Blue Jays could borrow Royals’ template for replacing ace arm

Mike Wilner, Ben Nicholson-Smith and Barry Davis talk about where the Blue Jays could look for starting pitching and if there is any chance of bringing back David Price.

BOCA RATON, Fla. – Any executive looking to replicate the success of the Kansas City Royals should probably be realistic.

Acquiring seven or eight defensively-gifted, line drive hitting young players just isn’t that easy. Neither is building a bullpen seemingly filled with closers.

But there are still potential lessons for the MLB executives who hope to supplant the Royals as World Series champions in 2016. Take for example the way in which Kansas City rebuilt their pitching staff after losing James Shields to free agency last winter. Instead of spending big on one player, they spread their resources on Edinson Volquez, Luke Hochevar, Kris Medlen and Chris Young while picking up Ryan Madson and Franklin Morales on minor league deals.

Shields was an integral part of the Royals’ 2014 success, but it’s safe to say they got by without him.

“We felt like we needed 200 innings from someone,” Royals assistant GM J.J. Picollo told Sportsnet. “You start scouring potential candidates who have a track record of doing that and that’s where Edinson fit that well. We thought it would be a good thing for our rotation.”

They were right. Volquez posted a 3.55 ERA in 200.1 regular season innings before starting six playoff games, all while earning just $7.5 million in the first year of a two-year, $20-million contract. Those innings were crucial for Kansas City, “the first step in trying to reestablish a pitching staff,” Picollo said.

It’s a model worth keeping in mind for a Toronto Blue Jays team now mulling ways of upgrading a staff in serious need of reinforcements. Just because David Price was absolutely essential to the Blue Jays’ AL East title doesn’t mean he’s essential to their 2016 success. In fact, as much as every team would love to add an ace starter, it’s possible to build a strong pitching staff without one.

“Everyone’s trying to get the ace at all times. You’re always trying to upgrade the best you can, so when the opportunity arises you try to make it happen,” interim GM Tony LaCava said Tuesday.

If someone like Matt Harvey, Sonny Gray or Julio Teheran becomes available, the Blue Jays should of course call. Those pitchers have the tantalizing combination of team control and front-of-the-rotation upside. But the success of their off-season doesn’t hinge on landing an ace.

“It’s not absolutely essential,” LaCava said. “If you get consistent starting pitching and your offence is elite, you’ve got a chance to win quite a few games.”

One key variable for the Blue Jays will be the future of Marco Estrada, who posted a 3.13 ERA on his way to earning a qualifying offer. The right-hander has until Friday to decide whether he’ll accept or decline, though he’s free to negotiate with all 30 clubs in the meantime.

“We’ll wait and see,” LaCava said. “Hopefully we can bring Marco back.”

Beyond Marcus Stroman and R.A. Dickey, the Blue Jays’ 2016 rotation includes considerable uncertainty since Price, Estrada and Mark Buehrle are all free agents. Drew Hutchison remains on the depth chart and LaCava said he “showed signs that he can be the pitcher we all know he can be” in 2015. Surely he’s worth tendering a contract, but counting on him after he posted a 5.57 ERA is another matter.

The Royals did more than simply replace Shields with Volquez, though. Their starters actually ranked 22nd in baseball in ERA this year, trailing the likes of the White Sox and Marlins. But additions such as Medlen, Morales and Madson fortified their bullpen to great effect, allowing their middling rotation to succeed where the likes of the Boston Red Sox faltered.

“We recognized that we don’t have the starting rotation we need, so we aren’t going to have the innings we need out of the starters,” Picollo said. “We’d better be strong in our bullpen.”

To the credit of Picollo and GM Dayton Moore, the Royals successfully identified impact arms. Those assessments are the baseline for any successful off-season.

In Toronto, Roberto Osuna, Aaron Sanchez, Brett Cecil, Liam Hendriks and Aaron Loup provide the makings of a strong unit in LaCava’s view. While it’s possible Osuna and Sanchez will be considerations for the rotation next spring, the Blue Jays will also pore over minor league free agent lists and possible waiver claims to fortify their bullpen.

Bigger free agent relief targets can’t be ruled out either “if they’re available and they make sense.” Top starters will surely be on the radar, too. But while splashy moves win the off-season, the Royals offered an intriguing alternative for replacing ace starters by adding multiple arms.

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