Nicholson-Smith: Rotation issues expose bullpen

May 9, 2013, 1:44 PM

The Toronto Blue Jays have allowed more runs than every team in baseball except the Houston Astros. To reverse this trend they’ll need improvement from many pitchers, but it all starts with the team’s rotation for a number of reasons.

Here’s where Blue Jays starters rank among the 30 MLB teams  in a handful of meaningful categories:

  • ERA: 5.85, 29th
  • Innings per start: 5.1, 28th
  • Walk rate: 4.1 K/9, 28th
  • Strikeout rate: 6.9 K/9, 20th

“We should do a better job as a starting staff,” Brandon Morrow said after becoming the first Blue Jays starter to complete eight innings this year.

He’s right, though in fairness to the rotation, injuries have played a significant part in the recent struggles. J.A. Happ took a line drive to the head and injured his knee; R.A. Dickey has dealt with back and neck spasms; Morrow is dealing with similar issues; triceps tightness forced Josh Johnson to the disabled list; Ricky Romero took a batted ball off his pitching arm.

Injuries aside, the results have not been there. Not only have Blue Jays starters pitched ineffectively, their inability to stay in games has exposed the team’s bullpen and amplified the team’s struggles.

RELIEF EXPOSED

The less the starters pitch, the more the relievers pitch, and increased reliance on relief is rarely a good thing. Most MLB bullpens include some hittable pitchers, and the Blue Jays are no exception, despite the constant waiver wire maneuverings of general manager Alex Anthopoulos. Once teams get past the likes of Casey Janssen, Brett Cecil and Steve Delabar, there are some weak spots.

Jeremy Jeffress, Justin Germano, Aaron Laffey, Dave Bush, Ramon Ortiz and Edgar Gonzalez have bounced between Toronto and Buffalo all year, passing through waivers en route to the minor leagues. All of the callups and demotions, haven’t amounted to much production.

The aforementioned six pitchers have logged 20 total innings, allowing 19 earned runs. It’s not a fluke, as the pitchers have allowed eight home runs and  more walks (14) than strikeouts (8) while allowing more than two hitters per inning to reach base.

Sure, 20 innings is a relatively small sample. But that amounts to 6% of the team’s total innings. For the sake of comparison, Adam Lind and Brett Lawrie have each taken approximately 6% of the team’s total plate appearances.

RELYING ON RELIEVERS

Blue Jays relievers have pitched 129 innings this year, more than every team in baseball except the Astros.

John Gibbons recently described his team’s bullpen as ‘beat up’ — and that was before Happ and Romero became the first Blue Jays starters since 1980 to exit consecutive games without completing two innings.

Lots of scoring means some long outings, and the Blue Jays’ pitchers have been worked hard early on. No team in baseball has thrown more pitches than the Blue Jays’ 5,283 (that’s 1,014 more pitches than the Royals in case you’re counting). The entire pitching staff has been taxed.

WHAT’S NEXT?

It may get better, but the team’s short-term reinforcements — Ortiz and Mickey Storey are taking the places of Gonzalez and Romero — are uninspiring.

Anthopoulos could turn to the waiver wire or continue relying on internal options. However, as the GM  said last week, trade options tend to be limited before the amateur draft takes place in June.

The 10-24 Astros are widely regarded as the organization with the fewest MLB-caliber players. Yet Gonzalez, who pitched for the Blue Jays Wednesday night, and Storey, who was added to the Toronto roster Thursday morning, have both been removed from the Astros’ roster since last December.

With all due respect to Gonzalez, he’s a fringy player even for an organization thin on talent. So it was not an encouraging sign for the Blue Jays when Gibbons called on Gonzalez in the first inning of a winnable game Wednesday night.

Longer outings from the starters would enable Gibbons to rely on effective relievers such as Janssen and Cecil for a greater percentage of the team’s relief innings. Until then, Gibbons won’t be able to hide the team’s weakest relievers — and opponents will keep scoring.

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