By Jay Blue
Blue Jays from Away
With the major league debut of Ryan Borucki on Tuesday and the triple-A debut of 2015 first-rounder Jon Harris on Thursday, we're starting to see the rewards of some excellent drafting and development of young pitchers whose names are going to be on the lips of Blue Jays fans as we look towards 2019.
For the first time in a long time, the Blue Jays entered this season with a cadre of young, mostly home-grown pitchers who have started to assert themselves as being significant players for major league roles in the coming seasons. With the contracts of J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada expiring at the end of the season (and one or both are likely to be traded before the end of July) and health issues with both Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman, there is the possibility that several young arms are going to be competing for a major-league rotation spot in 2019. Let's look at some of the names and faces that we'll hear and see over the coming months.
Ryan Borucki made his big league debut this week, holding the high-flying Houston Astros to just two runs over six innings. That's a pretty darn good debut despite the fact that the Jays' offence was MIA and the only way it could have been better would have been to get young Borucki's first major league win. The big lefty has battled his way back from missing two complete years (2013 and 2015) with injury and showed himself to be resilient after starting 2016 by getting shelled in Dunedin, followed by a demotion to Lansing for the rest of the season (after which he was excellent). He responded by rising through the system in 2017, starting back in Dunedin and, after a somewhat rough start to the year, he dominated in both double-A and his one start at the end of the year for Buffalo.
In 2018, Borucki had an up-and-down start to the year but that's to be expected given the number of postponements and cancellations the Bisons had due to weather early this season. But since May 6, he's had one start in which he's allowed more than three runs.
That said, don't expect Borucki's move to the major leagues to be seamless. He's struggled a bit with his control at times, walking four batters or more three times (and walked four in his big league debut as well). Those are the ups and downs of young pitchers but Borucki is very well equipped to handle it. His resilience is one of his most valuable attributes.
Sean Reid-Foley, the Jays' second-round pick from 2014, has always looked and seemed older than he is. Just 22 years old (for another couple of months), Reid-Foley struggled in his first attempt at the double-A level in 2017 and has, at times, needed to work through mechanical issues in his career but he's looking much more in control on the mound than ever before as could be seen in his first eight starts of the year with New Hampshire, posting a 2.03 ERA over 44 1/3 innings, walking 20 but striking out 52. He's lowered his walk rate in 36 1/3 innings with Buffalo, walking just 13 and striking out 44 despite a 4.71 ERA. He's only given up five home runs in 80 2/3 innings overall which is another good sign.
Reid-Foley needs some polish on his offspeed stuff and that's what the minor leagues are for but with some continued improvement, he could challenge for a rotation spot in 2019.
Jon Harris has been quietly having a very strong season with New Hampshire, righting the ship after some inconsistency early in the season. The Jays' first draft pick in 2015 (29th overall) was repeating the level in double-A but has been very strong in his last four starts (including Wednesday's with Buffalo) allowing just two earned runs over 24 2/3 innings. The other nice stat from Harris's last four starts is the fact that he has walked only one batter among those four starts. I've profiled Harris ($) as a back-end starter who can eat innings but needs to be careful about keeping the ball away from the middle of the plate but if you're thinking the Jays busted on their 2015 first-rounder, think again. I project him in Toronto at some point next season.
Down in New Hampshire
T.J. Zeuch, the 22-year-old (for another month) first-round pick of the Blue Jays in 2016 (21st overall), has shown his value this season, moving from Dunedin to New Hampshire. Zeuch is a sinkerballer who can get his sinker up to 95 mph and is extremely difficult to get solid contact against when he keeps the ball down, destroying bats in the process. He had solid numbers in Dunedin but improved infield defence behind him in New Hampshire has lowered his ERA to 3.34 while he has a solid 1.26 WHIP.
Because he induces so much contact on the ground, Zeuch is going to give up a lot of hits and, talking to a scout when I saw him in May, we agreed that he doesn't really have an "out pitch," which can get him swings and misses. He has an okay changeup and an inconsistent slider that both need work. He's a little further away than Harris and Reid-Foley mainly because of his low strikeout numbers and need to polish offspeed pitches.
Jordan Romano, a 6-foot-4 Markham-born righty, is moving through the system and up the prospect lists thanks to a strong start in 2018. Romano was drafted in the 10th round in 2014 after being a reliever at Oral Roberts University and was used in a relief role that season in Bluefield. He blew out his UCL and missed all of 2015 but came back as a starter with Lansing in 2016 and then with Dunedin in 2017. In 2018, with a new grip for his changeup, he came out of the gates blazing, winning nine straight starts after taking a no-decision in his first outing, giving up two runs or fewer in nine of his first 10 starts. He's slowed down a bit since making one start in Buffalo at the end of May and has allowed seven runs in three of his last four starts but he struck out eight in his last outing.
Like Zeuch, Romano has a little more work to do when it comes to his consistency and his ability to keep the ball off the sweet spot of the bat but the 25-year-old is getting closer.
On the Comeback Trail
Considered to be a shoo-in for the Buffalo Bisons' roster at the beginning of the year, we were stunned when, in spring training, it was announced that Thomas Pannone was to be suspended for 80 games for testing positive for a performance enhancing drug. Pannone is a lefty who has four fairly well developed pitches and has the ability to mix speeds and hit spots. His first outing of the season with Dunedin didn't go well (giving up seven runs in 4 2/3 innings) but he was strong in his New Hampshire debut, allowing one run on five hits and a walk with five strikeouts.
Without his suspension, Pannone, who was added to the 40-man roster this offseason, would have likely made his big league debut in September and, while that's still possible, it's a little less likely and I'm sure will have something to do with his performance for the last couple of months of the minor league season (and how many pitchers the Blue Jays trade away before then). Look for him to compete for a rotation spot in 2019.
Patrick Murphy, like Ryan Borucki, had his career get off to a slow start after multiple injuries plagued him. He was drafted in the third round in 2013 but didn't pitch more than three games in a season until 2016 when he shone with Vancouver. He had a strong 2017, mostly with Vancouver but a late-season injury limited his ability to pitch after being promoted to Dunedin. This year, with 14 starts in Dunedin (and one in New Hampshire), he has a 3.02 ERA overall despite his 1.42 WHIP being a little high. He's giving up a lot of hits and walking a fair number of hitters but his strikeout rate is higher than it has ever been. Murphy is coming off a stellar, seven-inning, no-run performance on June 24 in which he struck out seven against Clearwater.
Yennsy Diaz, 21, was dominant in Lansing this year, winning a Pitcher of the Month award before he was moved up to Dunedin where he's been solid in six outings. Particularly impressive has been his ability to not give up hits as he's allowed just 49 hits in 79 2/3 innings.
Zach Logue, 22, was the Jays' ninth round pick in 2017 and has settled into a starter's role quite nicely both with Lansing and with Dunedin, making 15 starts and logging 90 innings with a 2.90 ERA. He's been able to keep his walk rate down (just 5.2%) but his low strikeout rate, particularly in Dunedin (15.2%) is someone concerning, considering he doesn't get a ton of ground balls (1.04 GB/FB).
Maximo Castillo, 19, may not have the best ERA (5.35) with the Lansing Lugnuts but he's holding his own at a young age. He's getting hurt most by hits (75) but only four of those hits went out of the park. Like Zeuch, Castillo has a heavy fastball that sites 91-92 but could trend higher as his arm gets stronger. For Castillo, it's his offspeed pitches that need to be polished and more consistent.
Without looking too deeply into the system, we can see that there are six starting pitchers who could take a regular turn for the big league team within two years. While none of these guys have "ace" written on them, all of them are still works in progress and still have upside as they mature. Just looking at rotation that could feature two or three of Borucki, Reid-Foley, Harris, Romano, Zeuch and Pannone leaves me feeling very optimistic about the future.
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