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Blue Jays’ offence, defence may make up for iffy starting rotation: Griffin

One of the first things Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro recognized as he first slid into Paul Beeston’s chair at the Rogers Centre in early November was that his starting pitching at the top two levels was woefully thin.

This was due to the combination of the free agencies declared by David Price, Mark Buehrle and Marco Estrada. That, plus the dramatic draining of talent from the system by the trading of 13 pitching prospects at the deadline as the Jays rolled the dice and went all in, bidding for a berth in the post-season.

Even now there remain question marks.

At one point, the Jays were looking at just Marcus Stroman, R.A. Dickey and Drew Hutchison. Even after re-signing Estrada, trading for Oakland A’s swingman Jesse Chavez and inking former Jays, Mariners and Pirates lefty J.A. Happ after one season away from the GTA, Shapiro wryly characterized the next level Triple-A Buffalo rotation as “five guys named blank.”

He understood that depth of starting arms through the top farm teams means a lot, and the Jays’ cupboard was bare. Today, the top prospects are still years away.

So as of now, Toronto’s projected rotation, even with the winter additions, clearly does not match the starting fives of the Red Sox and the Yankees, their main competition in defending the AL East. The Red Sox boast Price, Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello, Eduardo Rodriguez and Joe Kelly. The Yankees feature Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, Luis Severino, Michael Pineda and Nate Eovaldi.

That being said, leave it to AL MVP Josh Donaldson to spin a positive clubhouse perspective onto the Jays’ pitching situation.

“This is the beautiful thing about our team,” Donaldson told MLB Network Radio in an interview late last week. “To be a starting pitcher, you don’t have to be a stud to go out there and get wins. You just have to be good, be the average guy.”

In other words, just keep us in games and we will crush you, was the message. The Jays’ leading offensive foursome of Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Troy Tulowitzki is coming back healthy, and the rest of the supporting cast picks up the table scraps quite nicely.

In addition to returning the majority of the best offence in baseball, the Jays also offer up a ball-in-play pitcher-friendly defensive lineup, with Donaldson at third base and strength up the middle, led by catcher Russell Martin, a middle infield of Ryan Goins and Tulowitzki and centre fielder Kevin Pillar.

So maybe this average Jays’ rotation will take huge advantage of that combination.

There are supporting stats that suggest maybe they are not as bad as it seems. Big salaries don’t necessarily lead to big results these days. The Jays rotation, combined, will earn $ 35 million. Among pitchers that qualified for the ERA title, in term of WHIP (walks+hits to innings pitched), Estrada ranked 10th in the majors, with Dickey 14th and Happ 44th. That is impressive among 30 MLB teams.

In any case, no one can argue Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins have added pitching quantity to the organization. The number of starters available to the top two teams — the Jays and Bisons — who have MLB starting experience now numbers 14, with veteran names like Brad Penny, Roberto Hernandez, Scott Diamond and Wade Leblanc all invited to major-league training camp..

Is depth necessary? Here are some meaningful numbers for the Jays over the past seven seasons that support Shapiro’s contention that six or seven major-league starters is simply not enough.

Between 2009-15, the Jays’ top-five rotation pitchers each year have combined to average 126 starts per season. That leaves 36 additional outings for additional pitchers over the course of 162-game schedule. The Jays in seven years have averaged 11.7 starting pitchers utilized per season.

Over those seven seasons, there have been 22 different Jays pitchers make starts that have never been in the top five of any other year’s rotation. Alphabetically the list is as follows: Matt Boyd, Brian Burres, Joel Carreno, Chavez, Scott Copeland, Felix Doubront, Dana Eveland, Liam Hendriks, Shawn Hill, Casey Janssen, Chad Jenkins, Brad Mills, Sean Nolin, Daniel Norris, Ramon Ortiz, Luis Perez, David Purcey, Robert Ray, Todd Redmond, Sanchez, Zach Stewart and Chien-Ming Wang.

The acquisition of reliever Drew Storen from the Nationals did cost the Jays their leadoff hitter in Ben Revere, the only real speed in the current lineup. However, the trade has given manager John Gibbons real flexibility and a key option in the rotation, as he can make Sanchez a starter again.

Sanchez still has tremendous upside and was starting to show it when he was hurt last season. The Jays rushed him back from injury rehab before he was stretched out and ready to start again because of an immediate need at the back end of the bullpen. Now they are able to use the spring to stretch Sanchez out and give him every opportunity to earn a starting role. Meanwhile, Storen combines with Roberto Osuna and Brett Cecil to give the Jays a rock-solid trio in late innings.

Then there’s a trade that seemed a head-scratcher at the time, sending the much-improved Liam Hendriks to the A’s for Chavez. It could now make sense if the veteran right-hander becomes a true swingman in 2016, like Carlos Villanueva was and Estrada was obtained to be in 2015.

If recent history repeats itself and the Jays indeed need 36 extra starts during the 2016 season, then instead of always calling up a Bisons starter and sending him back down the QEW when his usefulness is done, Chavez can be that guy for spot starts with little if any disruption in the clubhouse.

Even with an average rotation, in the end, as Donaldson pointed out, it’s all about the bats.


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