Looking at how the Blue Jays can address their need for a back-end starter

Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Tyler Mahle delivers during the first inning of a baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

It may not happen as soon as anyone would like, but eventually, MLB’s labour dispute will reach a resolution and the sport will move ahead with the 2022 regular season — or at least what’s left of it. The timeline will be rapid, with shotgun spring training camps in Florida and Arizona likely opening within a week of a new CBA being ratified, and opening day looming somewhere three-to-four weeks beyond that.

That will leave front offices scrambling to fill big-league roster holes as soon as MLB’s transaction freeze is lifted, likely spurring the kind of wild activity that invigorated the sport last November. And the Toronto Blue Jays will be right in the thick of it, seeking to put the finishing touches on a win-now team being constructed to surpass the 91-win mark it achieved last season.

With that in mind, this is the final installment of a three-part series looking at the biggest roster needs remaining for the 2022 Blue Jays and how the club’s front office could go about addressing them on the other side of the lockout. Previously, we looked at an infield upgrade and bullpen reinforcements. Today, we turn our attention to the starting rotation.

All ZIPS projections via FanGraphs.
All arbitration projections via MLB Trade Rumors.

The need: A back-end starter

Where things stand (ZIPS projections)

Your milage may vary as to whether the Chicago White Sox or Houston Astros boast the American League’s best rotation. But it’s hard to argue that the Blue Jays belong anywhere lower than third.

Kevin Gausman and Jose Berrios provide front-line track records and big-game experience atop the staff. Hyun Jin Ryu is one of the game’s best control-and-command artists and only a year removed from back-to-back seasons as a Cy Young finalist. Alek Manoah is an electrifying young talent with big-time stuff and an even bigger mound presence. ZIPS projects all four to log substantial innings at an ERA south of 4.00 while producing more than 11 WAR collectively. Any of them would be an opening day starter on at least a half-dozen other teams across MLB.

It’s the best Blue Jays rotation to open a season in years. Lest we forget that over the first two weeks of the 2020 season Toronto was giving starts to Matt Shoemaker, Trent Thornton, Tanner Roark, and Chase Anderson. Less than two years later, a lot’s changed.

But that doesn’t mean the Blue Jays can stop looking to add. All that front-end talent will do most of the heavy innings lifting for a team with aspirations of winning its division, but it’s the back-end types who will fill in the gaps and help carry the load when one of those four is inevitably unavailable. The 2021 Blue Jays don’t get as far as they did without Steven Matz logging 150.2 innings of 3.82-ERA ball or Ross Stripling working to a 4.69 ERA over 19 starts, including a 3.67 mark over his final 13 after a rocky start to the season.

With Matz a St. Louis Cardinal, Stripling’s currently positioned to fill the fifth spot in Toronto’s rotation, which would be perfectly fine should the four starters ahead of him remain healthy and make 32 starts apiece. But the chance of that happening is next to nil, particularly considering the Blue Jays intend to be more mindful of Ryu’s workload coming off a down 2021 spent battling various nagging ailments, and that Manoah’s 111.2 regular-season innings last year were a career-high by a mile.

There’s no reliable way to predict pitcher health. But there is a way to insulate oneself against the harsher realities of it — building depth. And not merely adequate depth. A litany of depth. A borderline surplus, if such a thing even exists over a six-month grind.

So, if there’s opportunity to add an established, stable-floor, back-end starter to the mix, likely bumping Stripling to the swingman role he’s filled capably throughout his career in the process, the club would be better off for it. Even a top-three AL rotation like Toronto’s can stand to get a little bit deeper.

Internal options (ZIPS projections)

The best thing Nate Pearson could do in 2022 is consistently face hitters, making up for substantial lost development time after injuries limited him to only 63.2 innings at any level over the last two seasons. There are plenty of reasons to believe Pearson can still grow into the front-line starter his uncommon physical tools and otherworldly stuff suggest he could be. But the safest bet for the Blue Jays would be to let him begin that journey atop a triple-A rotation this season, rather than depending on him to hold down a big-league rotation spot from the jump.

Meanwhile, Thomas Hatch and Anthony Kay have each had their moments and their hiccups over the last two seasons in fungible swingman roles, mixing the odd spot start here with a series of relief appearances there and frequent triple-A stints in between. Thing is, we haven’t learned an awful lot about the pair of 27-year-olds over that span, leaving a wide range of possibilities for what they could be going forward.

Either could fulfill his potential and carry a big-league rotation job. Either could continue experiencing adversity at the game’s highest level and struggle to an inflated ERA. The Blue Jays simply don’t have the luxury of betting on getting the former rather than the latter in a contending year, which is why both Kay and Hatch are best suited to begin the season providing rotation depth from triple-A.

Same goes for Bowden Francis and Zach Logue, two advanced minor-leaguers with 40-man roster spots and the ability to make a non-disastrous spot start if needed. Both are likely to make their MLB debuts in 2022 and capable of developing into back-end starters. But the Blue Jays need to fill the No. 5 and 6 spots on their starter depth chart with options that provide more certainty than that.

Of course, it would take only a couple of untimely spring training injuries to thrust any of these five into a rotation role to open the season. And all of them are almost a certainty to make a start for the Blue Jays at some point in 2022. Injuries and underperformance happen; double-headers occur. But in a perfect world, these five form a strong depth group at triple-A, waiting on call to be promoted if and when disaster strikes.

Free agent options (ZIPS projections)

So, how much risk are you willing to take on? That would be the central question in any Blue Jays pursuit of Rodon, the atomic-armed, oft-injured left-hander who could just as easily win a Cy Young award in 2022 as he could explode into a million pieces right before our eyes.

Non-tendered last December, Rodon earned a job in the 2021 Chicago White Sox rotation on a one-year, $3-million deal, threw a no-hitter in his second start, was running away with the Cy Young award in late June, and hobbled across the finish line with diminished stuff in shortened outings as shoulder fatigue set in over the second half of the season.

Thanks to one of the most overpowering fastballs thrown by any MLB starter and a slider that challenges the laws of physics, the 29-year-old still finished with a 183 ERA+ and absurd 34.6 per cent strikeout rate over the 132.2 innings he pitched. He’s undoubtedly the best starter still available on the open market. But his injury history and rapid disintegration over 2021’s back-half leaves a wide range of possibilities as to the contract value he’ll garner.

Is there a medium-to-long-term deal out there for Rodon? That would all but certainly remove the Blue Jays from the bidding. But if he’s acquirable on a short-term, high-AAV, value-reestablishing deal? Well, maybe that would alleviate enough risk to make Rodon an option.

Here’s a pair of name-brand, past-prime, future hall-of-famers who could be fits on one-year, high-salary, ring-chasing deals in the twilights of their remarkable careers. Both carry plenty of risk, upside, and clubhouse intangibles, making them intriguing potential additions to a win-now club looking for the final piece to push itself over the top.

What it’ll ultimately come down to is how much either has left in the tank. The latter half of Kershaw’s 2021 was plagued by forearm and elbow issues, clouding the 115 ERA+ and solid peripherals he put up over 121.2 innings. Greinke, meanwhile, was humming right along with a 3.41 ERA through late August before collapsing down the stretch and adding three-fourths of a run to that ERA over his final four outings.

Both are relying more on craftiness and guile than raw stuff at this point in their careers, using command, sequencing, and deception to stay just far enough ahead of a new generation of big-league hitters who were in middle school when Greinke and Kershaw were winning Cy Young awards.

But both are still getting those big-leaguers out, while contributing immeasurable value as clubhouse mentors. If there’s budget for either on a one-year deal, the Blue Jays could talk themselves into the upside of a dice roll on one last ride from a living legend over the safer-floor, lower-ceiling return from a more ordinary back-end option.

Seeing the Blue Jays sign Rodon or Kershaw admittedly falls somewhere between fanciful and far-fetched, but a more realistic option could be Yusei Kikuchi, the Japanese left-hander who became a surprise late entrant to the free agent market after declining his $13-million option with the Seattle Mariners for 2022.

The 30-year-old is coming off his best season as an MLBer, having posted a 94 ERA+ over 157 innings with a decent 24.5 per cent strikeout rate and excellent 48.4 per cent groundball rate. But the numbers underlying those base stats are far less promising. Kikuchi’s velocity and spin rates both declined as the season wore on, while his walk and home run rates trended in the opposite direction. And his contact management was atrocious, producing a season-long hard-hit rate and exit velocity allowed within the bottom three per cent of the league.

Still, Kikuchi throws a mid-90’s fastball from the left side with a hard cutter, downward-moving slider, and changeup that flummoxes right-handed hitting. These are the building blocks of a solid MLB starter, and one need only look at Kikuchi’s first half in 2021 — he carried a 3.18 ERA with a .195/.265/.353 line against through his first 15 outings — for proof of concept.

It’s not so dissimilar from the state Steven Matz was in prior to the Blue Jays acquiring him last off-season — a left-hander with a hard fastball and useful secondaries who needed to make adjustments to mitigate hard contact and keep the ball in the yard. The Blue Jays betting on their pitching department having the solutions Matz needed worked out pretty well for all involved in 2021. Maybe Kikuchi’s next.

So, it’s a fifth starter you’re after? Well, here’s a sampling of free agents who fit the bill — signable for a song and capable of chewing up triple-digit innings at a league-average ERA while keeping your offence in games more often than not.

Tyler Anderson has reliably produced results with underwhelming stuff thanks to an ability to control and command four pitches in all quadrants of the zone. He won’t walk anybody, he won’t strike anybody out, and he’ll allow a bunch of fly balls. But in the end, he’s as strong a bet for a wealth of league-average innings as anyone, evidenced by a flat 100 ERA+ for his career. It’s not sexy but it ought to be extremely affordable, making Anderson an option if the Blue Jays find themselves up against the edge of their budget.

Michael Pineda hits all the back-end starter notes — strike-thrower, below-average stuff, littered injury history, serviceable results. Over the last three seasons, the 33-year-old’s made 52 starts between four trips to the IL, posting a 116 ERA+ along the way. His velocity, strikeout, and quality of contact numbers have all been heading in the wrong direction, but he’s still commanding the zone and finished 2021 with 96th percentile walk and chase rates. There’s little ceiling here. But, when healthy, Pineda’s floor seems relatively safe.

Danny Duffy had a weird 2021, leaning on a five-pitch mix to allow only two earned runs over 30 innings through his first five starts, before a flexor strain sent him to the IL in mid-May. He looked uncomfortable upon his return, bouncing between Kansas City’s rotation and bullpen, before the flexor issue shut him down again after only six appearances. The Dodgers took a flier on him at the trade deadline, but Duffy never appeared for his new team and ultimately had flexor surgery following the season.

How healthy and/or effective he’ll be going forward is anyone’s guess. But the results Duffy posted prior to surgery — he finished 2021 with a 184 ERA+ and 25.8 per cent strikeout rate over 61 innings — are impossible to ignore. If he’s still capable of that kind of production in his age-33 season, an opportunistic team could stand to benefit and reap big value on a low-cost deal.

And finally, there’s Johnny Cueto, one of the game’s most peculiar pitchers who, more than anything, would just be fun to have around — pausing, shimmying, and quick-pitching his way to pedestrian numbers. He posted an even 100 ERA+ over 114.2 innings last season, which is the best one ought to hope for from the former Cy Young candidate entering his age-36 season. But as the Blue Jays demonstrated with their doomed, two-year, $24-million deal for Tanner Roark a couple off-seasons ago, they can talk themselves into the value of a league-average innings-eater. And, really, who wouldn’t want to be entertained by it every fifth day?

Potential trade targets (ZIPS projections)

You know what a great way to upgrade the back end of your rotation is? Upgrade the front end. Domino everyone else down a spot on the depth chart and… presto! Suddenly Alek Manoah’s the best No. 5 across the league. And Ross Stripling’s logging quality bulk outings from your bullpen, ready to backfill any rotation vacancies at a moment’s notice.

Of course, this is perfect world stuff. Considering the always substantial acquisition cost, a splashy move to acquire another frontline starter is unlikely from a franchise that’s already netted two over the last eight months in Berrios and Gausman.

But that doesn’t mean the Blue Jays should shut themselves off from making offers to the Oakland A’s for Sean Manaea, Chris Bassitt, or Frankie Montas should any of them be up for grabs. Same goes for the Cincinnati Reds and Luis Castillo or Tyler Mahle. It seems extremely possible — likely in Oakland’s case — that some of those arms could be on the move prior to opening day. And if the Blue Jays can stomach the high price it’d take to acquire one of them, there are plenty of reasons to give it very serious thought.

Because what if Berrios strains an oblique? What if a comebacker fractures Gausman’s arm? What if Ryu’s down 2021 wasn’t so much an aberration as the beginning of a sudden decline? What if the league adjusts to Manoah in his second season? The loss of any of those four would create a vast void of quality innings and severely downgrade Toronto’s win expectancy.

But adding Manaea’s next-level changeup or Bassitt’s barrel-avoiding, six-pitch mix to the rotation would provide valuable insurance against such a disaster. The same then goes for the lightning-armed Castillo, who would likely drive the highest acquisition cost of the group. What’s the downside? Ending up with a surplus of top-shelf pitching? Gee, in that case, you might just win a World Series.

Prying Castillo or Mahle from the Reds might be a pipe dream, but it’s easier to envision a scenario in which Gray, entering his age-32 season and costing the Reds just north of $10-million in salary, is acquirable. The right-hander battled a cavalcade of injuries in 2021, but still took the mound 26 times and posted a 114 ERA+ with extremely promising quality of contact peripherals.

Gray finished as a 91st percentile pitcher in hard-hit rate, and 92nd percentile in barrel rate, demonstrating how tricky it can be to square up his high-spin, five-pitch arsenal. And with an extremely affordable $12-million club option for 2023, Gray could end up helping the Blue Jays over a longer-term than someone like Manaea or Bassitt, who are both eligible for free agency next winter.

Miami’s acquisition of Jacob Stallings took some of the steam out of the sails of the young-Blue-Jays-catcher-for-controllable-Marlins-starter trade scenarios that seemed possible earlier this off-season. But that shouldn’t stop the Blue Jays from continuing to pursue Marlins arms if the franchise remains motivated to move one to address other areas of roster need.

Sandy Alcantara’s off the board after inking a five-year extension just before the lockout, but if anything that simplifies the process and allows clubs to hone in on his rotation-mates. Pablo Lopez, owner of a 132 ERA+ with strong strikeout and walk peripherals since 2020, is an obvious target as he enters his arbitration years. But the 25-year-old missed considerable time over the back-half of 2021 with a rotator cuff issue, which will certainly have any interested teams finely scrutinizing his medicals.

Then there’s Elieser Hernandez, who comes with an even more significant injury track record that’s limited him to only 77.1 innings over the last two seasons. The case for the 26-year-old right-hander is the stuff he’s flashed when healthy, including strong fastball command, a slider that misses bats, and an emerging changeup.

A fly ball and home run tendency — Hernandez has averaged 2 HR/9 over his career — is a clear area of concern. But that combined with Hernandez’s health history ought to lessen the acquisition cost, as well. And it’s not like the Blue Jays haven’t helped unlock the upside in pitchers with intriguing stuff but spotty, homer-prone track records before. See: Matz, Steven. Or Estrada, Marco.

After signing a two-year, $23.5-million deal with the Houston Astros last March, Jake Odorizzi gave up a ton of hard contact, got hurt, and eventually fell completely out of favour with his new club, ending up left off an ALDS roster and relegated to mop-up duty in subsequent postseason rounds. And he’s only fallen further down Houston’s depth chart since with Justin Verlander re-signing and the club talking up Cristian Javier as a starter.

The money remaining on Odorizzi’s deal makes for a very pricy low-leverage longman, which opens the possibility of a trade. If the Blue Jays believe in Odorizzi recapturing the form he showed earlier in his career and are willing to assume some of his salary — the Astros just narrowly ducked under the CBT threshold last season — they could add a solid back-end starter at a relatively low cost.

This isn’t an exciting tier of possibilities, but back-end starters aren’t meant to be exciting. They’re meant to chew through innings at a league-average rate, five-and-diving their team to a realistic chance of winning before the rotation turns back over.

Merrill Kelly can certainly do just that, having eaten 372.2 innings since 2019 at an almost perfectly league average, 102-ERA+ clip. The 33-year-old’s stuff is far from over-powering and he doesn’t miss many bats, but it’s hard to argue with those results.

Arizona made an easy choice prior to the lockout in exercising Kelly’s $5.25-million club option coming off a 2.4-fWAR season. And with contention in the NL West borderline unimaginable in 2022, the club’s next obvious move is to try to flip Kelly for futures at the height of his value.

Kyle Freeland finished 2021 on a tear, pitching to a 3.24 ERA over his final 18 starts — completing six innings or more in 12 of them — after a spring training shoulder injury derailed the first half of his season. And if you remove a seven-run, four-homer disaster against the NL-best San Francisco Giants in September, the soft-tossing left-hander’s ERA drops to 2.73 over the remaining 17 outings.

There’s obvious inconsistency in that roughshod 2021, and Freeland’s room service stuff will never jump off the page. But results are results, and it appears the 28-year-old still has at least a whiff of the pitchability that made him a top-five finalist for the 2018 NL Cy Young award. At the very least, he’s good enough to hold down a job and provide occasional upside at the back end of a contender’s rotation.

The Rockies, facing the same uphill battle as the Diamondbacks in a top-heavy NL West, do not look like that contender. Particularly as Jon Gray and Trevor Story depart via free agency. And with Freeland entering his second-last year of club control, it’s not hard to envision the franchise opting to move him and recalibrate towards the future.

Finally, there are desperation plays. Mike Minor’s still out here piling up innings — 158.2 at a 91 ERA+ in 2021 — with his high-spin heater and array of secondary offerings. His home run rate’s been ballooning for a couple seasons now, but he still hardly walks anyone and finished 2021 pitching to a 3.78 ERA over a crisp, nine-outing stretch.

Entering his age-34 season, it’s unlikely Minor returns value on the $10-million salary he’ll earn in 2022. But helping the Royals out from under some of that cost could see a team acquire Minor in exchange for a lottery-ticket prospect.

Then there’s Joe Ross, the Washington Nationals right-hander entering his final year of arbitration eligibility. After several inconsistent, injury-riddled campaigns, Ross sat out the pandemic-shortened season and returned rejuvenated in 2021, working to a 97 ERA+ and accumulating 1.3 fWAR through mid-August. But then… another injury. This time a partially torn UCL that ended his season but didn’t require surgery.

Considering the fact he already underwent Tommy John surgery in 2017, a thorough parse of Ross’s medicals will be critical. But if he’s healthy and looking like himself again for spring training, the rebuilding Nationals might want to move him before disaster strikes again.

Still only 28 and projected to earn just $3-million this season through arbitration, Ross sits 93-94 m.p.h with a couple fastballs and limits free passes. When healthy, he has mid-rotation upside. But “when healthy” is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence.

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