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.
Waiting in the Wings
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.