Jays have key decisions to make on rotation

June 27, 2014, 10:59 PM

TORONTO – July has yet to arrive and already rumour season is on for the Toronto Blue Jays, with the daily movements of their scouts being taken as signs of their interest in Jeff Samardzija or David Price or whoever else is for sale wherever they’ve doubled up on a given day.

Get used to it, the speculation, strategic leaks and general gamesmanship is only picking up from here.

Still, before the fun stuff really gets out of hand, the Blue Jays still have some real navel-gazing to do, especially with their starting rotation. R.A. Dickey, mostly brilliant and briefly brutal in allowing five runs on four homers in Friday’s 5-4 loss to the Chicago White Sox, has been serviceable. Drew Hutchison and J.A. Happ are alternating good and bad starts, while Marcus Stroman is still getting his feet wet.

Beyond the stabilizing force of Mark Buerhrle, who is enjoying a career year at 35, there’s a lot of volatility. How far can the Blue Jays really count on that group to take them in the second half? Should the rotation be the focus ahead of the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline?

“Volatility is part of it,” GM Alex Anthopoulos said in an interview with Sportsnet. “With needs, it’s any way you have a chance to get better. It’s more, who’s available, and if your evaluation is that a certain player is an upgrade over what you have and you can make the deal work, you get it done.

“It’s so hard to predict performance. Health is the biggest thing. If these guys stay healthy, they’re all going to be solid for us.”

Whether solid will be enough is debatable.

Heading into Friday’s play, Blue Jays starters led the American League with 35 wins, but their ERA of 3.87 was seventh, their WHIP of 1.39 was 12th, their 168 walks issued ranked second and their 764 total bases allowed was third. The second-most productive offence in the AL has more than made up for that, but counting on that to continue as the stakes get higher may be unwise.

“These guys are winning games for us, they’re giving us quality starts, there’s going to be inconsistency – very few guys go wire-to-wire on their grades,” said Anthopoulos. “Everything evens out, their ERA, J.A. Happ will have a bad outing and then a good like (Thursday) night, that evens out.”

Or it could get better. Or it could get worse, too, which makes the way the Blue Jays approach trade talks over the next month so crucial.

If their evaluation is that things won’t get better, they must find a way to augment a starting staff with worryingly little depth behind it, whether by anteing up for big name like Samardzija or Price, or targeting a more mid-range option.

But Hutchison, Happ, Stroman and Dickey, in particular, all have the potential to be better, too.

“I think there’s always upside to him,” Anthopoulos said of Dickey. “Not that they’re the same position, but it if you look at my Edwin Encarnacion quotes for like three years in a row, we’ve done all kinds of work, analytic work on him, we think it’s going to come, it just took a little time. … Do I think R.A. can go off and have an unbelievable run? Sure, no doubt about it.”

Friday’s outing was representative of the enigma his season has been. Through his first four innings, he was dominant in not allowing a single hit while striking out six. Then he allowed two solo shots in the fifth, recovered with a clean sixth, and right after the Blue Jays tied the game 2-2, surrendered two more homers in the seventh that decided things as a ninth-inning rally fell short.

“That’s the nature of what you have to accept with the pitch,” said Dickey. “I had bouts like that in ’11 and a couple in ’12, too, but you really have to try to have a short-term memory. Over my last four or five outings all but one run have come off home runs, that just doesn’t ever happen. Usually you’re giving up base hits or you walk a guy and they get runs. I can’t recall a stretch like that, but I really think it’s an anomaly and hopefully things will get back to the baseline next outing.”

The four homers were the most Dickey has allowed since giving up a post-1900-record-tying six on April 6, 2006 in his first big-league start as a knuckleballer. He allowed only five hits in total against the White Sox, walking one and striking out nine in a line he referred to as “bizarre.”

Smoothing out the wild swings is vital.

“R.A.’s been good for us, I know everyone expects him to throw a shutout every time out, but he gives this team a chance to win all the time and I do think he’s as capable as anybody of going on a tear,” said Anthopoulos, adding later: “With that pitch, you’re prone to mistakes. That’s just the reality of the pitch, that’s to be expected.”

Also to be expected are high prices for pitchers on the current market, and fans clamouring for a deal should remember the churning in their stomachs over the surrender of two top prospects, one close to the big-leagues at the time in Travis d’Arnaud, one further away in Noah Syndergaard for Dickey.

There’s no basic framework for trades, but that may hint at a rough guideline for what it might take.

“That being said it was the off-season, and things do change in-season, you have a little more information,” said Anthopoulos. “I even said when I got the job, in a perfect scenario, you make deals in-season because you know the landscape in the division, you know who’s having a good year, you know the health of your team, you’ve got that much more information.

“So I don’t know if you can take an off-season deal and mirror it.”

Does that mean a trade that didn’t make sense in the winter might make more sense now?

“I don’t know that you accept prices being higher,” said Anthopoulos. “You have to come up with an evaluation, it’s very fluid, and what I would say is, the principles you always have, years of control are always a factor. In-season, off-season, that’s part of the evaluation, how long do you have a guy for, contractual status, what kind of dollars do they make, how do they impact your payroll, all that kind of stuff.”

There’s also who you give up, and while blue-chip pitchers Aaron Sanchez and Daniel Norris get mentioned most often, Dalton Pompey, the outfielder from Mississauga, Ont., promoted to double-A New Hampshire on Friday, is getting some interest.

The Blue Jays must be careful with him, as on his current path he could reach the majors late next season, offering a potential long-term solution to the club’s looming outfield crisis. Pompey and 2014 first-rounder Max Pentecost, the catcher who once signed is expected to join single-A Vancouver and later graduate to New Hampshire if he performs as expected, may be the organization’s position player prospects closest to the big-leagues.

Anthopoulos got a first-hand look at Pompey, Sanchez, Norris and others during his just completed affiliate tour, something he “wanted to get done sooner rather than later” because “I expect July to be a very busy month for us.”

Between decisions to be made internally and externally, it’s sure to be precisely that. The intrigue is just getting started.

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