Teams are always looking for cheap, effective innings. The Blue Jays might be staring up at three superior teams in the AL East, yet they have quality young pitching in their rotation and some others on the way. Despite their problems with injuries, there is reason for a Jays fan to be optimistic.
Iíve looked at several of Torontoís pitchers in the last 18 months. In May 2009, I profiled Ricky Romero, and this spring I took a look at Brandon Morrow. My AL season preview focused on Morrow, Brett Cecil, Shaun Marcum and Marc Rzepczynski, and I checked out their bullpen last March.
The blueprint for building a pitching base obviously starts with drafting and developing 200-inning horses. The tricky intermediate step is to have a decent enough rotation to hold the fort until the farm products mature. Depending on their resources, teams differ on how they walk this road. The Yankees and Red Sox sign veterans and make sure their prospects earn spots. Oakland has largely ignored the intermediate step of signing stopgaps, although they did sign Ben Sheets. The Rays have been so patient that they donít need to sign veterans, as their rotation is full of young talent.
Toronto has managed largely to avoid disastrous free-agent signings for their rotation. Paying A.J. Burnett $33 million for three years didnít work out, although he gave them 522 innings. The monster contracts to B.J. Ryan, Alex Rios, and Vernon Wells turned into albatrosses for Toronto. When it became clear the club couldnít sign Roy Halladay, they shipped him to Philadelphia for Kyle Drabek, Travis DíArnaud, and Michael Taylor, whom they flipped to Oakland for Brett Wallace.
The Blue Jays have put their prospects on a fairly fast track to the majors, although that has slowed recently. Eschewing the free-agent route, theyíve tried converted relievers (Brian Tallet), journeymen (Dana Eveland), middling prospects (Marc Rzepczynski, Scott Richmond, David Purcey), and injury risks (Shaun Marcum, Jesse Litsch, Dustin McGowan) to bridge the gap to their legitimate prospects: Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, and Brett Cecil. Torontoís next wave of arms is Kyle Drabek, Zach Stewart and Chad Jenkins.
Ricky Romero has taken the biggest step forward. He gets punchouts with all his pitches: a low-90s cutting fastball, a mid-70s curve and a low-80s changeup. Romero has dramatically improved his efficiency (14.9 P/IP) while retaining a great G/F ratio (1.42). He struck out seven Yankees with changeups on June 7. It seems Romero tips his change by dropping his arm, but perhaps it doesnít matter. Romero is becoming exactly the type of go-to pitcher the Blue Jays need.
Brandon Morrowís stuff in his first full year as a starter Ė mainly a 93-97 mph fastball and an 86-90 mph slider Ė has been nearly as good as it was when he was a reliever. Hitters seem surprised by his slider, with its excellent velocity and late movement. He and Stephen Strasburg have 89 mph changeups. Morrow had a 6.80 ERA after eight starts, but has allowed just 11 earned runs in his last seven. Morrow, like Dustin McGowan, has Type I diabetes, so it will be critical for him to stay healthy. McGowan went on record this year saying that he believed his recovery has taken longer in part due to this condition. Morrowís efficiency (16.9 P/IP) is decent. If he keeps throwing strikes, give him a long look. Iím hoping Toronto takes it easy on him in the second half.
After starting the year well, Brett Cecil has gone the opposite direction as Morrow, allowing 16 earned runs in his last three games entering Friday. Cecil is throwing a consistent 90-92 with an 81-86 mph slider, and he mixes in an 83-84 mph changeup and an occasional high-70s curveball. His slightly crossfire delivery helps hide the ball well, and he has enough confidence to throw his breaking ball in fastball counts. Cecilís changeup looks like his slider until it dips away with some late movement. He has been ambushed in recent starts by elevating the ball early in the game and in the count. Iíll take a closer look at Cecil later in the year.
Shaun Marcum continues to make the most of basically a setup manís stuff: 85-89 mph cut fastballs, a plus changeup at 82-83, and mid-70s curveballs. Marcum is efficient (15.6 P/IP), moves the ball around, and has good control, although good hitters can lay off his borderline pitches. Lefty hitters (.179) have been neutralized by his cutter and changeup. Despite his success, itís hard for me to be enthusiastic about Marcum. His game relies mainly on deception and control, and I think hitters will start figuring him out. He should be solid for the rest of 2010, but his health is now a concern after he landed on the DL with elbow trouble.
Toronto is taking the slow road with Kyle Drabek, keeping him at Double-A (7-8, 3.49) after he went 8-2, 3.64 at that level in 2009 for Philadelphia. Drabek has drawn praise from scouts for his mound presence, which is helping him shed the immature label that followed him after he was drafted. His fastball hasnít reached its pre-Tommy John level of 95, so Drabekís high-70s curveball is now his best pitch. He also throws a low-80s changeup, although this is a work in progress. Scouts are now talking about Drabek not as a potential ace, but as a No. 3 who will arrive at this time next year.
Another live arm, Zach Stewart, came over in the Scott Rolen deal at last yearís deadline. He has a bit of a short-armed delivery, but is sound overall. The Blue Jays are not sure whether he can refine his low-80s slider and changeup enough to stick as a starter. It appears he has trouble keeping his plus fastball down. Stewart is 6-2, 4.54 at Double-A, with 64 strikeouts in 81 innings. He looks to have a major league future of some stripe, but until we see more of him, I canít speculate what it will be. I imagine we will see Stewart and Drabek called up in September.
The Jaysí top pick in last yearís draft, Chad Jenkins was recently promoted to the Florida State League after going 5-4, 3.63 in 13 Midwest League starts. Jenkins is more polished than Stewart, with just 14 walks in 92 innings this year. Here is some video of Jenkins from when he was at Kennesaw State. He has made strides toward improving his diet this year, which might curb the Joe Blanton comparisons. Jenkins throws in the low-90s with a low-80ís slider, and he has better arm extension than Blanton. I have a good feeling about Jenkins, who will need until 2013.
Toronto has some other starting options until their prospects are ready. Jesse Litsch has made a quick comeback from Tommy John surgery. He is similar to Marcum, with his moxie and control far ahead of his stuff and athleticism. Litsch has been hammered in two of his four starts. When the prospects are ready, he will slide into middle relief or another team. Marc Rzepczynski has had an evil half-season at Triple-A (6.66 ERA), so he wonít duplicate his 2009 success. Itís hard to say what to expect from Dustin McGowan until we see him throw next year.
2011 will be an interesting transition year for Toronto. The young nucleus in the starting rotation needs to stay healthy, as it will be 2012 before their top prospects are ready. Will they have enough offense to contend? New GM Alex Anthopoulos has done a nice job of filling in the lineup with low-cost solutions. Who knew Jose Bautista would have 20 home runs by the All-Star break? Once Travis Snider returns from his wrist injury and J.P. Arencibia and Brett Wallace take over behind the plate and at first, the 2012 Jays will start to take shape. They still need a shortstop (Adeiny Hechavarria may be the solution), and it would help if Vernon Wells keeps hitting Ė but they can definitely close the gap in the East.