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Opening Day Rotation

Due to a barrage of injuries, Aaron Laffey pitched over 100 innings for the Jays in 2012.

A prevailing sentiment among the Blue Jay’s fanbase – as well as the organization’s front office – is a strong need for starting pitching. In a team press release, Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos addressed the issue head-on.  “The focus [this offseason] is really on the rotation” stated Anthopoulos.  “It doesn’t mean we’re not going to look to get better, offensively or in the bullpen, but you see teams that have pitched but didn’t score as many runs and [remained ] in contention.”  A cursory examination of the expanded standings confirms Anthopoulos’ observation. Where the Jays were a respectable sixth in the AL in runs scored with 716, they surrendered 784, fourth-highest in the league. If the Jays want to realize their postseason aspirations in 2012 – a feat likely requiring over 90 wins – the starting rotation certainly needs to be shored up.

What does this all mean for the Jays’ new Triple-A affiliate? Who will throw the first pitch of the Bisons’ season? It is over four months until spring training, so any speculation is, well, speculation; but let’s engage in a little conjecture on this brisk October morning.  Obviously, because Bisons personnel are always at the disposal of their parent organization, the logical starting point is the Jays’ rotation.

Realistically, there are only two slots that are secured in the Jays rotation for 2013: Brandon Morrow (10-7, 2.96 ERA, 108 SO in 2012) and Ricky Romero (9-14, 5.77 ERA, 124 SO in 2012). Despite being restricted to only 124.2 innings pitched due to an oblique injury, Morrow was the lifeblood of the Jays rotation in 2012. When he went down in mid-June, the Jays were in the thick of the Wild Card chase, only 2.5 games back. During his absence, the Jays foundered, accumulating a dismal 25-39 record, and dropping to over 13 games behind the second wild card berth. His return to the rotation brought stability and reliability every five days, and in the final stretch following his August 25th return, the Jays managed a very decent 17-19 clip. Morrow is the Jays’ ace and mainstay. A sub 3.00 ERA in the AL East is superlative. Barring an injury or significant free agent acquisition, he will get the nod on opening day against the Indians at Rogers Centre.

Romero took a giant step back in 2012 – his Earned Run Average of 5.77 nearly doubling from 2011, when he averaged 2.92. Nevertheless, despite a retrograde year, Romero is a promising young pitcher within the organization and his prior successes likely solidifies his place in the rotation.
Two slots confirmed. Slot three is where the uncertainty begins. No date has been set for the return of Drew Hutchison (4-3, 4.60 ERA), who sustained a season-ending injury in mid-June. Same story for Kyle Drabek (4-7, 4.67 ERA, 47 SO), who underwent his second Tommy John procedure last season. Both young hurlers showed glimpses of promise during their truncated 2012 campaigns, and would probably figure in as four-five starters. Each will begin their 2013 seasons with the Bisons – Drabek a bit before the All-Star Break, Hutchison a bit after.

Despite an overall disappointing year, Henderson Alvarez (9-14, 4.85 ERA, 1.44 WHIP) is the apparent number three starter at this point. Jays fans will hope for a comeback year from Alvarez who, by most accounts, has solid stuff. Averaging just 3.8 K/9, however, the main issue is that he allows too many balls in play. While his groundball rate of 57.0 % improved last year – a good sign for anyone pitching-to-contact – when batters did lift the ball on Alvarez, it was frequently bad news. Almost twenty-percent (18.2 %) of fly balls left the yard. More aggressive use of his fastball/changeup tandem could help that situation.

Carlos Villanueva, Aaron Laffey, and J.A. Happ round out the remainder of the Jays’ 2012 starters. Villaneueva (7-7, 4.16 ERA, 1.27 WHIP) is free-agent eligible, and expected to test the waters. The Royals have reportedly scouted him and expressed interest in him. For our purposes, we will assume he walks. Houston export, Happ (10-11, 4.70, 1.40 WHIP) is arbitration eligible in 2013, and is expected to return. Laffey (4-6, 4.56 ERA, 1.36 WHIP) is arbitration eligible, too. He played a valuable role in 2012 eating some innings for an invalid Jays staff, but if the Jays want to push 90 wins in 2013, it is unlikely he will remain in the starting rotation.

While that rounds out the viable in-house options for 2013, it is not a full survey of possible arms. In terms of free agent signings, the Jays have been relatively quiet in recent years. However, the underwhelming 73-89 record the Jays accrued in 2012 could serve as an impetus for change. The time to hesitate is through. The high expectations for 2012 resulted in a sour outcome for the Blue Jays’ fanbase. If the Jays want to avoid alienating its fanbase, they will need to assemble a team that can compete in the AL East in 2013.

Not only is the Jays’ payroll expected to climb from the $75.5m spent in 2012 – affording Anthopoulous the funds to seriously contend for top free-agents – but the front office may be willing to exchange some of its top prospects for a frontline starter. While the Jays were willing to part with top prospects last winter, Anthopoulous wasn’t able to seal the big deal. He indicated last week that he believes he wasn’t able to induce a big transaction because other clubs weren’t willing to part with their stud for low-minor prospects who had not demonstrated they could contribute at “the show.” Since those top prospects have now matured within the organization – seeing success at the AA level – their ability to contribute in the majors is no longer an if, but a when. According to a Jays press release, Anthopoulous now believes those top prospects could induce an exchange for a veritable ace. Aaron Sanchez, Justin Nicolino and Noah Syndergaard – who all exceled at low-A Lansing – have all been identified as potential trade-bait.

Free agent starting pitchers that come to mind this winter include Zach Greinke, Edwin Jackson, Shaun Marcum, Brandon McCarthy, Ryan Dempster, RA Dickey, Kyle Lohse, Hiroki Kuroda, Dan Haren (Angels have club option for 2013 which will likely be exercised), and Anibal Sanchez. They are all expensive options – with Greinke likely commanding a long-term contract, averaging over 20m per year – but if the Jays want to compete in the short-term, they will need to pay upfront. As far as potential trade candidates, the Marlins, Phillies and Dodgers are all teams loaded with talented starters and high-payrolls that might be looking to unload. The Phillies might be looking to unload Halladay, and a return to Rogers Centre could revitalize the two-time Cy Young winner. Hopefully 2012 was an aberration for Halladay and not the beginning of a rapid decline. Also, the Miami Marlins experiment is over and Josh Johnson or Ricky Nolasco might be on the block. Nolasco would be a gamble in the offensive-laden AL East, but a healthy Johnson could thrive in Toronto. Given Anthopoulous’ stated focus on the rotation and the increase in payroll, I will assume that the Jays acquire a frontline starter of the Marcum-caliber this offseason.

That leaves us with a tentative starting rotation of
1. Brandon Morrow
2. Expected trade or free agency acquisition
3. Ricky Romero
4. Henderson Alvarez
5. JA Happ

What does this mean for our Buffalo Bisons? It means that Hutchison and Drabek, both of whom were fixtures in the Jays rotation in 2012, will either displace Alvarez and/or Happ, or remain with the Bisons deep into the summer. After he is rehabilitated, I project Hutchison earning a spot in the rotation, with Happ being relegated to long-man duty. While the raw stats from Hutchison’s modest 58.1 IP in the majors aren’t particularly compelling, he made huge strides in his final six starts before the injury, touting a 3.49 ERA and 1.19 WHIP. Once recovered, the young 23 year old right-hander could become a staple in the Jays’ rotation.

As for Drabek, I’m not so sure. With Villaneuva pitching effectively in his wake, Drabek’s prolonged absence from the rotation in 2012 might have actually worked to the Jays’ advantage. Drabek doesn’t factor to be an appreciable improvement from an Alvarez or Happ, so don’t be surprised to see him linger in Buffalo until possibly the September call-up.

I hope this early discussion does not seem like a digression. I know the purpose of this entry was to examine the Bisons’ starting rotation. It is important to remember, however, that the personnel on the field at Coca-Cola field will always be a function of the needs and wants of the Jays. It goes without saying that the Bisons will be on the field in 2013 to compete for an International League championship. The team’s other purpose, however, is to provide a springboard for players into Toronto. Because of this, it is always important to be mindful of the Jays’ status and future plans.

Now I will cut to the chase. Come April, your Bisons starting rotation could look like this:

1. Aaron Laffey (4-6, 4.56 ERA, 1.36 WHIP w/ TOR) (3-5, 4.52 ERA, 1.52 w/ AAA-LV)
2. Sean O’Sullivan (14-7, 4.34 ERA, 1.39 WHIP w/ AAA-LV, AAA-OMAHA).
3. Shawn Hill (9-2, 4.52 ERA, 1.53 WHIP w/ AAA- LV).
4. Bill Murphy (8-5, 4.38 ERA, 1.55 WHIP w/ AAA-LV).
5. Chad Jenkins (1-3, 4.50 ERA, 1.34 WHIP w/ TOR) (5-9, 4.96 ERA, 1.54 WHIP w/ AA-NH)

Laffey, 27, was the number one starter for Triple-A Las Vegas before elbows started popping in Toronto. He will probably reassume that role in the spring. Laffey seemed to take some flak from fans this season, but he really played an invaluable role for the organization amidst crisis. Laffey was able to eat up a lot of innings (100.2) and keep the Jays in some close ballgames. Be it at a major or minor league level, he still has a lot to contribute to this organization.

O’Sullivan, 25, was traded from the Royals last June for cash considerations. While his numbers with the Royals’ Triple-A affiliate left much to be desired (5-4, 6.92 ERA, 1.86 WHIP), his numbers with Triple-A Las Vegas were nothing short of exemplary. In 89.1 innings with the Area 51s, O’Sullivan posted a 9-3 record, replete with a 2.82 ERA and 1.12 WHIP. While Cashman Field’s capacious center field – measured at 433 feet – might have bolstered these stats, O’Sullivan has certainly earned a spot in the rotation.

Hill, 31, joined Triple-A Las Vegas in mid-June after dominating in the independent Atlantic League. After compiling a scoreless innings streak of 27.2 innings, the Jays purchased Hill’s contract from the York Revolution. Hill is perseverance embodied. He suffered from serious circulation issues which ultimately required him to undergo two Tommy John surgeries and a stem cell procedure. After posting a quality 9-2 record with Las Vegas, he was called up to Toronto for the final week of the season for a bullpen stint. In his only appearance he shut down the Yankees, pitching three scoreless innings in relief and earning the win. It should be fun to see Hill in action this season.

Murphy, 31, rejoined the Blue Jays organization last season after a two year stint with the Lotte Giants of Japan. With Lotte Murphy went 14-11 with a 3.81 ERA and 158 Ks in 196 innings. He was a third-round draft pick for the A’s in their seminal “moneyball” draft of 2002 and has been traded at various points of his career for the likes of Mark Redman and Steve Finley. Obviously Murphy has distinguished himself to scouts through the years. Murphy throws an 89-90mph fastball, an 80mph slider, an 84mph changeup, and a cutter that hovers around 80mph. Last year, his fastball and changeup accounted for over 80% of pitches thrown.

With Andrew Carpenter (6-3, 3.38 ERA, 1.37 WHIP) now with the Mets organization and Scott Richmond (11-7, 5.61 ERA, 1.53 WHIP) electing free agency, the Bisons’ fifth starter will probably be promoted from Double-A New Hampshire. There are three main candidates: Yohan Pino (10-8, 3.56 ERA, 1.13 WHIP @ AA-NH), Chad Jenkins (5-9, 4.96 ERA, 1.54 WHIP), and Deck McGuire (5-15, 5.88 ERA, 1.55 WHIP w/ AAA-NH).
Obviously, at the Double-A level, Pino’s numbers shine. Throwing 134 innings of sound baseball, Pino was undoubtedly the ace of the Fisher Cats last season. While he was essentially lit up when he was elevated to Las Vegas on two occasions (0-2, 22.18 ERA), his 9.1 inning sample size at that level is unrepresentative. After dominating at the Double-A level, Pino should probably get an honest shot as the fifth starter in the Bisons rotation. Given his meltdowns at the Triple-A level, I am not sure he will get that opportunity in April 2013.

Twenty-three year old Deck McGuire definitely took a major step back last season. McGuire was an up-and-coming force in the organization when he started with Single-A Lansing in 2011. In his debut he went 7-4 with a 2.75 ERA and 1.21 WHIP in over one-hundred innings pitched. While pitching soundly with New Hampshire after his 2011 elevation (2-1 4.35 ERA in 20.2 IP), last year was disappointing.
McGuire, drafted 11th in the first round of the 2010 amateur draft, is a top prospect. At 6’6” and 235, McGuire is strong yet tactful. Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus has described McGuire as “a finesse pitcher packed into a power body.” Scouts have projected him as an eventual number three or four starter at the major league level. While his numbers at Double-A New Hampshire last season (5-15, 5.88 ERA, 1.56 WHIP) were definitely forgettable, they are not representative of what McGuire brings to the table. He can be an impact player for the Jays by season’s end. Expect to see him in Bisons dubs at some point – probably by midseason – but not on the opening day roster.

First round draft pick Chad Jenkins had a stellar stint with the Jays in 2012. In 32 innings at the major league level, Jenkins posted a 1-3 record, 4.50 ERA and 1.34 WHIP line. I project Chad Jenkins as the fifth starter for the Bisons in 2013. Having shown the ability to compete and succeed at the major league level, in the event of an emergency call-up, the Jays front office would probably rather see him down the road in Buffalo than castaway in New Hampshire.

Thanks for hearing me out.  A million things can happen in the next six months, so don’t hold me to anything.

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