So how do the 2015 Blue Jays compare to last year’s squad? The rotation

* Editor’s note: Well 2015 is off to a roaring start. Was basically completely finished this, saved a draft and apparently it didn’t actually save. So as a result I’m gonna break what was originally one big post in to a few smaller posts.*

Been a while, eh?

A crazy couple months at work left me without much opportunity to think or write about the Jays, though apparently I didn’t miss much. After blowing out of the gates with the signing of Russell Martin and the trades for Josh Donaldson and Michael Saunders, the team has been quite quiet these past few weeks. And it’s rather frustrating for many of Toronto’s fan base who got excited when the team made substantial improvements early but have left the team’s main weak points from 2014 – second base and the bullpen – unsolved.

With more or more names on the free agency board being scratched off, it’s becoming increasingly likely the team will be heading into the new season without significant improvements at either position. And with that realization the popular “cheap Rogers” remarks have kicked back into gear.

But at the end of the day improvements are improvements, there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and all that stuff. So, with what we have now, are the 2015 Jays better, the same, or worse than the team that suited up last year?

The Rotation

Steamer projections for the five that will likely make up Toronto's rotation to start 2015. From Fangraphs.

Steamer projections for the five that will likely make up Toronto’s rotation to start 2015. From Fangraphs.

On the whole, last year’s starting pitching wasn’t very good. By ERA, FIP, xFIP and SIERA they were all in the bottom third in baseball. However, three significant things happened: Marcus Stroman, Drew Hutchison and Aaron Sanchez.

Stroman arrived in May and when put in the rotation he ran with it. As a starter he pitched to a 3.29 ERA in a shade over 120 innings, holding opponents to a .274 wOBA and recording a .279 FIP.

His work, along with the work of RA Dickey, who was actually quite strong after a weak April, helped bolster a second half surge of sorts. From the all star game until the end of the season the team’s starters were in the upper-middle rankings as far as FIP, xFIP and SIERA go.

I wrote about Drew Hutchison earlier this offseason, and how his performance was likely better than many of his stats suggest.

Finally, top prospect Aaron Sanchez made his Major League debut last year. And while he pitched out of the bullpen, he showed some tantalizing potential. In 33 innings he threw to a 1.09 ERA, 2.80 FIP and 3.00 xFIP. There are still questions surrounding his ability to perform as a starter, namely his control and secondary pitches. Also, despite great stuff Sanchez has never shown big time strikeout ability.

However, as it looks now, Sanchez will simply be taking over for JA Happ, who was shipped to Seattle in the trade for left fielder Michael Saunders. Happ become somewhat of a fan favourite last year. But I think people overestimate who he is as a pitcher. True, he’d be a solid back of the rotation start on any club. And he has managed to shave down his ERA each of the past three seasons while seeing a continual increase in velocity.

But he’s 32 years old and is coming off a 4.22 ERA season, which was his best since he severely out-pitched his peripherals in 2009 with the Phillies.

I’d argue that Sanchez’ floor is probably not much worse than what the expectations for Happ would be.

Beyond the projected starting five the team also has Daniel Norris, another top prospect, waiting in the wings. Marco Estrada could also slot in as a rotation piece, but I have the feeling the team wants him in the bullpen, where he excelled  with the Brewers in 2014 after a mid-season move from the rotation.

I’m quite happy with the rotation as constituted. At worse I’d say they produce roughly what they did in the second half of last year, which is to say, quite meh. If any or all of Stroman, Sanchez and Hutchison – Heck, Norris could also be included – take a step forward then the rotation could actually be a strength.

However, Toronto can push for a playoff spot if the starters simply managed to not be a weakness. If this team is going to be successful, then it’s going to need its offence to excel. The rotation just has to be good enough.

If there is a weakness among the starters, it’s the depth. Should a couple pitchers go down with injury or ineffectiveness the Jays are going to have problems. As is, the team is likely to rely on a few of its young pitchers to perform quite well and are probably more reliant on those young guys than the team would like. Beyond Norris and Estrada the cupboards are bare. Prospects like Miguel Castro, Robert Osuna, Jeff Hoffman and Sean Reid-Foley could take big steps forward and become legitimate options, but that’s something you shouldn’t bank on.

There have been some whispers here and there about the Jays going after one of the bigger name free agents or trade options. While many would probably laugh at me, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Jays do get in on James Shields or Max Scherzer. That would give them a legitimate top of the rotation starter, while pushing everyone else down and creating more depth.

I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one, though. What might be more likely is the team makes a few minor league signings with invites to spring training, allowing them to possibly put Sanchez back in the bullpen to address issues there, or have him and Norris both start in AAA.

The Verdict

With a rotation that’s likely to be unchanged one through four I’d say it’s fair to at the very least assume they’ll perform as well as last year, putting them in the top 20 range, and they’re more likely to perform like they did in the second half, which would put them in the top 12-17 area.

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