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Toronto’s Tattered Rotation Mess

Through the first two-plus months of the year, Toronto had been fortunate enough to have one of the healthiest rotations in the big leagues. With the exception of one Joel Carreno start in the third game of the season, the quintet of Ricky Romero / Brandon Morrow / Henderson Alvarez / Kyle Drabek / Drew Hutchison had started every Blue Jays game through June 16. Consistency isn’t quite the same as effectiveness, of course, since Alvarez & Drabek were each cruising along with ugly FIP scores over 5.50, but nonetheless, few teams had made it that far into the season with such a low turnover in the rotation.

That situation fell apart completely in the span of four days last week, as Morrow (oblique), Drabek (elbow), and Hutchison (elbow) each hurt themselves and landed on the disabled list. Drabek will have Tommy John surgery and will be out until well into 2013; Hutchison’s fate is yet to be decided but a zipper of his own hasn’t been ruled out. Neither had much fantasy relevance, but the loss of Morrow for a month or more is acute, as he’d evolved into one of the better starters in the game, most recently ranked as the #20 overall starter on the latest Yahoo! leaderboards.

With the trio gone, Toronto suddenly has to fill 60% of their rotation. Let’s look at who’s left standing and who is now in line for opportunity; you might want to take the very young and very old out of the room before continuing, because it’s not pretty…

Ricky Romero
Coming off three consecutive seasons of 13 wins or more and off to a 7-1 start this year, Romero has a reputation as the ace of the Toronto staff, and he’s indeed a solid starter who has more than shed the label of being “the guy Toronto foolishly took instead of Troy Tulowitzki“. Still, I’ve always seen him as someone who hasn’t quite lived up to the status that a 49-30 record since 2008 has helped bestow upon him. Before, the season, Mike Podhorzer listed him as one of his “Most Overvalued Pitchers,” and all Romero’s done since then is miss fewer bats and allow more walks than ever, leading to a career-high 4.86 FIP. Wins always count in fantasy baseball, of course, and as long as he’s backed by Toronto’s powerful offense – which is giving him nearly ten runs of support per game, the second-highest in baseball – he’ll provide value. Personally, I dealt him along with Jamey Carroll a few weeks ago for Jed Lowrie & Jake Arrieta on one of my teams desperate for infield offense, and while Arrieta has been inconsistent, it’s not a move I regret.

Henderson Alvarez
The only other remaining Toronto starter is Alvarez, who has an almost unfathomably low 2.70 K/9 rate. If he manages to make it through enough of the season with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title, he’d be the only the third pitcher since the turn of the century to strike out so few, behind Kirk Rueter in 2004 and Nate Cornejo in 2003. When he’s on, inducing grounders and nearly religiously avoiding walks, he can be effective, but so far a 1.60 HR/9 rate and that unseemly FIP make it difficult to recommend owning him in any league. Alvarez’ home/road splits indicate that his dinger trouble isn’t only coming at home in Toronto, by the way, and if he can’t keep the ball in the park, he can’t be a big leaguer.

Brett Cecil
Cecil is no stranger to Toronto fans, as he’s made 55 starts for the club over the previous three seasons, even winning 15 games in 2010 to go with a decent 4.03 FIP. Yet as his average fastball velocity dropped below 90 miles per hour in 2011, his homer rate skyrocketed, leading to a mediocre 4-11 mark and 5.10 FIP. Still, he was expected to land the final spot in the Toronto rotation this year, but a terrible spring saw him sent to the minors, where he made ten starts around a groin injury. In his first start against the Phillies this week, he got the win with five innings of two-run ball, but each run came in on a solo homer. That was his big problem in 2011 – otherwise, his strikeout and walk rates were similar to what they were in 2010 – and though it’s only one start, that’s not a great sign. He’s still likely to remain in the rotation for the near future, if only because of his recent experience there.

Jesse Chavez
Yes, the same Chavez who was almost exclusively a reliever for the first six years of his career before joining the Jays this year and making 12 starts for Triple-A Las Vegas. Chavez was actually pretty good in the high-offense world of the PCL before being recalled, striking out 65 against only 15 walks in 70.1 innings, effective enough that Toronto turned down a $1 million offer from a Japanese team to sell him. It’s a good thing, too, since Chavez managed to make it through just 2.2 innings in his Toronto starting debut on Tuesday. Still, like Cecil, the lack of alternatives and Chavez’ Triple-A success make it seem probable that he gets at least another shot or two.

With Toronto sending Carreno back to the minors yesterday after just one start, they don’t have a listed fifth starter at the moment – no surprise considering that even among the top four, Romero is the only one who unquestionably belongs in a big league rotation. It’s all likely to keep changing, however, since in the last two days they’ve acquired retreads Sean O’Sullivan & David Pauley from the Royals & Angels, respectively, to simply fill out some depth. They’ve also been consistently been linked to demoted Colorado starter Jeremy Guthrie, not that he’s been any good, and they could always get desperate and have current relievers Aaron Laffey, Carlos Villanueva, or Luis Perez try to remember their starting pasts. Down in Double-A, recent draftees Chad Jenkins & Deck Mcguire are each struggling.

Simply put, the rotation situation in Toronto is an absolute mess right now, potentially one of the worst in recent memory, though these guys do get a small bump for fantasy purposes if only because they’re back by an offense featuring Jose Bautista, Brett Lawrie, & Edwin Encarnacion. I like to look at Romero as a decent sell-high(ish) type due to his name and record, and Cecil may be worth a $1 waiver pickup in deep AL-only leagues if you believe he can keep the homers down, but that’s about it. It’s hard to see a lot of upside north of the border right now.