Rotation questions weigh on Blue Jays' 2016 outlook

By: Nick Ashbourne

Canadian Baseball Network

It was only last Friday the Toronto Blue Jays were a championship-calibre team fighting tooth-and-nail for a World Series berth. Now they are a franchise weathering an avalanche of question marks.

While the majority of the Blue Jays core is indeed returning for 2016, the team's general manager is without a contract and three-fifths of its rotation is likely packing their bags for elsewhere. No matter how good your offence is, a starting five of Marcus Stroman, probably R.A. Dickey, maybe Drew Hutchison, possibly Aaron Sanchez and definitely someone else is a little harrowing for a team looking to win now.

It would be foolish and reactionary to think the Blue Jays are doomed to nosedive after their most impressive season in over 20 years, there is too much star power on this team to go straight from the penthouse to the cellar. However, projecting them to replicate this year's success would be based on some optimistic assumptions about the offseason to come. 

So far the team has openly stated an interest in retaining both David Price and Marco Estrada, but there's little incentive not to. Realistically, they would have to be able considered serious underdogs in the Price derby and offering him the kind of contract he'll rightfully demand would be completely unprecedented for the franchise.

Estrada may be more in the Blue Jays' snack bracket, but he won't come cheap either and it's fair to question the wisdom of re-signing him. The soft-tossing right-hander has hit free agency at the apex of his value coming off a career year and a marvelous post-season. Re-signing Estrada would be buying high. His flyball-heavy act worked at Rogers Centre this season, but it's fair to wonder if he could keep it up. The difference between his ERA (3.13) and his FIP (4.40) is enough to make anyone investing tens of millions think twice.

If those two leave and Mark Buehrle retires, or chooses to play a final season closer to home, the hole left behind is massive and internal candidates to replace them are hardly reliable. Hutchison is an incredibly puzzling pitcher who has the ability to contribute, but continually seems to shoot himself in the foot. Sanchez had some good starts last year, but it's hard to be too high on his performance when his BB/9 and FIP were both over five. As for a fifth starter, unless the Blue Jays tear Osuna from the closer role it's hard to think of a suitable candidate. Organization depth that could be immediately useful beyond that also scarce and it usually takes seven or eight starters to make it through a season when injuries are factored in.

The Blue Jays are aware of these shortcomings, but what they do about them will decide the course of the 2016 season. Help from outside the organization will undoubtedly be required and enlisted, but it's unclear at this point what kind of help.

Traditionally, the Blue Jays have plugged holes through trades, in part because of players' unwillingness to sign with the team in free agency. Now the calculus of that model has changed. Not only is their prospect capital diminished to the point where major trades seem unlikely, but the team's recent playoff run has probably changed the perception of Toronto as a free agent destination.

At the moment the free agent market is pretty rich in starting pitching. Along with big names like Price, Johnny Cueto and probably Zach Greinke come solid mid-rotation arms like Yovani Gallardo, Doug Fister, and Wei-Yin Chen and intriguing reclamation projects like Tim Lincecum and Justin Masterson.

There is a lot there, and it is a pool this team will need to dip into if Price and Estrada do in fact leave. Even if they retain one, a free agency signing is probably in the cards. What kind of signing it is depends on how deep into its pockets ownership is willing to dig, something that has often been a question in the past. For what it's worth the Blue Jays' playoff run generated a tidy amount of extra revenue and the Kansas City Royals spent an uncharacteristic amount in free agency the year after their 2014 run. 

With a lineup that's both potent and relatively long in the tooth the Blue Jays' window of opportunity is right now. After 2016 the offence could be gutted by the potential departures of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion and they need to strike before then. In order to do so they'll need a solid starting rotation. Right now they have less than half of one. 

Not only could that change in a hurry, but it has to. Optimism about 2016 is well-founded in some ways, but it also presumes the Blue Jays will fill their rotation holes with proven talent. Until this front office makes significant additions it's hard not to feel uneasy about this team.

These concerns could be soothed instantaneously by the Blue Jays writing a couple of fat cheques, but betting on that has been a losing proposition in the past. In the weeks to come it will be interesting to see how coming off a playoff run affects those odds.