Blue Jays need Santana or Jimenez

The Toronto Blue Jays have to sign a pitcher. It’s not a question of desire. They’re short a starting pitcher, maybe two.

Roughly 40 percent of all pitchers who pitched last year will hit the DL at some point in 2014. That means every rotation in baseball — in your average year — needs at least six pitchers. Seven pitchers is a better plan, in case one of those DL stints is longer than most. If you’re the Blue Jays and coming off two straight years of losing more time to pitcher injuries than most of baseball — and still hope to contend — you might want to go eight deep.

Currently, the spots for Nos. 3-8 in the Blue Jays’ rotation are manned by Brandon Morrow, J.A. Happ, Esmil Rogers, Todd Redmond, Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison, in some order. That group averaged just over 60 innings in the big leagues last season. For a roster that looks to be built for the now, it’s a grim group of pitchers. Even if you add the exciting big-league ready prospect Marcus Stroman, the Jays need another pitcher.

Of course, two potentially elite starting pitchers are available on the free-agent market: Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez, and the Blue Jays must make sure at least one of them is toeing the rubber in the Rogers Centre by summer.

Relatively low cost

The biggest reason Santana and Jimenez are still available is that both will cost the team that signs them a draft pick. This is less of a problem for the Blue Jays because they have two of the top 11 picks in the 2014 draft, and the 11th is actually protected because it comes as compensation for failing to sign Phil Bickford, their 2013 first-rounder. In other words, they would only have to sacrifice a second-round pick to sign either pitcher.

A win-now team can afford to lose a second-rounder, especially since by that time, the chance of finding a successful player in the draft has already dropped below 10 percent.

If the rumors are to be believed, the asking price for Santana has fallen below four years, $60 million, and Jimenez is seeking similar terms. That might seem steep for a club whose payroll jumped to $120 million last season after never previously topping $100 million, but it’s a relative bargain when compared to the contract given to Masahiro Tanaka.

So if we assume the Jays need to sign one of these guys, the question becomes: Which one?

Santana vs. Jimenez

If health is your primary concern, then Santana is the choice; he has averaged 206 innings over the last three years to Jimenez’s 183. But age is a component to any discussion about health, and at 30, Jimenez is a year younger, which is worth about an extra percentage point in terms of injury projection.

The research on using pitcher types to predict injury is split a bit in the case of these two pitchers. Santana throws more sliders than anyone in the game, and sliders have been shown to stress the elbow. But Jimenez doesn’t have good control and his mechanics get out of whack sometimes — good control has been shown to lead to good health outcomes.

If health is maybe a wash in this situation, then how about performance? Though the shape of their work over the last three years has been different, and they have different strengths and weaknesses, projection systems see them both as pitchers whose ERA will land in the 4.00 range. They’ve each had issues with home runs in the past, and they’d be leaving home parks that suppress home runs to go to Toronto, the eighth-friendliest park for home runs last season.

A look at their arsenals could split the difference. Santana throws a fastball or a slider 93 percent of the time. Against lefties, he throws the change a little more (11 percent the last two years), but he’s really hoping to get a grounder with the pitch, not whiffs. The slider and the sinker have the worst platoon splits in baseball — lefties love them from a righty. And that’s why Santana’s strikeout, walk and home run rates all get worse when he faces a lefty.

Jimenez has a completely different arsenal. By BrooksBaseball’s algorithm, he threw seven different kinds of pitches last year. The sinker and the slider are still his bread and butter, and they too have platoon splits, but he’s added a new pitch that is fairly exciting. His split-finger, which he used almost one-fifth of the time last year against lefties, gets both whiffs and grounders at an above-average rate, and virtually assures that he’ll continue to show even numbers against batters of both hands.

That might be important to the Blue Jays, who had the third-worst numbers against left-handed batters in the American League last year. As a team, they had a 4.56 FIP against lefties and a 4.08 against righties.

Can the Blue Jays add another $15 million to their budget? Right now, they’re projected to have a $133 million payroll, quite a jump from the $84 million they spent in 2012. But with Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista (and R.A. Dickey) locked up below market value through 2015 (with some club options for 2016), this might be their current window of contention.

So who should the Blue Jays sign? A starter. Maybe one whose arsenal fits their team needs best. Maybe the one who comes with the fewest years attached, or the smallest cost. Maybe the team was waiting for Tanaka to set the wheels in motion so it could catch the falling free agent. It all makes sense.

At least if the Blue Jays sign one of these guys in the end.




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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.
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John W.
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John W.

Here’s a nuts idea. The cubs should sign both Jimenez and Santana. With the Cubs’ first round pick protected, it would only cost their second and third round picks. They would still come with the compensation discount.

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