Blue Jays boast deepest pitching among AL contenders
Successful three weeks with six-man rotation set Jays up for final 44 games
The Blue Jays flew home from Cleveland, Thursday, on the disappointing heels of a 4-3 loss and with a split of a four-game series at Progressive Field. The loss gave the Jays a solid total of five wins on a week-long trip to Boston and the Guardians.
On the surface, it would seem like a successful seven-game, two-city trip, but it could have been far, far better. Better if they could hit (which is their reputation) and worse, if they didn’t pitch (which was the expected Achilles Heel). Earning a split in Cleveland with just seven runs scored in four games is a credit to the pitching.
Face it, the Jays hitters have been pacifists for a large part of this season when it comes to waging WAR, but on the other hand, this current Jays pitching staff, both starting and relief, has suddenly become the deepest and arguably the most reliable of any of the 10 AL contenders (those teams currently at .500 or above). Most of that 10-team group of October dreamers still believes that with a month-long hot streak they can reserve a spot on the post-season dance-floor.
No matter how they try, the Jays can’t shake the rest of the pack. Somehow, even the 5-2 road trip, capped by Thursday’s frustrating matinee loss against a guy that used to be revered as a Norse god, Thor, seemed less than satisfying after having fist-pumpingly started out on the trip with a rare three-game sweep through the Fens. With a chance for three of four vs. the Guardians and a struggling Noah Syndergaard he topped out at 91 mph and shut the Jays down for 14 outs, including 12 in a row.
The positive takes embraced by those “glass-half-full” optimists would surely be that despite the Jays managing to squeeze out just seven runs in four games at Progressive, they still can consider themselves fortunate to have gained a split and that they should be grateful for a pitching staff that has become a shining beacon for this offensively-challenged team heading to September.
In reality, the Jays have had an impressive array of pitching positives. Example. Most teams that suffer an injury to a starting pitcher like the Jays did with the line-drive off the knee of Hyun Jin Ryu on Monday, would be scrambling behind the scenes to identify an alternate starter in case the bruised bone was not healed in time for his next start. But the Jays, armed with a six-man rotation, are able to remain patient, able to wait until the weekend to monitor the injury and if needed, can simply slide fellow lefty Yusei Kikuchi into that Ryu role… still on his full, four days of rest.
There is no doubt the six-man Jays group, in use by manager John Schneider since July 26, has been a difference-maker in staying strong in the wild-card race in handling 17 straight days with games. As the marathon winds down to heartbreak hill, that extra 24 hours between starts, could be a difference-maker.
IDENTIFYING THE AL COMPETITION
Who do they have to beat? The three AL division leaders, as of August 10, were Baltimore, Minnesota and Texas. Among the seven teams at or above .500 and jockeying for the three-wild-card positions are the Rays, Astros and Jays, pursued by the Mariners, Yankees, Red Sox and Angels.
JAYS ROTATION ADVANTAGE
1-The Jays boast a healthy and experienced rotation, that, because of the addition of Ryu to the mix, as a sixth man, on Aug. 1, has been able to handle the toll of games without a day off with each starter still having an extra day rest. The plan is good.
2-The Jays have five proven, veteran starters that are earning $10M (US) or more in 2023 – Yusei Kikuchi ($10M); Jose Berrios ($15M); Chris Bassitt ($18M); Hyun Jin Ryu ($20M) and Kevin Gausman ($21M). The one Jays’ youngster, Alek Manoah checks in at less than $1-million. The Jays were clearly focused on starters when they built.
There are 27 starting pitchers among the 10 AL contenders earning $10M or more and the Jays have five of them. Only 21 of the 27 are active … and the Jays have five of them. The AL West leading Rangers have seven $10M+ starters, although RH Nate Eovaldi ($16M) and RH Jacob deGrom ($30M) are both on the IL.
Immediate competition? Of the two teams ahead of the Jays in the AL East, neither can match the experience (or the innings load) of the Jays’ staff. The O’s have just two veteran starters available – RH Kyle Gibson and RH Jack Flaherty, while the Rays have three – RH Zach Eflin and RH Tyler Glasnow, with RH Aaron Civale a key deadline addition. They will miss LH Shane McLanahan, RH Drew Rasmussen and LH Jeffrey Springs.
3-The Jays had a baseline plan. When they reached out to trade for or sign their veteran starters, they seemed to identify and pursue pitchers that were likely to take the ball every fifth day, rather than be distracted by shiny object starters that had spectacular highs, but spent too much time on the Injured List.
*Berrios in his eight major-league seasons, has never missed a start.
*Kikuchi in his five MLB seasons has been on the IL once, with a neck strain.
*Manoah in his three Jays’ seasons, has been on the IL once, with a back contusion.
*Bassitt has not had an elbow or shoulder injury in six seasons since 2017.
*Gausman sat out some right shoulder injury time in 2015-16 and ‘19, but has made 30-plus starts in each of his last six full seasons.
*Ryu has been the one exception in the current six-man starting group. Add up the IL time and the 36-year-old lefthander has spent four years and 126 days of his almost 11 seasons of service time on the sideline since signing with the Dodgers in 2013. His list of body parts that have led to the 14 IL stints include three shoulders, three hips, three elbows, two necks, one glute, one groin, plus one foot injury.
Despite the veteran’s litany of injuries, Ryu’s true value to the Jays past four years came long ago. As a Scott Boras free-agent, signing his four-year, $80M deal back in 2020, it demonstrated to agents, players and opposing front office groups that the Jays were serious about returning to battle. He pitched like an ace in the pandemic season, finishing third in Cy Young balloting. He has now made two starts back from Tommy John, looking for one final contract when he becomes a free agent this off-season. His presence should not be overlooked.
JAYS BULLPEN IMPROVEMENTS
At one point the return of righthander Chad Green to the Blue Jays major-league roster was a priority, in order to add needed depth to the bullpen. But the other day, when, at AAA-Buffalo, rehabbing from a year off, Green was unfortunately hit in the back of the head by a pulled throw from catcher Tyler Heineman on a steal attempt, the organization’s concern was for the pitcher’s concussion protocol, not necessarily how it would affect the timeline of his return to the bigs. What had changed?
The Jays west coast road trip at the end of July demonstrated just how much the bullpen had needed help. Every game in Seattle and at Dodger Stadium was high leverage and the same relievers were being asked to work too many games in a row. They were lobbing it up there on fumes, thus the perceived need for the immediate return of Green, plus another addition or two at the deadline.
But since then, with veteran starters stretching out on most nights to 6-7 innings and with the additions of RH Jordan Hicks and LH Genesis Cabrera to give Schneider ninth-inning options, plus with Cabrera being a true second lefthander with plus-stuff, instead of flipping a coin between Swanson and Richards, two righthanders that could be trusted vs. lefty hitters, the entire ‘pen has ratcheted to the next level.
The Jays bullpen in the final month could become the deepest in recent memory. On Sept. 1 when rosters expand, by one pitcher, even if the Jays remain with six starters, the eight man ‘pen would be: RH Jordan Roman, RH Jordan Hicks, RH Eric Swanson, LH Tim Mayza, LH Genesis Cabrera, RH Yimi Garcia, RH Trevor Richards and whenever he clears protocol, RH Chad Green. That still leaves RH Jay Jackson, RH Bowden Francis or RH Nate Pearson as options.
Now if only the September batting order for the Jays could play up to their expectations and what those have been throughout their careers, then the Jays could focus ahead to the division instead of looking behind at the M’s Red Sox and Yankees.