And Estrada makes 3 starters ... or 4 ... or 5?

By Bob Elliott

And one more makes ... ah, ah ... five.

Sort of ...

The pro-active Blue Jays made free-agent right-hander Marco Estrada a rich man Friday afternoon signing him to a two-year $26 million US deal. Estrada had until 5 pm Friday to accept a $15.8 million qualifying offer from the Jays.

“We identified Marco as a priority, he was a big part of our success this year,” interim general manager Tony LaCava told reporters. 

Estrada joins the 2016 Jays rotation which will consist of Marcus Stroman and R.A. Dickey, along with maybe Aaron Sanchez and Drew Hutchison. 

Three “for-sures” and two question marks is better than three question marks.

Is that lower-case group of five good enough to repeat in the standings?

“We do have enough -- in terms of having five -- but we are still going to try to add,” LaCava said. “Our rotation remains the priority. We are open for business to add to the bullpen and other ways.”

In April the Jays opened in New York with a five-man rotation of Hutchison, Dickey, Daniel Norris, Mark Buehrle and Sanchez. The five had combined for 710 career starts and 14 combined seasons of 30-plus starts.

Come April, unless someone comes over the hill, the Jays will start with Stroman, Estrada, Dickey, Sanchez and Hutchison. They have made 395 lifetime starts with five 30-plus seasons (four by Dickey, one by Hutchison).

Buehrle will either retire or pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals, his home town team.

And all that August and September gushing and fawning over David Price and Rogers Centre popcorn? How Toronto was a good fit? How much fun it was to pitch with a steam roller for an offensive like the Jays? How the Jays wanted to lock him up to the long-term deal he has earned to heck with the old five-year limits?

Never mind. 

After averaging $3.612 million in 2014 with the Milwaukee Brewers and this year with the Jays, Estrada will average $13 million in 2016-17 ($11.5 million next year and $14.5 million in 2017). 

Estrada didn’t join the Jays rotation until May 4 and in 28 starts had career bests in ERA (3.13), wins (13), strikeouts (131), and innings pitched (181), limiting opposing hitters to .203, which was the lowest in the American League. After the all-star break with a fastball clocked at 89-91 mph he held hitters to a .183 mark pitching up in the strike zone.

Most pitching coaches can be heard saying “keep the ball down,” yet Estrada pitched up. He got knicked (24 homers this year compared to 29 a year ago) but his deceptive change up resembles his curve ball resulting in swings and misses.

LaCava was asked if free agent Dioner Navarro, Estrada’s personal catcher, would be brought back. After praising Navarro, LaCava added “we don’t think Marco’s success was due to whomever was catching him.”

Is it possible for Estrada, 31, who has pitched eight years to be able to repeat this season or was it a career year to pitch as well next season?

“We think that he can maintain that level of performance — maybe not to the level that he did this year — but certainly someone that we can count on going forward, that can help us defend the AL East title,” said LaCava. “We think he can definitely continue with the success that he had this year.” 

His .216 average on balls put in play was the lowest since 1988. Can he repeat that?

“Our analytics department, we looked at that as well,” LaCava said. “We felt like the changes that he made in terms of his pitch repertoire were things that made this sustainable. Maybe not to that degree but certainly we felt like he was going to continue to perform at a high level,” LaCava said.

The Jays acquired Estrada from the Brewers on Nov. 1 for Adam Lind, or “Adam you’re my favorite,” as a Level 200 fan used to yell every night at the Rogers Centre.

“We had asked about Marco in the past,” LaCava said. “We liked him, but none of us expected he would start Game 1 of the ALCS for us. He came in as a guy that wasn’t even in our initial rotation,”

Hutchison went from opening night starter and winner at Yankee Stadium, to making 28 starts, to winning 13 games and to not even being on their post-season playoff roster, while Estrada was the best.

The next option was converting either Roberto Osuna or Liam Hendriks into starters.

It was money well spent by president Mark Shapiro and LaCava, who said that both years and dollars make sense.

The Jays rotation is better on Saturday than it was on Thursday after signing Estrada.