Blue Jays Rotation: Depth Chart Discussion

Last season was supposed to be better for the Blue Jays than it was. They were absolutely annihilated by injuries in both the lineup and the pitching staff, but while there were some bright spots offensively, the pitching was simply dire. As a staff, the Jays racked up the third lowest WAR total in baseball at 7.6. Remove Brandon Morrow’s decent 2.4 WAR season and the rest of the pitchers muster just 5.2 WAR.

The good news is that this year’s rotation looks virtually nothing like last year’s patchwork ensemble. New acquisitions R.A. Dickey and Josh Johnson combined for nearly a win more last season than the entire Jays staff and while he’s not as impressive as the other two might be, Mark Buehrle would have been the Jays second best starter behind Morrow.

Projected Rotation

R.A. Dickey
Josh Johnson
Brandon Morrow
Mark Buehrle
Ricky Romero

Waiting in the Wings

J.A. Happ
Brad Lincoln
Kyle Drabek

No one could have predicted that Dickey would break out the way he did last year, and yet, it isn’t as though he went from being average to being great. He had been solid for the previous two seasons, but the 9.5 percent jump in his strikeout rate that carried him to his Cy Young award was unexpected to say the least. While the massive gain in strikeouts may not survive his move to the American League, Dickey’s peripherals have actually been relatively stable since 2011. His walk rate has been within four-tenths of a percentage point, his line drive rate has been within 3 percent, and it all amounts to a pitcher who has been an above fantasy option for three consecutive seasons. The strikeouts should be viewed as something of an added bonus as knuckleballers can be fickle beasts and the move to the AL East will work against him.

Dickey appears to have quite an ADP spread, but I think that’s a little misleading. He’s currently falling about 95th on MockDraftCentral and 58th on ESPN, which would be a 3-4 round difference, but the entire pitching market on MDC is depressed compare to the more bullish folks drafting at ESPN right now. Dickey is either the 16th or 17th starter taken on both sites, so it’s really about even, and both strike me as just a hair too high. There’s a lot to like about Dickey, but with players like Chris Sale and Mat Latos falling after him, I think too many owners are banking on a repeat of last year’s performance across the board.

There may well not be a player that I missed on more than Josh Johnson last year. I cited him as having a very high injury risk and marked him as a player that wasn’t worth drafting. Instead, Johnson threw his second most innings ever and made more than 30 starts for the second time in his career. But all was not well in Johnson-land as his fastball velocity slipped this season overall, especially toward the end of the season. He also allowed a 24 percent line drive rate, his highest such mark in any season where he made more than five starts. Somewhat paradoxically, as bad as his line drive rate was last year, it resulted in a lower flyball rate and that will be an asset moving into a far more homer-prone home park.

I wish I had a better sense of how much of Johnson’s production last year was referential to the years that came before, but his stop-and-start career makes it difficult to gauge what is a pattern and what’s an anomaly. The move to the AL East isn’t going to do him any favors and, if last year’s numbers are indicative of a decline rather than one bad year, could really hurt his value with a shrinking number of strikeouts and a growing number of home runs. His peak value is obviously compelling, heck, he was one of the best pitchers in baseball in 2010, but his declining strikeout rate and growing rate of hard contact make it hard to believe that he’ll reach that peak again. He’s currently being drafted in the high-150s, which is hardly a huge commitment, but with players like Jarrod Parker and Mike Minor going several rounds later, he still feels like a reach.

As the best returning member of the Jays rotation from last year, perhaps the biggest fantasy beneficiary of the addition of Dickey and Johnson is Morrow. While the other two both move to a more hitter-friendly park in the tougher league, Morrow now matches up against opposing third starters instead of opposing aces, which ought to afford him a few extra wins.

Interestingly, Morrow eschewed his reputation as a huge strikeout/poor rate stat pitcher last year with an ERA under 3.00 and a WHIP of 1.11. It came at the cost of about 3.5 percentage points in his career strikeout rate and a nearly five point drop from 2012, but he was still striking out nearly eight hitters per nine, so it isn’t as though he fell into Henderson Alvarez territory. Looking at his SIERA and FIP has me concerned about Morrow’s ability to replicate last season’s rate stat success, and while I think he’ll recover some of the strikeouts he lost, there is a possibility that he’ll see both a rate stat regression and stay under a 25 percent strikeout rate. I do not think this is likely. Instead, I suspect he’ll settle in with an ERA in the 3.20 to 3.60 range and add a sufficient number of strikeouts to be a strong fantasy option.

There is so much to like about a pitcher who is a lock for 200 innings and slightly above-average performance, and yet Buehrle remains difficult to roster. His move to the NL least season provided a boost to his value, but back in the AL he’ll again struggle to provide strong enough rate stats to make up for the fact that he has never been a particularly strikeout-heavy pitcher. Things will be a little easier for him in Toronto than they were in Chicago, but not enough to make me interested in drafting him. If Buehrle isn’t the poster child for players who are more valuable to their actual teams than to a fantasy team, he’s at least in the photo as few can match his consistency.

While the top four slots in the Jays rotation are set, barring injury of course, Romero’s job may not survive another season like he had in 2012. The Jays simply have too many starters coming back from injury at various points in the season for Romero to get 33 starts at about 40 percent worse than league average. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but when a pitcher’s WHIP is higher than his K/BB ratio, something has probably gone very, very wrong.

It wouldn’t be very brave to say that Romero won’t be as bad in 2013 as he was in 2012, since he’ll either be better or won’t get the chance to make 33 bad starts, but there’s not a lot to prove that he really will be markedly better. His career low FIP is 3.64, which isn’t too bad for a fifth starter, but his career 4.20 mark should be enough to show that the 2011 was probably a bigger aberration with respect to his true talent level than 2012 was.

All three of the pitchers in the wings – Happ, Lincoln, and Drabek – were once decent prospects, but not one of them is certain to be better than any current member of the Jays’ rotation. As short-term fill-ins, they’re probably as accomplished a group as any in baseball, but that doesn’t mean they’ll hold up over the long run. Drabek has the most promise of the three, but won’t return from his second Tommy John surgery until the summer. He’s throwing off a mound now, which is a good sign, but if the Jays’ season depends on his ability to come back even better than he was when he went down, things have taken a turn for the worse north of the border.




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Dan enjoys black tea, imperial IPAs, and any competition that can be loosely judged a sport. Follow him on Twitter.


10 Responses to “Blue Jays Rotation: Depth Chart Discussion”

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  1. Adrock says:

    I would add Drew Hutchison to the list of pitchers waiting in the wings. He won’t be back until the late summer, but by that time he’d likely be ahead of Drabek and Lincoln, who I believe is already back in the bullpen.

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  2. JohnG says:

    I too would say that the Jays have more faith in Hutchinson than the others (when he returns from TJ).

    Lincoln is indeed back in the bullpen and no longer being stretched out as a starter.

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  3. The Nemesis says:

    Lincoln is already out of the discussion for a starter’s spot. A couple of weeks ago John Gibbons said that the plan for him changed and that instead of stretching him out to be a starter again, he would be purely a bullpen guy.

    Hutchison will likely be on the call-up list ahead of Drabek when both return (though Hutchison will likely not be at least into probably mid/late August because he stalled on having his TJ surgery.) as he looked far more comfortable and consistent than Drabek did.

    and for whatever it might be worth, Johnson looks very impressive in spring training so far.

    Also not that it really matters, but Gibbons has said that he expects the rotation order for the beginning of the season to be:

    Dickey
    Morrow
    Buehrle
    Johnson
    Romero

    He wants to break up the lefties and the power pitchers (presuming you can still call Johnsona power pitcher after last year’s velo drop)

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  4. Scott says:

    The Jays recently backed off their plans to stretch out Brad Lincoln and he is now competing for a bullpen job. Both Drabek and Hutchison will not be ready until July or August so the depth at SP really all falls on Happ. If there are 2 injuries early in the year that 2nd call-up is really going to be a journeyman type replacement.

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  5. Chief Keef says:

    The way the schedule breaks out over 162 games, Morrow’s “advantage” of being slotted #3 is minimal at best.

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  6. Travis L says:

    It seems like you’re using LD% as a repeatable skill (or bad skill, in this case)… Shouldn’t it be treated similarly to BABIP, where it can explain results but isn’t particularly predictive without serious regression?

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  7. Johnny Come Lately says:

    “As the best returning member of the Jays rotation from last year, perhaps the biggest fantasy beneficiary of the addition of Dickey and Johnson is Morrow. While the other two both move to a more hitter-friendly park in the tougher league, Morrow now matches up against opposing third starters instead of opposing aces, which ought to afford him a few extra wins.”

    Wait, is this true? I always thought that after the first couple of weeks, differing schedules, rainouts, and whatnot pretty much make the 1-5 designation worthless.

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  8. Keyser Soze says:

    I’m curious about how commonly one sees the refrain about how Jays pitchers will suffer for being in the AL East this season. While true in past it seems – to me at least – that this is no longer the case.

    The traditional powerhouses of New York and Boston are sagging going into this season. The Yankees were likely going to come down quite a bit from 245 home runs to start with, and with losses of Granderson, Teixeira and ARod for good parts of the season – if not all for the last two – they are good bets to be well short of 200. Youk is a good bet to miss a big chunk of games too. Perhaps there is better speed and average but not enough to make up for the loss in power.

    The Red Sox have pieced together a Frankenroster of various bits and pieces that could be decent but far from the actual scary beast they have been in past, especially with injury concerns to two of the bigger bats in Ortiz and Napoli, and Ellsbury not a picture of sturdiness. Pedroia wasn’t up to his usual standard last season either.

    Tampa’s offense has a habit of putting up runs against past mediocre pitching of the Jays but on paper does not scare anyone and that’s if Longoria stays healthy. Wil Myers may change that some eventually but it is asking a lot to expect him to light it up this season when he is called up.

    Baltimore might be the only other truly powerful offense in the division other than that of the Jays themselves and the Orioles lost some power in the offseason in Mark Reynolds and are dealing with an injury to Markakis.

    The ballparks of the AL East are more offensively oriented with the possible exception of Tampa’s Boredome but aside from that I don’t see a reason for prolonging this narrative. The division will be tough but not death valley for pitchers anymore. Not Jays pitchers anyway.

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  9. ssj316 says:

    “if the Jays’ season depends on [Drabek's] ability to come back even better than he was when he went down, things have taken a turn for the worse north of the border.”

    What? This is kind of an inane statement to make. Have you heard anyone, anyone at all, even suggest that the success of the 2013 Blue Jays depends on Kyle Drabek’s successful return from TJ surgery? Pretty sure the people in the front office aren’t sitting there crossing their fingers about this.

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