SAN DIEGO – The focal point for the Toronto Blue Jays at the winter meetings will be upgrading their bullpen, but as the baseball industry descends upon San Diego a point worth debating is how much room for improvement their rotation has.
In 2014 their starting staff anchored by R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle ranked 11th out of 15 teams in the American League with a 3.96 ERA – slightly above the league average of 3.92 – and that’s going to need to be better for the 20-year playoff drought to end.
Given that 4/5ths of the rotation is returning in Dickey, Buehrle, Marcus Stroman and Drew Hutchison – and that the only reasonable candidate among them to be substantially better is Hutchison, although they’ll get a full season of Stroman too (the Blue Jays would love the others to simply repeat) – Aaron Sanchez is the likeliest pitcher to make a major difference.
Electric and overpowering in 24 games out of the bullpen last season, Sanchez is a bit of a wild card as a starter, having often fought command issues on his way up the ladder. Inconsistencies with his secondary pitches, rarely used out of the bullpen, present an additional question mark.
Still, if he progresses as expected, he’ll provide a significant upgrade on the steady J.A. Happ, and, in theory at least, give a boost to the rotation.
"That upside is there," GM Alex Anthopoulos said last week. "He needs to maintain and stay on top of the ball, but when he does he can be outstanding."
How well he is able to stay on top of the ball may very well be the key indicator to his success or failure. When Sanchez was first promoted to triple-A Buffalo from double-A New Hampshire, Bisons pitching coach Randy St. Claire quickly identified the way he was dropping his right elbow as a problem.
They immediately started working on getting Sanchez’s elbow up, and Anthopoulos remembers St. Claire telling him, "Once he ends up getting this, he’s going to take off."
"We had noticed that his curveball had started to regress a little bit, basically he’d drop his elbow, and when you’re throwing your curveball and dropping your elbow, it’s going to hump out of your hand, and ultimately, you’re not going to have that downhill plane, you’re going to be flat. He’d keep the elbow inside the ball and the ball would tail armside," says Anthopoulos. With his arm slot up, "his sinker was a bowling ball, his curveball was outstanding, his changeup was outstanding. I remember coming back (from a trip to Buffalo) and telling (John Gibbons), ‘What I’m seeing in these last three or four outings, he’s as good as any starter we have currently.’ That’s how good he looked."
Before calling him up in early July, the Blue Jays debated whether Sanchez would throw enough strikes. With only nine walks in 33 innings, he did, and now he needs to keep it going.
"I felt very, very confident that with the adjustment he made, that unlocked the command of his fastball," says Anthopoulos. "That doesn’t mean he’s never going to walk anybody, he’s still going to walk some guys. But that change was huge. …
"You’d think, in theory, why would he be better going up a level? There was a tangible change. It wasn’t ‘I feel better, I’m getting better game-calling.’ There was a tangible change they had worked on. It progressively got better."
As for how much of a workload the 22-year-old can handle, the gloves appear to be off. He worked a total of 133.1 innings in 2014 and the Blue Jays don’t plan on setting any artificial limits.
"We don’t foresee that being a problem," says Anthopoulos. "I’m not locked in, at least in my opinion, to an innings count. I think it’s such an arbitrary number. (Assistant GM) Tony LaCava and I were just talking about this. People say 20 percent, 30 innings, well is 30 innings the same if he threw 100 innings the year before as if he threw 180? Is 20 percent of 100 the same as 20 percent of 180? Where’s the science to it? I’m not saying there isn’t any validity to it. The theory of you watch your workload, same as if you’re training for a marathon, you don’t go from zero to 27 miles, but you do monitor, you give them rest, you stay on top of it, and I don’t think you stay locked in on a number."
- A quiet talking point for months has been whether the Blue Jays would deal one of R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle. Hogwash, according to the GM. "Anything can happen but those are important guys for us," says Anthopoulos. "Lockdown 200, 220 innings, they’re important guys for this team. I’ve read at various times that they’re available in trades or being shopped – completely false. They’ve never come up at any point in time, their names have never come up once, and we need them to be on this team."
- How many relievers are the Blue Jays looking for? "If we can add two, that would be our hope," says Anthopoulos. "If it ends up being one so be it, if it ends up being three, that’s fine as well. Ideally we’d like to add more than one."
- The Blue Jays expect a potential outfield of Jose Bautista in right, Dalton Pompey/Kevin Pillar in centre and Michael Saunders in left to save plenty of runs. "Our internal evaluations from a metrics standpoint, we were below average defensively in the outfield last year and we’re trying to get better," says Anthopoulos. Overall as an outfield group, we didn’t have the greatest year."
- There are several teams interested in Dioner Navarro but so far the Blue Jays haven’t been tempted. They’ll only trade him for value in return because, "Navarro could still mix and match at DH," says Anthopoulos. "If we can find the right deal for Navarro we’ll do that, we find him an everyday job, we’ll do that, but there are scenarios he can still get playing time."
- The Blue Jays plan to give Russ Martin a chance to catch R.A. Dickey, something the backstop is willing to try.
- The Blue Jays have two candidates for fourth outfielder in Kevin Pillar and minor-league free agent Ezequiel Carrera, and another addition is certainly possible. "In a perfect world we’d like to add some speed, obviously a guy that can play centre field but we don’t need that, we do have Saunders who could step in even though we don’t view him as a centre-fielder," says Anthopoulos. "Ever since we lost (Anthony) Gose (in the trade for second base prospect Devon Travis), that speed element, we’ve been trying to find that guy." Eric Young Jr., recently non-tendered by the New York Mets, would make some sense, and as bonus he’s played second base in his past, too.