*Some numbers show that Brandon Morrow had a better year than Ricky Romero .... 2012 Canadians in College
By Chris Toman
The Toronto Blue Jays swung and missed on Yu Darvish, and to a lesser extent, Gio Gonzalez and Mat Latos, have not added a new offensive weapon and have spent the offseason shoring up their bullpen -- Segio Santos, Darren Oliver, and reacquiring Jason Frasor -- more than anything else.
Improving the bullpen, and not overpaying to do so, was a wise move. But it won’t be a revamped ‘pen that catapults the Blue Jays back into contention.
More than anything else, Toronto needs another starting pitcher -- ideally, a mid-to-front-of-the-rotation arm if the team is committed to making a playoff push in 2012, something that is still very much up for debate. Youngsters such as Henderson Alvarez, Kyle Drabek and Brett Cecil (who is still just 25) are suitable for the backend spots of the rotation, while Rickey Romero and Brandon Morrow are locked in as the two mainstays of the staff. That’s a rotation Toronto should be content with unveiling on Opening Day, despite the uncertainty that lies within it. However, another frontline arm would do wonders in bolstering its playoff chances for 2012.
Adding another staple to the rotation, and ideally an innings-eater, could separate the Jays from pretenders to contenders. Even if all were to go right and Alvarez and Drabek deliver during their second time around at the major-league level, they are both likely to be on an innings limit, meaning Toronto will have to turn to others at some point during the season to absorb innings.
One of those candidates could come internally in the form of Dustin McGowan, but the injury-plagued hurler may be better suited to come out of the bullpen. McGowan could see some spot starts but it’s hard to imagine him taking on a big role or logging a lot of innings in the starting rotation.
Cecil, on the other hand, took a major step backwards last season after a solid, yet unflattering, 15-win 2010 campaign. The southpaw was demoted to Triple-A Las Vegas for two months after four April starts which saw him struggle mightily. His long-term future with the club is uncertain but, as the only other lefty starter besides Romero, Cecil should have a home in the Blue Jays rotation in 2012 -- barring the acquisition of another arm. He should battle for a spot either way and could even win a job over Drabek out of spring training, given his effectiveness against left-handed hitters throughout his career.
Further, Drabek has a lot to prove and will not be guaranteed anything based on his performance last season.
Regardless if the Jays can bring in another solid arm, the upcoming season will be greatly influenced by how Morrow does. The 27-year-old has immense talent and, when at his best, has true ace stuff. However, the problem with Morrow has been harnessing that talent every fifth start, in addition to control issues. Morrow issued the lowest walk rate of his career this past season, yet his 3.46 walks per nine innings was still the fifth highest mark in the American League among qualified pitchers. Romero (3.20) was seventh, while Drabek issued a whopping 6.3 free passes over 18 games, 78 ⅔ innings.
On the surface, Morrow’s 2011 stats don’t look spectacular, but he did pitch better than what his 4.72 ERA would indicate.
Consider this: Morrow’s WAR (Wins Above Replacement) (3.4), according to Fangraphs, was better than Romero’s (2.9), as was his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), which is widely assumed in the sabermetric world to be a true measure of how well a pitcher fares. FIP accounts for a pitcher’s home runs allowed, walks and strikeouts -- the areas in which a pitcher has control -- divides it by his innings pitched and adds a constant to have it spew out an ERA-like number. Morrow’s FIP was 3.64, while Romero’s was 4.20, suggesting Romero was a little lucky last year and his 2.90 ERA will be hard to duplicate in 2012, while the numbers show Morrow was on the unlucky side.
Morrow also led the American League in strikeouts per nine innings at 10.19 -- joining Zack Greinke as the only qualified starters with a K/9 of at least 10 -- and was one of only three pitchers, alongside Greinke and Anibal Sanchez, to record over 200 strikeouts in less than 200 innings. With Morrow’s ability to generate punchouts, he could be well on his way to a breakout 2012 campaign.
As for the offence, it is more complete than the rotation, but it doesn’t come without its own question marks.
The lineup features a glutton of young talent who have yet to reach their ceilings, a superstar in Jose Bautista and some seasoned sluggers in Adam Lind and Edwin Encarnacion. Youngsters such as Brett Lawrie, J.P. Arencibia, Colby Rasmus, Travis Snider and Eric Thames will experience their hiccups, but have the potential to provide a bevy of offence individually. And a lot of teams could do worse than the up-the-middle tandem the Jays currently have in Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson.
The battle between Thames and Snider for left field, if they are both still around, will be an interesting one. Snider has a lot to prove, and based on Toronto’s past reluctance to let him iron out his issues at the major-league level, time is not on his side -- at least not as a Toronto Blue Jay. At just 23, no one should be giving up on the former first round draft pick just yet. He still has a high ceiling if he can figure out major league pitching, and still has the potential to blossom into a star. If he doesn’t, however, it’s hard to imagine Toronto sending him back and forth between the majors and minors -- again. Thames doesn’t have star potential, but aside from some spotty defense, was productive during his first time around in Toronto. However, neither should be expected to carry a major offensive load next season.
It’s very possible that one of Snider or Thames will not be a Blue Jay come Opening Day. One of them, coupled with a package of the Blue Jays’ strong crop of minor league arms, could fetch a nice return. The Jays’ system is loaded with arms, but most of them are years away from contributing to the big club. Seven of the Blue Jays’ top-10 prospects, as ranked by Baseball America, are pitchers and only two of them -- Deck McGuire and Drew Hutchison -- pitched as high as the AA level last season -- combining for seven starts with the New Hampshire Fishercats, the Jays’ Double-A affiliate.
Although currently sound, an upgrade at first base/designated hitter, two positions currently being occupied by Lind and Encarnacion, could greatly impact this club. Lind’s numbers have been down across the board after a career season in 2009, while there is no way of telling what you are getting from Encarnacion year to year.
One thing to watch will be how Rasmus performs in his first full season in the AL. If he is anything like he was last year, Jays fans, and management alike, will be eager for the arrival of centre field prospect Anthony Gose. He is still, at best, a year away from the majors, but his tantalizing skills make him one of the most intriguing prospects in the system. This is a big year for Rasmus. There is no other way to put it.
As great as Lawrie was during his brief stint with Toronto, he will be just 22 years old to start the season and could very well experience a sophomore slump. He is arguably the next face of the franchise, an electric player with a superstar ceiling, but like he said when he first arrived, he is no saviour. He’s just another piece to the puzzle, albeit a big one.
The rotation and lineup have similarities. Both are filled with upside players who will need to have breakout campaigns in order for the Blue Jays to flirt with a postseason berth in 2012. Is it possible? Sure. But it’s far from likely. Don’t forget about the three teams Toronto has been looking up to in the standings, who all remain among the cream of the crop in the AL.
Window to Win is Soon
If this is not the year, it will come soon. Toronto has too much talent at all levels of its system for it not to make serious playoff pushes over the next few seasons. The way this team has been built allows for sustainable success for years to come. It is really in a unique situation and one that the club hasn’t found itself in in a very long time. The Blue Jays could go for it now by moving some of their younger pieces for a proven major leaguer, but they are also in a position to be patient, let the young guys develop and watch them blossom into stars together.
The only concern with that is the notion it’s ‘wasting’ another year of Bautista -- one of the game’s elite players -- in his prime. Bautista won’t be putting up Barry Bonds numbers forever, but the talent the Jays have in their system doesn’t grow on trees either. Are the Jays better off packaging their youth for a star, or waiting and possibly making their push when Bautista is no longer the main fixture of the club?
That’s what general manager Alex Anthopoulos is left to decide over the winter months, as he’s not going to find anything that resembles an impact player through free agency. Unless the club goes out and signs Prince Fielder, that is.
Don’t hold your breath.