Really, the Toronto Blue Jays have no one to blame but themselves, and, no, this isn’t about Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez or any other failed pursuit of a starting pitcher. Everyone knows mid-rotation arms, let alone elite aces, are hard to come by, which is why the competition for them is usually fierce. Whether in trade or free agency, the buyer is always at a disadvantage when shopping for a rare commodity. It’s a bad way to try to build your staff.
The disappointment this off-season has been a reminder of that, but the real culprit behind the Blue Jays’ struggles in recent years to fill out a rotation with adequate supporting depth is a draft record for pitching that since the turn of the century has been simply abysmal.
Consider that of all the arms they’ve drafted since 2000, Drew Hutchison, a 15th-rounder in 2009, may very well be the only one to break camp this spring on a big-league starting staff. James Paxton, a first-round pick in ’09 whom the Blue Jays failed to sign and who was later drafted by Seattle, has a shot at opening in the Mariners’ rotation. Ricky Romero, the sixth overall pick in 2005, is making progress as he tries to regain past form but he may need more time, while Shaun Marcum, a third-rounder in 2003, is a non-roster invitee with the Cleveland Indians as he works his way back after shoulder surgery to correct thoracic outlet syndrome.
Beyond them, there’s nobody. Blue Jays fans, meet the root of your franchise’s problems.
To be fair, it’s still too early to reasonably assess the draft classes from 2010–13 under GM Alex Anthopoulos, and the club has several legitimate prospects from those years, including Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Sean Nolin and Daniel Norris, to name but a few. Others in that group have been traded for big-league help, including Noah Syndergaard, Justin Nicolino, Anthony DeSclafani and Asher Wojciechowski.
Some of those names may be ready to contribute to a major league team this year.
But from 2000–09, under former GMs Gord Ash and J.P. Ricciardi, the Blue Jays drafted just one all-star pitcher (Romero) and only nine hurlers to make 20 or more starts in the majors: David Purcey, 21; Casey Janssen, 22; Marc Rzepczynski, 23; Dustin McGowan, 60; Jesse Litsch, 67; Brett Cecil, 74; Romero, 127; Marcum, 161; and Dave Bush 187. Cups of coffee went to Josh Banks 19, Zach Jackson 17, Brad Mills 10, Chad Jenkins 6, Robert Ray 4, and Mike Smith 3.
As a result, the Jays have consistently been forced to look outside the organization to fill a significant portion of their innings, which is a recipe for disaster.
Injuries have played a role, too. Shoulder problems forced Janssen into a relief role (where he’s nonetheless excelled), McGowan looks to be a reliever after an ongoing struggle with the disabled list (although he’s being stretched out this spring), while a platelet-rich-plasma injection gone wrong ended Litsch’s career.
Yet what’s glaring is that not only have the Blue Jays not been able to draft front-of-the-rotation arms—save for Romero—they haven’t been able to land back-end inning-eaters, or even the kind of four-A, stop-gap starters to paper over injuries or unexpected struggles.
Emergency fill-ins and temporary solutions over the past 14 years have included an array of castoffs including Chris Michalak, John Wasdin, Sean Douglass, Jason Kershner, Ryan Glynn, Chad Gaudin, Brian Tallet, Tomo Ohka, Victor Zambrano, John Parrish, Scott Richmond, Brian Burres, Dana Eveland, Shawn Hill, Jo-Jo Reyes, Jesse Chavez, Aaron Laffey, Chien-Ming Wang, and Ramon Ortiz.
If it’s felt at times like the Blue Jays were making things up as they went along, that’s probably because they were.
While teams are almost never totally self-sustainable when it comes to pitching, it’s worth noting that in the Blue Jays’ most successful seasons since 2000, homegrown pitchers have played a significant role.
Still, it’s the draft failures that have forced the Blue Jays into seeking blockbuster trades like the ones they pulled off with the Miami Marlins and New York Mets two winters ago, draining Toronto of potential building blocks such as Syndegaard and Nicolino.
Those two and Sanchez, all 2010 draft picks, had the potential to pillar the rotation for an extended period the way Roy Halladay, Chris Carpenter and Kelvim Escobar did at the turn of the century. Instead, addressing present-day needs required dealing the two promising prospects to try and avoid squandering a strong core of position players.
Now, the Blue Jays are in a similar bind again, and they must be especially wary of parting with more young arms such as Hutchison, Stroman, Sanchez, Nolin, Norris, and Kyle Drabek. It’s been a decade and a half since they last built teams on a stable foundation, and the current failures will only continue if the next several years are set up on shaky footing, as well.