Why Blue Jays’ fifth-starter competition is more complicated than it seems

President and CEO of the Toronto Blue Jays Mark Shapiro joins Lead Off to discuss the plan for Nate Pearson and if fans could see the super prospect be used as an opener.

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — Anthony Kay wasn’t particularly pleased with his outing against the Tampa Bay Rays Wednesday. And how could he be? The Toronto Blue Jays starter recorded only an out, walking four and allowing a two-run single before being lifted after having thrown 30 pitches, 12 of them for strikes. He never got into a rhythm. Never found the pace he displays when at his best. It was a frustrating afternoon.

“I was trying to go right after guys, attack them. Obviously, it didn’t go as planned,” Kay said. “I feel like I was just yanking a lot of fastballs off to the glove side and I just wasn’t able to make an adjustment.

“If you want to pitch up in the big leagues, you’ve got to be able to make adjustments. And I wasn’t able to do that today.”

It was an odd departure for Kay, who had been aggressive in each of his outings this spring. He’d been attacking hitters with his 93-m.p.h. fastball inside, setting up his high-spin curveball and a whiff-generating changeup he’ll use to neutralize right-handed hitting. He’d brought a poise to the mound, as well, showing off his polish as a starter by staying consistent in his delivery and working at a high tempo.

“He’s been great. He really has. I think the thing that stood out the most, and it was something that our pro scouts identified, was his competitiveness and his lack of fear,” Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins said on Monday. “I think we all know that for all of us fear is a normal thing to have. But he seems to tap into it, embrace it. His ability to pitch inside. The development of the breaking ball seems to be coming. He’s been very encouraging for us.”

And none of that changes after Kay’s rough outing Wednesday. He’s still a pitcher the Blue Jays view as a future big-league regular. Just like the 15 or so other young, developing arms currently clumped around the organization’s double-A and triple-A rotations, jockeying for position on an extremely crowded depth chart.

So much of the discussion around the Blue Jays this spring has concerned the race to be Toronto’s fifth major-league starter come opening day. Kay was making a dark horse push. Trent Thornton had the inside track. Shun Yamaguchi was bouncing back from a rough start, demonstrating his pedigree of success as one of NPB’s best starters last season.

But ‘fifth starter’ is a complete misnomer. The Blue Jays will use more than five starting pitchers this season. Last year they used 21. The year before that, 14. The five guys who break camp aren’t the five guys for the season — they’re just the first five.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Hearing your name announced at Rogers Centre on opening day is an honour and every player in camp ought to be aspiring to win a job. But for those who don’t, an opportunity to pitch for the Blue Jays will likely come before long. Thornton, Yamaguchi and Kay will all make starts for this team. So will Nate Pearson and Ryan Borucki, if healthy. T.J. Zeuch, Sean Reid-Foley, Julian Merryweather, Jacob Waguespack, Thomas Hatch — the list goes on.

Which is why the real competition in this camp is for the triple-A rotation, where all those names above could end up. Pearson and Kay are near certainties, while Zeuch — Toronto’s first-round pick in 2016 — has impressed in side sessions this spring after spending time at Driveline Baseball over the winter. Merryweather’s 28, finally healthy, and throwing in the high 90s, while Hatch is the dark-horse candidate many in the organization see impacting the major-league club this season.

That’s five guys right there. We haven’t even gotten to Yennsy Diaz, Hector Perez, and Patrick Murphy, who are all on the 40-man roster and in major-league camp. Waguespack and Reid-Foley may profile as future relievers, but the club’s still considering them as starters today. Borucki will have to fit in somewhere once he’s past the elbow tightness that shut him down earlier in camp.

And there’s more. Jon Harris (Toronto’s first-round pick in 2015), Justin Dillon (10th round in 2017), and Andrew Sopko (part of the return in the Russell Martin trade) are all 25 or older and have already pitched for the Bisons in recent seasons.

Joey Murray and Zach Logue, both 23, impressed in double-A last season. Maximo Castillo and Simeon Woods-Richardson are highly-touted prospects pushing their way up the system who could hit double-A this summer. (And while they’re much deeper cuts, 19-year-old Adam Kloffenstein and 18-year-old Sem Robberse both come up when you ask Blue Jays officials for potential 2020 breakout candidates in the system.)

If that sounds like a lot, well, it is. The Blue Jays have stockpiled young pitching over the last several seasons through the draft, trade, and international market. They’ve spread their chips around the roulette table, making a volume bet that one of their many numbers will land.

It’s impossible to say who will separate themselves from the pack. It could be no one. But it stands to reason that someone from among this group will emerge as a surprise success story, the same way Cavan Biggio went from being considered an organizational player following a .705-OPS 2017 at high-A to an above-average MLB second baseman only two years later.

Much of this season will be about finding out who that can be. Along the way, candidates will bleed off due to poor performance, injury, or a conversion to bullpen roles. Thomas Pannone has already been sent on that route, now operating exclusively as a reliever. And some of the other names in competition for the triple-A rotation could end up joining him.

“I think that some of them will be in the mix for our major-league bullpen and then, based on how our starting rotation takes shape in the major league and who lands in the bullpen, hopefully we’re in a very good position to say that we might have to have someone who projects to be a triple-A starter in our triple-A bullpen just because we don’t have the spots,” Atkins said. “Or I suppose we could consider a double-A spot. But, man, we feel good about the depth there, too. So, that’s a very good situation for us to be in.”

The ultimate benefit of all this pitching depth is that it’s young, full of potential, and, in some cases, already tested at the major-league level. If mishaps occur in the big-league rotation — and they will — the Blue Jays will not be turning to Ryan Feierabend, a 34-year-old left-handed knuckleballer who got shelled in an emergency spot start last May, or Edwin Jackson, who pitched to an 11.90 ERA over five starts for the Blue Jays in 2019.

Rather, the Blue Jays will be summoning someone they feel good about making a spot start or even remaining in the rotation long term. And if things don’t go well for that guy, there’s another one right behind him. None of these pitchers will replicate the experience and proven ability of a Hyun-Jin Ryu or a Matt Shoemaker. But none of them will be in over their heads, either.

And one of them — Pearson — could be exceptional. You’ve heard enough by now about how dominant he’s been this spring, what makes him a potential front-of-the-rotation starter, and why he won’t be at Rogers Centre with the Blue Jays on opening day.

If he’s healthy and performing through his first handful of starts at triple-A, Pearson’s debut could come as soon as the Blue Jays have an opening in the majors. And there’s no telling how far the overpowering right-hander will carry that opportunity when it comes.

So, who will be Toronto’s fifth starter on opening day? It really doesn’t matter. Who will be eighth on Toronto’s depth chart? And then ninth and 10th and all the way through to the bottom of the double-A rotation? Now that’s a lot more interesting.

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