Jays aim for improved rotation after dismal ’13

R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle appear to be sure things in the Blue Jays' starting rotation, but other question marks exist. (AP)

John Gibbons was talking about Josh Johnson, but he could just as easily have been describing the entire starting rotation of the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays.

“We expected a lot, and he expected a lot,” Gibbons said Tuesday. “It just didn’t happen.”

As the Blue Jays prepare for the 2014 season, potential changes to the rotation will be a focal point. Their general manager does not expect to stick with the status quo.

“We need to make changes, I think that goes without saying,” Alex Anthopoulos said Tuesday. “What that ends up being I don’t know.”

Johnson will remain sidelined for the rest of the 2013 season due to the forearm strain that landed him on the disabled list earlier this month. Like Brandon Morrow, Johnson simply won’t have enough time to rehab and return before year’s end.

One of Anthopoulos’s most apparent off-season challenges will be assessing and potentially re-shaping a starting rotation that ranks behind every MLB team except the Houston Astros in categories such as ERA and the advanced metric weighted on-base percentage (wOBA).

Speaking in general terms, the GM acknowledged that the Blue Jays must improve.

“I still believe we have the makings of a good team that needs work, that needs changes and needs help,” Anthopoulos said.

Anthopoulos makes a convincing case that the 2014 rotation will include more depth than the 2013 group. But at this stage, it seems unlikely that the Blue Jays will have as much upside next April as they did entering the much-anticipated ’13 season.

QUESTIONS ATOP THE ROTATION: The Blue Jays won’t have an ace starter next year unless they go out and get one. As recently as a few months ago, Johnson, Morrow and R.A. Dickey each seemed capable of pitching like top-of-the-rotation starters. Now, however, Blue Jays no longer have a clear frontline arm.

Dickey has a 3.47 ERA over the course of his last 12 starts and Anthopoulos believes the knuckleballer has pitched “significantly better” over the course of the last month or two.

Even so, he has not produced at the level he did in 2012, when he won the National League Cy Young Award.

“I know my role,” Dickey said Tuesday. “My role is to put up 200-plus innings and hopefully win 15 games or more. I know my role for every year that I’m here, so that doesn’t really change.”

Dickey says he feels much healthier now than he did earlier in the year, when a nagging back injury limited his velocity. He has said for months that he aims to keep the Blue Jays in the game when he starts, and that goal hasn’t changed with six starts remaining in 2013.

“Hopefully that would carry me well into the 200 inning range,” Dickey said. “If you’re able to do that, it means you’ve gone out and given your team a chance to win more times than not.

“In the AL East in particular, I feel like you have to give yourself a little bit more grace than you would otherwise because you’re talking about some really tough places to pitch and some really great hitters. That’s my goal. It doesn’t always work out that way, but if I’ve thrown over 200 innings, I’ve held my own at least.”

FILLING OUT THE ROTATION: Mark Buehrle has also held his own, posting a 3.16 ERA over the course of his last 20 starts. Like Dickey, he can be expected to provide the Blue Jays with steady innings in 2014. As Anthopoulos said, “Mark’s been the same guy he’s been his entire career.”

Then the uncertainty begins. Questions surround Brandon Morrow and J.A. Happ, the starters who presently project to join Dickey and Buehrle in the team’s 2014 rotation.

Morrow, sidelined since June due to an entrapped radial nerve in his right forearm, is resting away from the team and his health will be re-evaluated at the beginning of October.

“That’ll be very telling,” Anthopoulos said. “Hopefully it’s great news and everything’s gone according to plan.”

If nothing else, Morrow’s prognosis will help the team determine how aggressively to seek starting depth over the winter.

As for Happ, one of four pitchers already under contract for 2013, the Blue Jays expect him to handle a spot at the back of the rotation. However, the left-hander has posted a 5.46 ERA in 2013, a challenging season that saw him take a line drive to the head and miss two months.

And, even after a decidedly disappointing season that included a 6.20 ERA and a career-high 15 home runs allowed, the Blue Jays aren’t ruling out the possibility of re-signing Johnson, whose contract expires following the season.

MORE DEPTH: If there’s a reason for the Blue Jays to have some optimism, it’s that they expect to have more depth next year than they did for most of 2013.

Behind Dickey, Buehrle, Morrow and Happ, the Blue Jays could turn to a starter such as Esmil Rogers or Todd Redmond. Furthermore, Drew Hutchison and Kyle Drabek should have fully recovered from their respective 2012 Tommy John surgeries, and prospects Sean Nolin and Marcus Stroman will have ample experience in the upper levels of the organization’s minor-league system.

This leads Anthopoulos to believe the Blue Jays will improve internally compared to 2013, when they relied on minor-league free agents including Ramon Ortiz and Dave Bush.

“Now your Drew Hutchisons and your Drabeks and your Nolins and Stromans, those are your sixth, your seventh, your eighth starters, rather than — with all due respect to them — some of the minor-league free agents.”

Going forward, the Blue Jays should have more upside in a triple-A rotation that may include a familiar face. Ricky Romero, the former all-star left-hander who lost his roster spot with the Blue Jays before struggling at triple-A Buffalo has no guarantees of pitching at the MLB level this September, or of opening the 2014 campaign in Toronto.

“I don’t have doubts that the ability is there and that he’s capable of doing it,” Anthopoulos said of Romero. “But to try to handicap it and put a timeframe on it, I just have no idea. I mean I would have never predicted this to happen.”

LOOKING FOR HELP: The Blue Jays prioritized starting pitching leading up to the July 31 trade deadline, and they’re expected do so again this winter.  As Anthopoulos said, the Blue Jays must consider additions following such a disappointing year.

While the upcoming free agent class is unremarkable, the off-season trade market typically includes a variety of intriguing arms. It won’t be surprising if the Blue Jays check in on a number of those pitchers this winter.

“We’re always looking ahead,” Anthopoulos said. “I don’t know ultimately what will be there. I don’t think we’re going to look to force anything, but we’re always going to look to add.”

The Blue Jays don’t have to lower payroll, and could add salary if the right opportunities present themselves this offseason. Until then, the Blue Jays have the chance to come a little closer to determining the shape of their 2014 staff.

“Even the last four or five weeks we’ll find out more about some of these players, good and bad,” Anthopoulos said.

So far, the 2013 season has included much more bad than good. For Anthopoulos to reverse that trend, there’s no escaping the reality that the rotation will have to be considerably more effective in 2014.

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