did, the conversation about this team is quite different right now. Maybe it's worth appreciating what they have.
"(Veteran baseball columnist) Marty Noble said a very wise thing to me at the end of last season," Dickey said. "He said that the only bad thing about winning a Cy Young is that they're going to expect you to do it every year. And there's a lot of truth in that this year. If you signed me as a free agent, and I had the year I had this year, you're probably clapping. But I won a Cy Young last year and I did not live up to what that year was last year.
"I have to do a good job of not putting so much pressure on myself. It's going to come, there was a big trade made, a lot of pieces were given up for me, so there's an expectation that comes with that, I take that very seriously, but I have to do a good job of making sure that I hold it in the right perspective, as well. If I don't do that the season will become too heavily weighted, and it will be a miserable season. I feel like I've done a decent job of that, I've been able to step back and take some breaths, realize what I've done well, and try to repeat those things I've done well, but I've got a lot to grow on. That's OK, too."
If this was really just a down year for Dickey and he returns better, than the Blue Jays have made a significant internal gain. As he noted, he now has a better sense of how he must pitch in the AL East, and importantly he embraces the "ginormous challenge."
"That's one of the reasons I signed here," Dickey said. "I like that. I saw what my knuckleball could do in the NL East for three years and I felt like I had it at a point where it's exciting to challenge the best hitters day in and day out, and I feel the AL East is representative of that."
And if he comes back and repeats this season, well there could be worse outcomes, but it still leaves the Blue Jays looking for someone to be their guy.
Perhaps Morrow can return from the nerve problem in his right forearm next season, remain healthy, and become the all-star he has the potential to be, but can the Blue Jays really bank on that?
If not, can they find someone willing to trade them an ace-type starter? And if they did, would it be wise to empty the farm system to the point it would take for such a deal to happen?
"Ideally everyone wants that No. 1, shutdown guy but how many are out there to begin with in baseball, period?" manager John Gibbons said. "You need to get the best out of the guys you can get a hold of. Everybody is always looking for pitching, there's not that much out there, and teams that have it don't really want to let it go. It's tough, that's why normally you hope you can fill from within."
The reality is the Blue Jays will need to get some help for the rotation, because Dickey and Buehrle are the only locks for next year and the internal candidates behind them offer a risky mix of potential, mediocrity and uncertainty.
It can't just be on them.
A reasonable argument can be made that Todd Redmond has been the best Blue Jays starter after the veteran pair, but he shouldn't be more than a swingman out of the bullpen in 2014 if they plan to have serious designs on winning the AL East.
Esmil Rogers deserves kudos for his work - and at 137.2 frames is the club's only pitcher not named Buehrle or Dickey to log a triple-digit inning workload - but he was too volatile from outing to outing after an electric start and some see him as the best man for the swingman job.
Then there's J.A. Happ, who has endured a tumultuous season and a half with the Blue Jays and has been unable to establish himself at all as a result. Between being relegated to the bullpen upon his arrival from Houston in July 2012, fracturing his ankle, the threat of being optioned to triple-A Buffalo before Ricky Romero's implosion this spring, and the knee injury he suffered after getting hit in the head by a Desmond Jennings line drive in May, it's felt like he's gone from one crisis to another.
"It definitely has with those crazy things," he said. "You can't control trades, then the crazy thing with fracturing my foot, then getting hit, a little bit of drama in the spring. You'd like to say it's all part of the game but it would be nice to have a full season without any of that stuff happening, I know that."
The left-hander has been inconsistent since returning from the knee injury, and only over the last couple of weeks has he started to find some comfort on the mound with a more natural arm slot.
"There was a period there where I felt like I was trying so hard to get the ball where I needed it to be, and it shouldn't be that hard," Happ said. "I felt like I was right there, but the games seemed to be getting away one way or another. I was trying so hard mentally, physically, maybe over thinking a little bit, trying to get the ball where I want it to go."
After that there's the wild-card that is Romero, Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison, who should both be 100 per cent after spending the year recovering from Tommy John surgery, and prospects Sean Nolin and Marcus Stroman, talented youngsters who can't be counted on to deliver with any certainty.
Put together, Dickey and Buehrle are in some ways even more crucial to the Blue Jays next year than they were this year, because right now there isn't even the illusion of an elite supporting cast around them in the rotation.
"I had some foresight and I knew what the expectation was going to be, for our team in general, not just me," Dickey said of how he managed the pressures on him. "Over time, it probably took a month and a half, and Gibby was great with me, he pulled me in that office a couple of different times and said, 'Hey, I know you've got a lot of pressure on you, but you're doing all right, you're fighting through it, keep your head up.' He was a good encouragement for me. It comes with the territory, it really does, it's part of the strapping on the saddle and saying I want to be one of the guys you depend on. I enjoy that."
The way he embraces the role is a good thing, but alone he won't be able to take the Blue Jays to where they want to go, no matter how much he grows from this year.