TORONTO – Midway through the season, the starting rotation looked like it would be a major problem for the Toronto Blue Jays over the winter. Three-fifths of it was bound for free agency. Save for J.A. Happ, the club’s best trade bait ahead of the deadline, no one was performing to expectations. The two guys under team control for 2018, Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez, both endured injuries and inconsistencies. At times, simply covering a start was a problem.
And remember Jaime Garcia?
By no means are the Blue Jays out of the woods on the rotation front. But the emergence of Ryan Borucki, who threw seven more excellent innings in a 5-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday, along with fellow rookies Thomas Pannone and Sean Reid-Foley, has at least changed the considerations for the club heading into the winter.
At this point, Borucki has certainly earned himself a spot on the 2019 staff and there’s ample reason to believe in what he’s doing on the mound.
“The kid can just pitch,” said manager John Gibbons. “His breaking ball has gotten better since he’s been here, but he knows what he’s doing. He can throw different things at different times. Today, he saw a lot of left-handers in that lineup so he was attacking pretty good with a really good breaking ball. Bottom line, he can pitch, he’s got a feel for what he’s doing and that will take him a long way.”
Consider that in 16 starts, he’s thrown at least six innings 11 times, allowing two earned runs or less in each of those outings.
Five times he’s faced a team for the second or third time, and in all but one he’s performed better than in the previous game.
“That’s Ryan fearlessness to throw anything at any time,” said catcher Danny Jansen. “We used his fastball a lot today, but we also used a lot of sliders because of five lefties in there. We also used some left-on-left changeups which, if you’re a lefty, typically you don’t expect that, you can almost cancel that pitch as a hitter. The first one was to (Kevin) Kiermaier, he swung right over it, and it shows nine other guys we’re not afraid to throw changeups, too. That made the lefty hitters a little bit more uncomfortable, threw a couple to Mallex Smith, to Brandon Lowe, and it made his other pitches more effective, too.”
Borucki also gets both groundballs (49.1 per cent coming into the game) and swings and misses (a solid 7.4 per cent), a combo that’s crucial in the American League East meat-grinder.
And, already at a career-high of 161 innings (91 in the majors, 77 at triple-A) with one start to go, Borucki is showing himself capable of handling the workload demanded of a big-league starter.
“I’m feeling good,” Borucki said. “I’m going to do everything I need to do to get ready for that last one and hopefully have a good one. Go into the off-season healthy and come into 2019 ready to go. …
“I feel like I’ve done my job to hopefully stay here and hopefully get some more opportunities here. I’ve worked on my slider since I’ve been here, just trying to tighten everything up while I’ve been here and just get more experience.”
It all positions Borucki to slot in behind Stroman and Sanchez next season, with Pannone pitching well enough to build comfort on the club’s part should they need to break camp with him in 2019.
From a depth perspective, adding two reliable innings-eating starters would make lots of sense for the Blue Jays, allowing both Pannone and Reid-Foley to open the season at triple-A Buffalo as the first depth options while perhaps allowing Sam Gaviglio to pitch as a swingman in the bullpen.
But with a slew of other internal options arriving at the upper levels of the farm system – such as Hector Perez, T.J. Zeuch, Jordan Romano, Jon Harris and Julian Merryweather (the PTBNL in the Josh Donaldson deal) – the Blue Jays aren’t nearly as naked on the rotation front as they were last year, when Mat Latos and Casey Lawrence made starts for the team, and this year when the fanbase was subjected to Mike Hauschild.
As things stand now, Borucki is the most advanced of the kids, carrying a 3.76 ERA across his 16 starts in the majors. He’s faced the AL East champion Boston Red Sox three times, the New York Yankees and Rays twice along with the defending World Series champion Houston Astros, so there’s no filler in his numbers.
He’s earned his props, demonstrating an aptitude to make adjustments as needed.
“They showed me a little different lineup than last time, they had all righties the last time I faced them,” Borucki said of the Rays, whom he held to two runs over six innings Sept. 4. “So I utilized my slider more today, threw some left-on-left changeups, some stuff I don’t usually do but I had to switch my game-plan from facing them last time.”
Similarly, Borucki hasn’t wilted when facing off the best of the game, giving the Blue Jays a chance Sunday against Blake Snell. The Cy Young Award candidate shoved his way through 6.2 dominant innings – allowing three hits and two walks with 11 strikeouts – but Borucki surrendered only two runs over his seven frames, while striking out seven himself.
“He had nasty stuff,” said Kiermaier. “We faced him a couple times, today he had a lot of movement on his fastball and started throwing lefties changeups, which he doesn’t do. You never know what he’s going to throw any time, even in hitters counts he’ll throw the changeup or the slider, and you get into a count where you think he’s going throw off-speed and he’ll throw a fastball. His fastball was running and sinking today unlike I’ve ever seen from him.
“He had it going on for sure.”
The main blight for Borucki on Sunday would be the four walks he issued, only the third time he’s issued that many this season.
Still, that he contained a Rays team that is positioned to be a threat in the AL East next year and well beyond bodes well for a Blue Jays team busy identifying pieces that will open its next competitive window.