By Bob Elliott
DUNEDIN, Fla. _ There was a time this winter when we worried about the Blue Jays starting pitching.
Could it be as good as the group which won 72 times with a combined ERA (3.96), fifth best in the American League?
A lot can happen in the final 12 exhibition games and over 162 games, however, but heading into the 2016 season?
“We’re better, we’re deeper,” said Russell Martin, who will do the bulk of the squatting, is his 11th year. He is more than qualified to judge.
Last year on opening night Drew Hutchison started and won at Yankee Stadium.
It will be Marcus Stroman April 3 at Tropicana Field.
R.A. Dickey will start Game 2 of the season.
The Jays started their American League East title season without Stroman (torn ACL), going with a rotation of Hutchison, Dickey, rookie Daniel Norris, veteran Mark Buehrle and rookie Aaron Sanchez.
Following Stroman and Dickey to the mound -- in no particular order -- will be lefty J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada and likely Sanchez, assuming he beats out Gavin Floyd, Jesse Chavez and Hutchison for the fifth spot.
We think Martin is right about the Jays rotation this year being better heading into April.
We won’t know for six months if it is better than last year.
“Chavez can eat up innings as a swing guy,” said Martin, “I look at him as this year’s version of Estrada.”
Estrada made 28 starts and had the lowest opponents batting average (.203) after starting off in the bullpen.
We asked Martin for a guided tour of the five projected starters and he began describing Stroman as “electric.”
“He has a plus fastball, with two breaking balls (curve, slider), a great feel for the strike zone and doesn’t walk a lot of guys,” Martin said. “He has the ability to avoid bats. That comeback of his last year showed his mental make up.
“Some guys you are in awe of their velocity. Last year he was like ‘OK I got hurt, that’s done. I’m going to be back as quickly as possible.’ And he did.”
And he dominated winning all four starts.
Dickey had off-season knee surgery and now shouldn’t be concerned with the pain of landing after throwing 100 or pitches. Martin guessed “physically that would linger.”
Martin has caught Happ a couple of outings and describes him as a “harder-throwing version of Buehrle, but not the same command.”
Martin caught Estrada in his debut Sunday against the Pittsburgh Pirates, saying “he’s the same guy as last year when he pitched as well as anyone we had.”
“His change up is one of the best in the league,” said Martin, whose teams are 8-for-10 reaching the post-season, “it’s how he gets out hitters with a 90 mph fastball pitching up in the zone. His curve ball has a similar look to the change.”
Martin thought for a second when asked if he had ever caught anyone who works up in the zone.
He had not, but said that the 6-foot-10 Chris Young of the Royals pitches similarly to the way Estrada does.
The most flattering praise maybe went to Sanchez -- and with some news too.
“He’s put on more than 15 pounds of muscle,” Martin said. “He had excellent body control and has a fluid throwing motion. The big thing is the breaking ball is now his pitch. He’s even throwing it behind in the count.”
Hold on a second. You mean Aaron Sanchez, who appeared in 24 games as a rookie in 2014 with basically one pitch a fastball (a four-seam and a two-seam) throwing curve balls 10% of the time, and not much more last year when he made 11 starts, is can throw breaking balls when the count is against him?
“Yep, he’s throwing it for strikes,” Martin said. “He can shorten it up to make it sharper for punch outs.”
Part of the fan base would not mind Sanchez in the bullpen to go with Roberto Osuna and Drew Storen. The New York Yankees have three fireballers in Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman, while KC rode Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera to the 2014 World Series. Why don’t the Jays do the same with Sanchez?
“He’s going to do well where ever he goes,” said Martin. “For him and his development the best place is the rotation. He could be a No. 1 or a 2 someday.”
A better group to start the season ... but better than September which had David Price and Stroman as dues paying members?
2015 Rotation 2016 rotation
(Won-loss record, ERA, starts in the previous year)
RHP Drew Hutchison (11-13, 4.48, 32 starts) RHP Marcus Stroman (4-0, 1.67, 4 GS)
RHP R.A. Dickey (14-13, 3.71, 34 GS) Dickey (11-11, 3.91, 33 GS)
LHP Daniel Norris (12-2, 2.53, 25 GS/minors) LHP J.A. Happ (11-8, 3.61, 31 GS/Mariners, Pirates)
LHP Mark Buehrle (13-10, 3.39 32 GS) RHP Marco Estrada (13-8, 3.13, 28 GS)
RHP Aaron Sanchez (2-2, 1.09, 0 GS) Sanchez (7-6, 3.22, 11 GS)