On Friday afternoon, the Toronto Blue Jays made yet another move to bolster their starting rotation with the signing of left-hander J.A. Happ. The contract is a three-year deal worth $36 million with a $10 million salary for 2016 and $13 million salaries in 2017 and 2018. This signing followed the trade of Liam Hendriks for Jesse Chavez last Friday as well as the re-signing of Marco Estrada two weeks ago to a two-year deal worth $26 million. As it currently stands, the Blue Jays lost Mark Buehrle this offseason, but brought back Estrada as well as acquired Chavez and signed Happ.
All these acquisitions and re-signings by the Blue Jays beg the question: Is the Blue Jays pitching staff good enough without David Price? As it currently stands the Jays have Happ, Estrada, and Chavez, joining returning Blue Jays R.A. Dickey, Drew Hutchison, and the likely ace Marcus Stroman. Following a playoff exit just short of the World Series, is this pitching staff as currently constituted enough to get the Jays a World Series in 2016?
At this point, it appears the staff is not good enough for a variety of reasons.
With Price not on the roster, Marcus Stroman slots in as the ace of the staff. While Stroman was good down the stretch and in the playoffs for the Jays last season, he has still only started 24 games at the big league level over his first two seasons. Stroman is still only 24 years old, and making him the ace of the staff may be asking too much, too soon, especially after the serious injury he suffered in 2015 that caused him to miss most of the season.
Beyond Stroman, the Jays have R.A. Dickey who has been one of the best innings eaters in baseball over the last several seasons. Dickey has pitched over 200 innings in all three seasons with the Jays, and has finished each season with an ERA at or around 4.00. At this point, Dickey is more of a number-three starter than a number-two starter, but he does provide the Jays with relatively consistent performance. Dickey’s knuckler has never fluttered quite as effectively at the Rogers Centre.
The next guy on the staff is a guy the Jays are taking a little bit of risk with. Marco Estrada is coming off the best year of his career, one in which he finished the season with an ERA of 3.13. After bouncing around and battling inconsistency with several teams for the first seven seasons of his career, Estrada finally had a breakout season. Based on his career best performance in 2015, the Jays inked Estrada to a two-year contract worth $26 million. This is a risky proposition for a pitcher who has never been more than a three or four starter throughout his career. The FIP numbers would also indicate that Estrada was pitching over his head in 2015, but there are plenty of pitchers who repeatedly defy their FIP with an ability to change speeds effectively. Estrada could turn into a serial FIP beater.
The last returning Jay who could potentially earn a rotation spot is Drew Hutchison. Hutchison finished the season with an ERA of 5.57, and was pretty much nonexistent for the Jays down the stretch and into the playoffs last season. The right-hander definitely has the chance to bounce back next season, but the Jays cannot bank on him being a contributing member of the rotation in 2016. Another name to keep an eye on is Aaron Sanchez who could start if the Blue Jays decide to give him another shot at the rotation. Sanchez was successful out of the bullpen after flaming out as a starter, so there is a chance Toronto continues on with what worked.
Finally, the Jays added Jesse Chavez through a trade and J.A. Happ through free agency. The trade for Chavez was a bit of a head scratcher, with the Jays giving up Liam Hendriks, who had a strong 2015 season, for a pitcher who had an ERA over 4.00 last season and a best season of a 3.45 ERA in 2014. Chavez is a respectable mid-to-back end of the rotation pitcher, but the Jays already have a lot of those. Happ on the other hand struggled through much of his career before seeing a career resurgence in the second half of the 2015 season with the Pirates. It could be that the Pirates were able to “fix” Happ, but it remains to be seen whether Happ can keep up that performance in the long term. If he cannot, $36 million is a big price to pay for another middling starter. Happ spent three seasons with the Blue Jays and went 19-20 with a 4.39 ERA.
As it currently stands the Jays have one possible future ace who is more likely a number-two starter at this time in Marcus Stroman, as well as four or five middling-to-back end rotation members. The Jays really have one number-two starter, perhaps two number-three starters, and two to three four or five starters. The Jays have a bit more depth than they did a couple of weeks ago, but they aren’t inherently better either. The Jays have so far spent $62 million in salary commitments over the next three seasons and have also lost a player who wasn’t a free agent until 2020 and have gained a player who is a free agent after this season.
It remains to be seen whether the Jays can actually re-sign David Price, but it seems like the new front office, led by Mark Shapiro, has already taken quite a step back. It stands to reason that at least some of the $62 million going to Happ and Estrada could have gone to Price or perhaps some other free-agent pitchers instead of to two pitchers who both come with some question marks and a lot of risk. With the rotation as currently constituted, the Jays need to make the effort to sign Price, whether the money is truly there or not.
Up to this point in the offseason, Blue Jays fans are puzzled over what their front office is doing and what the plan is for 2016. This Blue Jays rotation isn’t any more than incrementally better than what started last year at best, and obviously worse without Price in it. The offense will still be a juggernaut as always, but it is hard to say the Jays are in a better spot for next season than they were two weeks ago. Prior to the trades at the deadline, the Blue Jays were a fringe .500 team. There is still a lot of time left in the offseason for the Jays to make more moves, and it appears they need to continue working on their rotation.