108: Jays rotation in 2016 set to be a curious bunch

THE SIGNING OF J.A. HAPP (AND SIMULTANEOUS REALIZATION THAT PRICE WILL LIKELY NOT BE A BLUE JAY) HAS LEFT SOME FANS PUZZLED. BUT IT'S NOT ALL DOOM AND GLOOM FOR THE 2016 ROTATION. (PHOTO : CHRIS YOUNG / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

THE SIGNING OF J.A. HAPP (AND SIMULTANEOUS REALIZATION THAT PRICE WILL LIKELY NOT BE A BLUE JAY) HAS LEFT SOME FANS PUZZLED. BUT IT'S NOT ALL DOOM AND GLOOM FOR THE 2016 ROTATION. (PHOTO : CHRIS YOUNG / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Canadian Baseball Network

To the good people of Canada, and fans of the Toronto Blue Jays - 

I must say, there’s something rather strange going on in these parts. Things definitely feel ... different. But please, I beg you, do not be alarmed. Do not lose the faith.

Yes, I’m well aware that the Blue Jays twitter-sphere is still a three-alarm fire. Just as the ashes of the A.A. departure had finally been reduced to a smolder, the whole thing burst back into furious flames with the signing of J.A. Happ - a curious signing indeed, but one that’s not without it’s upside (more on that later). 

(Note: A few hours after this article was posted, David Price was reportedly acquired by the Boston Red Sox. The "three-alarm fire" has now been declared a State of Emergency)

Now I must say, Jays fans, get it out of your system and calm down! There is a new GM and a new team president at the helm. Things are going to be different.

For starters, gone are the days of good-guy Alex Anthopoulos waving his magic trade wand and making superstars appear, admittedly at the expense of high-ceiling prospects. I’m personally not holding my breath waiting for a major block-buster move from this management team. In the early going they appear to be much more calculated, much more reserved (read: boring), for better or for worse.

But allow me to try to keep things positive. Perhaps I can start by attempting to make some sense of what will surely be the most peculiar ... the most fundamentally unpredictable and ill-defined (but, you’ll be happy to know, not at all bad) starting rotation in baseball next season.

***

There are only 24 days until Christmas, but my 2016 Blue Jays wish-list is still just a blank sheet of paper. 

Sure, there are many things I want, but I have to be somewhat realistic here. I’d also be spitting on the the spirit of Christmas were I to greedily ask for something like another big bat. With basically every key offensive component returning, the 2016 Jays should continue to embarrass the rest of the league offensively ... although I’ve got a badddd feeling about the Boston Red Sox.

I’ve also been tempted to dedicate a holiday prayer or two in the hopes of landing another reliever, except I’d have a real tough time wishing for this in earnest. Despite what others are saying, I’m personally not at all worried about the Blue Jays bullpen.

I recently had a vision where the Brett Cecil-Aaron Sanchez-Roberto Osuna tandem evolved into the most lights-out late inning trio in the league. And by “vision” I mean I looked at their second-half numbers from last year and am simply gambling on a little repeat history. 

Osuna had an ERA of 3.03. Sanchez had an ERA of 2.39. And all Brett Cecil did was, oh, not allow a single earned run over 25.1 innings. According to my math that equates to a second-half ERA of 0.00. (Note: my iPhone calculator just confirmed that my math is correct). 

Take into account that their aggregate WHIP was an almost unbelievable 0.78 after the All-Star break, and in a perfect world the Jays would only need their starter to go six innings on a given night.

But, as Toronto sports fans are well aware, the world is not perfect ... 

Which brings us back to the real issue at hand, the great mystery of the 2016 starting rotation. The core question at the heart of this conundrum being not who will pitch for the Jays this season, but rather will they will be any good.

Admittedly, the whole Happ saga did send me, and so many others, back to the starting rotation drawing board. And at this point, writing a letter to Ol’ St Nick asking him to put a “David Price” under the tree seems ... why waste the dollar on postage? I’d rather put it towards my outrageous cable bill, the profits of which are clearly not funding my immediate World Series hopes and dreams as much as they should be.

The Blue Jays’ 2016 payroll is projected to be in the 130 million dollar range, slightly higher than where they started 2015, which makes it pretty clear that Jays Nation is not going to get the one thing they really wanted this year:

A true, proven A-C-E.

Sorry folks, in terms of the starting rotation it looks like what you see is what you’re gonna get. I know, I know - it feels a lot like getting a lump of coal for Christmas, as if Santa has wiped the great fans of Toronto off his map. 

But sulking about it isn’t going to help. Now the focus needs to be, what exactly do the Jays have here, and can this rotation get it done?

You can almost certainly count on the top four starters being Marcus Stroman, Marco Estrada, RA Dickey, and the newly (re)acquired Happ. Even the fifth spot is only sort of up for grabs, with the likely candidates being Drew Hutchinson (a real 1000-piece puzzle in his own right) and Jesse Chavez, who was recently acquired from the Oakland Athletics.

For the most part, each one of those starters is either unproven or has been wildly inconsistent. But what makes this rotation most curious is that they’ve also all had flashes of brilliance.

So I decided to do some digging on my own, to try and make some sense of things. And, lo and behold, I was right - it’s really hard to know what you’re going to get out of this core group. However, fans who expect the rotation to be painfully mediocre could be in for a pleasant surprise. 

There’s a good chance the starting staff will be turning heads, not breaking hearts, come April.

***

To many, when read collectively the current names in the rotation don’t seem to spark a sense of unwavering confidence (even if you take Hutchison and Chavez out of the mix). Yet they don’t make you feel particularly uneasy either. 

For instance, a lot of experts are high on Stroman and for good reason, but with only 24 big-league starts it would be irresponsible to grant him ace-status just yet.

In the case of Estrada, many people remain reluctant to hand over their trust, even in spite of a very good 2015 season, which peaked with his stellar run in the playoffs. This apprehension, however, isn’t all that unfair considering his ERA last year was 80 points lower than his career average.

And if fans are reluctant to trust Estrada, they are damn near terrified to give the ball to Dickey. The term most often used to describe the 41-year-old knuckleballer is no longer “Cy Young award winner” but “inning’s eater” - a backhanded insult and a truly unfortunate injustice, in my mind.

And then there’s Happ ... a victim of past-history and prejudice I suppose. Jays fans seem so hung up on the 4.39 ERA that he had in his previous stint with Toronto, lasting from parts of 2012 - 2014, that they are unable to look at the more recent 7-2 run he went on in the second half of last season, after he was traded from the Seattle Mariners to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

If you step back and look at the rotation as a whole, not to mention if you weigh recent results more heavily than career performance, then Happ’s sudden improvement may actually be indicative of a larger, positive trend for the Jays starters. All four of those guys posted some of their best numbers in 2015.

Whether last season’s success was some chance statistical anomaly or the product of solid scouting and player development remains to be seen. But one thing is certain - their recent numbers are shocking.

Stroman lowered his ERA from 3.31 in 2014 to 1.67 in 2015 (albeit in very limited starts). 

Estrada’s career ERA is 3.95. In 2015, however, it was 3.13. And after the All-Star break it was an incredible 2.78.

Dickey posted a 3.91 ERA in 2015, but in his last 15 starts down the stretch it was 2.80.

Happ’s career ERA is 4.13, however he dropped it to 3.61 in 2015. He too really hit stride after the All-Star break, posting a 2.95 ERA in the second half.

In case it wasn’t clear, every single one of those guys had an ERA under 3.00 in the second half of last season. And consider this, the four all-but-guaranteed starters for the Jays have a combined average career ERA of 3.84. In 2015 it was 76 points lower at 3.08. 

And if you look solely at what they did after the 2015 All-Star break?

Their combined ERA was a ridiculous 2.55 ... and their combined WHIP was 1.00.

That ERA is 40 points lower than the best team starter ERA last season, which belonged to the Los Angeles Dodgers at 2.99. 

The Kansas City Royals, who won the World Series, had a combined starter ERA of 4.34.

So maybe this Christmas Jays fans shouldn’t be wishing for something new and shiny. Instead, in the true spirit of the holidays, they should be hoping to get the most out of what they already have. 

Because as it turns out, what they already have might be pretty darn good.