The Toronto Blue Jays go into the 2019 season battered, bereft of several of the “name” position players who were on the club last year, and not expected to do much of anything in the standings. But that’s not to say that there isn’t going to be interest and intrigue in the ballclub. Here is the second of five storylines to watch in the first month or so of the season.
2. Strochez and the Rotation
The 2018 Toronto Blue Jays starting rotation was supposed to be one of the club’s real strengths. With Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman, J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada and veteran lefty Jaime Garcia, this was an area that, if everything worked out, would be an anchor for a club that had playoff hopes.
Stroman got injured and wasn’t effective at the beginning of the year. Sanchez damaged his finger when a suitcase fell on it that plagued him much of the year. Estrada had sleep issues and wasn’t particularly effective. After a solid couple of starts, Garcia turned into a dumpster fire every five days before being put into the bullpen and then was released at the end of August. J.A. Happ was the sole shining light in August and he was traded to the Yankees (on the bright side, the two players coming back in that deal are both on the Opening Day roster for 2019).
So April is going to be a big month for the Blue Jays’ revamped rotation that still is anchored by Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez.
Stroman’s spring training of 2018 wasn’t bad but he only got into two big league games, giving up three earned runs in 7 1/3 innings with seven strikeouts and one walk. But his March/April of 2018 was soul crushing as he had an 8.88 ERA and 1.82 WHIP, walking an uncharacteristic 15 batters in 25 1/3 innings despite maintaining a strikeout rate of almost one per inning. Stroman was plagued by injuries and finally went on the DL in May, to return in late June but he was again affected by injuries in August, going on the DL for a couple of weeks with a blister on his finger.
This year, however, in 12 1/3 Grapefruit League innings (he also pitched in a couple of minor league games), he had a 2.19 ERA and 0.57 WHIP, striking out 13 and walking only one batter (and hitting another). Stroman looked in mid-season form by the end of the spring and is the Opening Day starter for the Jays. Signs portend well and if he can keep the blisters at bay and the injuries behind him, he could ascend to the elite status that he has the potential to have.
Aaron Sanchez’s spring last year wasn’t bad either. He had a 3.06 ERA and 0.96 WHIP over 17 2/3 innings with 16 strikeouts and just two walks. He was looking to return to the form of his 2016 that saw him lead the AL in ERA but he had an okay March/April with 37 2/3 innings and a 4.06 ERA but what was alarming was that Sanchez, who walked just 3.0 batters per nine innings in 2016, walked 18 batters in March/April of 2018 while striking out only 25. That walk rate would remain high and finish at 5.0 walks per nine innings as Sanchez would eventually have surgery on his finger but he pitched through a lot before eventually going on the DL in June. Sanchez came back at the end of August but then had surgery on the finger at the end of September.
This year, Sanchez has looked dominant in spring training, tossing 17 2/3 innings with a sparkling 1.53 ERA and 0.91 WHIP. He has gotten his walk rate down to 3.6 per nine innings while his strikeout rate is back into a solid range at 7.1 K/9.
With both Stroman and Sanchez healthy and coming off strong spring performances, the rotation looks very solid (but then again, it looked pretty good last year too). Bringing up the rear will be newly acquired Matt Shoemaker, Clayton Richard and, to start the year, Trent Thornton.
Despite his 5.00 ERA in the spring, Shoemaker has looked strong with his splitter working well. He walked only eight batters in 18 innings and struck out 20 while posting a solid 1.11 WHIP and the only real blemish (bloating his ERA) are the five home runs he gave up. Colour me encouraged.
Clayton Richard had some decent numbers in the spring with a 3.38 ERA and 1.03 WHIP over 10 2/3 innings, striking out nine and walking three. That said, a lot of the advanced numbers about his stuff don’t look very good so there’s a thought that he could wind up in the bullpen, but we’re all expecting him to fill the “Jaime Garcia” role as a guy who can eat some innings, particularly with an untested, cobbled together bullpen to start the year.
Starting in place of the injured Ryan Borucki is Trent Thornton who had a mixed spring. He tossed 15 innings, mostly out of the bullpen, with a 4.80 ERA but a 1.20 WHIP, striking out 16 and walking five. He’s likely a stopgap solution with Clay Buchholz on his way (possibly by the end of the month) and Borucki on an unknown timeline.
This starting group has given us signs of the potential that they could have as a group. I was very optimistic about the starting rotation in 2018 and that kind of backfired, so I’m hesitant to make any pronouncements about the 2019 starting group. The difference is that this group of five pitchers is not nearly as set in stone as the 2018 group was at the start of the season. We already know that Thornton is a stopgap solution with help on the way. We also know that Richard could be moved to the bullpen in order to make room for Ryan Borucki when he returns.
The Jays also have solutions in the wings. Thomas Pannone can come out of the pen to start after being a starter for his entire career in the minors. Sean Reid-Foley is waiting in the wings, as are several other starters. If the you-know-what really hits the fan and the Jays have multiple injuries to their starting staff, I have a feeling that we might see Patrick Murphy by midseason and there are several pitchers with lower ceilings who will be in Buffalo and New Hampshire.
Am I as high on the 2019 Opening Day rotation as I was in 2018? No, but the fact that there are still a lot of moving parts and questions to be settled makes the rotation one of the exciting storylines to watch as the season gets under way.
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