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Post-Halladay Jays Still Pitching-Rich

This past December, the Toronto Blue Jays ended a 15-year relationship with Roy Halladay by shipping him to the Phillies for a bounty of young talent including RHP Kyle Drabek, C Travis d’Arnaud and OF Michael Taylor (who was then swapped to Oakland for 1B Brett Wallace). Predictably, Doc is dominating in the Senior Circuit — in addition to tossing a perfect game against Florida on May 29th, Halladay leads the universe in starting pitcher WAR (3.2) and xFIP (2.93).

But you may be surprised to find that without Halladay, the Jays still boast one of the best starting rotations in the game. Collectively, Toronto’s starters have a 4.06 xFIP. Among AL clubs, that trails only the Twins (4.04) and their Jedi-like ability to avoid ball four.

Once a lukewarm prospect seemingly destined to be known as “not Troy Tulowitzki,” Ricky Romero is pitching like one of the better starters in the bigs. The 25-year-old lefty, taken with the 6th overall pick in the 2005 draft, owns a 3.14 xFIP on the season. Only Doc has a better mark among qualified big league starters. He’s punching out over a batter per inning (9.19 K/9), displaying decent control (3.38 BB/9) and burning worms (56.9 GB%). In 255.1 career innings, Romero has a 3.81 xFIP. It remains to be seen whether he can continue to pitch at an elite level, but at worst the Cal State Fullerton product looks like a comfortably above-average starter.

Shaun Marcum, returning from Tommy John surgery, has a 3.77 xFIP. The 28-year-old righty has whiffed 7.4 batters per nine frames, with 2.1 BB/9. A supplemental first-rounder in the 2007 draft, Brett Cecil is showing promise as well. Cecil was a strong ground ball pitcher in the minors (59.7 GB%, according to Minor League Splits). While that hasn’t carried over to the majors yet (42 GB%), the 23-year-old has a 4.02 xFIP in 2010, with 7.25 K/9 and 2.17 BB/9.

Romero, Marcum and Cecil have a few things in common. They rely heavily upon their secondary stuff, put fewer pitches in the strike zone than the big league average and garner plenty of swings on pitches thrown off the plate:

Romero supplements his 90-91 MPH fastball with a high-80’s cutter, a low-80’s slider, a low 70’s curve and a devastating mid-80’s changeup. Marcum’s 86-87 MPH “heat” is backed up by a mid-80’s cutter, a low-70’s curve and a low-80’s change. Cecil’s 89-90 MPH fastball is enhanced by a mid-80’s slider, a mid-70’s curve and a low-80’s change. On a per-pitch basis, this trio’s breaking and off-speed stuff has been stellar:

The changeup is a big pitch for all three — Romero (26.4 percent), Marcum (22.4 percent) and Cecil (24.6 percent) pull the string often.

Brandon Morrow shares the above trio’s tendency to put fewer pitches in the zone (45.2 percent) and induce lots of outside swings (31.3 percent), but he has gone to his 93-94 MPH fastball about 64 percent of the time. The former Cal star, who went back and forth between roles (starter? reliever?) with the M’s enough to make Hamlet groan, is now firmly a starter. The 25-year-old’s ERA (6.00) looks ghastly, but his xFIP (4.12) is much more palatable. Morrow’s control remains maddening (5.37 BB/9). However, he does have 10.42 K/9 and an 11.5 percent swinging strike rate (8-8.5 percent MLB average). It’s pretty hard to notice the positives when 35 percent of balls put in play are falling for hits, though.

ZiPS projects that the Jays’ top four starters will regress somewhat but continue to perform well for the rest of 2010 — a 4.23 FIP for Romero, 4.01 for Marcum, 4.38 for Cecil and 4.26 for Morrow (though that projection has him splitting time between the rotation and the ‘pen).

Marc Rzepczynski (4.29 preseason ZiPS) could contribute at some point after missing time with a broken finger. Jesse Litsch, another Tommy John survivor, is nearing a return. Dustin McGowan‘s shoulder woes have derailed his career, though he’s still trying to work his way back. Halladay trade piece Drabek is performing well at Double-A. Zach Stewart (picked up in last year’s Scott Rolen deal) is scuffling at the same level, but he’s well-regarded, too. Luis Perez is a smallish lefty who gets plenty of grounders. Chad Jenkins and Henderson Alvarez show promise a little further down the minor league ladder.

It will be years before the Halladay deal can be fully evaluated. But happily, the Blue Jays have no shortage of promising young pitching talent within the organization.