ANAHEIM, Calif. – As the calendar flipped to May 1 on Wednesday, the Toronto Blue Jays sit second in the majors with a 3.36 earned-run average, trailing only the pitching-rich Tampa Bay Rays and their sparkling 2.95 mark. If you’re looking for the most pleasant surprise through the first 29 games of the 2019 season for manager Charlie Montoyo’s squad, that’s clearly it.
Now, how sustainable that run of quality pitching is another matter entirely, a situation complicated dramatically by the loss of Matt Shoemaker, who Tuesday had surgery to reconstruct the anterior-cruciate ligament and repair the medial meniscus in his left knee.
The 32-year-old right-hander was the club’s best pitcher through the opening month, posting a 1.57 earned-run average and 0.872 WHIP in 28.2 innings over five starts. “As far as I was concerned he was on his way to an all-star game – that’s the kind of season he started out having,” is how pitching coach Pete Walker describes the quality of performance.
The Blue Jays have no chance of replacing that, but amplifying the loss is the spinoff effect on the rest of the staff of no longer having Shoemaker’s steadiness once every five days.
To this point, the rotation has covered 151 of the club’s 259.2 innings while pitching to a 3.16 ERA. But without a third piece complementing the stability provided by Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez, who keep increasing the likelihood of getting traded the better they pitch, that’s going to be hard to maintain.
And if the rotation delivers fewer innings, that’s going to lead to an overworked bullpen.
“It’s a big blow,” says Walker. “Guys have stepped up in the meantime, in different ways, but he was definitely a big part of that rotation early on helped us get off to a good start.
“When you have three guys that are rolling it does make everybody’s life a little bit easier. Relievers aren’t getting beat up. They’re pitching innings they’re probably supposed to be pitching. They’re not put in situations where they’re pushed too far and I think that’s another reason why a lot of those guys have gotten off to a good start.”
The Blue Jays haven’t needed a fifth starter since Shoemaker suffered the injury April 20 at Oakland thanks to a generous dose of off-days, but that ends this weekend when they need someone to start against the Texas Rangers.
Lefty Thomas Pannone – who along with Sam Gaviglio has provided crucial, staff-saving innings out of the bullpen – is likely to make that start against a lefty-heavy lineup. But all bets are off if he’s needed in the games before then, with Montoyo saying an opener was possible, but not ideal as a fallback plan.
None of Sean Reid-Foley, Jordan Romano, Jacob Waguespack, David Paulino or Sean Morimando is pitching particularly well in the triple-A Buffalo rotation right now, so internally there are few options. An outside the box possibility for a one-off outing could be right-hander Patrick Murphy, who has big-time stuff and is coming off an eight-inning, two-hit, one-run, seven-strikeout game at double-A New Hampshire, although that would be uncharacteristically aggressive for the Blue Jays with a prospect.
Among the injured, Ryan Borucki (left elbow) won’t be an option until the end of May at the earliest, although he started playing catch Monday, while lefty Clayton Richard (right knee) threw his second bullpen Tuesday without issue, and is slated to throw another later this week.
Julian Merryweather (Tommy John), the return from Cleveland for Josh Donaldson, was set to throw in an extended spring training game Wednesday, so he’s starting to track toward a return.
After Saturday, the Blue Jays won’t need a fifth starter again until May 18 at Chicago, but that also means Stroman, Sanchez, Clay Buchholz and Trent Thornton won’t be getting any extra days between outings, which is amplifying the burden they are already carrying.
All of which reinforces how important Shoemaker had become to the Blue Jays in terms of performance, without factoring in all the plus intangibles he brought to the table, as well.
“The way he was pitching and the way he was talking to the younger pitchers we have on the staff and what a team guy he is – there’s no replacement for Shoemaker,” says Montoyo. “We’re going to miss him, for sure. Even there at the end, he was limping to the bullpen to be with the other four guys and that’s awesome. How many guys would do that? We’re going to miss him a lot.”
Another impact is the Blue Jays are going to have even more difficulty getting to a seven-man bullpen, which would create room for a fourth player on a bench that’s been short all year.
Montoyo acknowledged as much, suggesting that, “we might have to go the whole year with three guys on the bench and eight guys in the ‘pen,” a reality further complicated by the presence of Rule 5 pick Elvis Luciano, whom the Blue Jays are still trying to protect.
The 19-year-old who hadn’t pitched above rookie ball before has a 4.50 ERA and a WHIP of 2.00 in 10 innings over eight outings, showing the pure stuff that tempted the front office to take him from the Kansas City Royals but also the rawness you’d expect for someone so inexperienced.
With the need expected to pick up in the bullpen, Walker says “it’s inevitable,” that Luciano will end up in more important situations, strictly out of necessity.
“We would like to minimize those initially but he was in a tight game (Sunday),” he adds. “I’m sure it’s going to happen a little more often. It’s not going to be easy for him. We’re going to continue to work with him and try to attack the strike zone and continue to refine his slider. He’s gaining more confidence with that. Hopefully we can utilize him more.”
More responsibility could also fall upon Gaviglio (0.95 ERA in 19 innings over nine games) and Pannone (5.40 ERA in 16.2 over 10 appearances), who rank sixth and seventh in innings logged for the Blue Jays thus far. When a starter has faltered, they’ve been there to help pick up the pieces, and the Blue Jays are likely to be leaning on them even more.
“Sam has been tremendous out of the ‘pen,” says Walker. “For a staff to be in the position we’re in from an ERA standpoint, you’ve got to have those kind of guys eating up innings, and pitching really good innings, quality innings against good opponents. That minimizes using other relievers. He’s been tremendous, kind of the glue between the cracks. Tom Pannone is another guy can go multiple innings. He has pitched exceptional at times. Those two guys have really stood out and really kept it together and kept us utilizing the bullpen the way we want to.”
So challenging times loom for a pitching staff off to a very strong start.