How important is Marco Estrada to the Blue Jays?

Entering the 2015 season, Marco Estrada had a 23-26 career record with a 4.22 ERA. In 2014, he led the league with 29 home runs allowed despite starting only 18 games. Even with an underwhelming fastball, the former sixth-round pick showed signs of having the potential to be a more than passable Major League starter. Estrada pitched to a 3.35 FIP in 2012 while striking out more than a batter per inning and walking fewer than two per nine. He’s always done a good job limiting hits as evidenced by a career .233 BAA. The right-hander from Mexico had just never really been given a chance to showcase his abilities over a full season. It’s hard to trust a somewhat homer prone starter with a fastball that barely averages 90 MPH.

Somewhat out of necessity, the Toronto Blue Jays were willing to allow Estrada a full season in the starting rotation this year. The move paid off in a big way. Estrada posted a career-low 3.13 ERA and led the league in hits per nine at 6.7. Mostly pitching to contact, Estrada kept hitters off balance all year with one of, if not the, best changeups in the league. He came close to a perfect game against the Tampa Bay Rays, took a no-hitter deep into a start against the Baltimore Orioles, and allowed only five earned runs in 19.1 postseason innings. Estrada, not David Price, was the best starting pitcher for the Blue Jays in the postseason.

Every pitch was working for Estrada this season. He changed speeds effectively, filled up the strike zone, and generally baffled hitters. Only hit cutter was hit hard with regularity this year, but he did not throw it very often. After kicking around the minor leagues and not really getting a chance to start in the big leagues until age 28, Estrada has set himself up nicely for a raise entering his first real shot at cashing in on free agency. Estrada came to the Blue Jays on a one-year, $3.9 MM deal last winter after throwing only 150.2 innings in 2014 for the Milwaukee Brewers. He should at least double that salary after this season’s strong effort.

With David Price entering free agency as well, and likely to command a $200 MM deal, the Blue Jays need Estrada back in a big way. Mark Buehrle‘s future is still up in the air, but he has been waffling over retirement for several years. This year really seems like the end for the workhorse veteran. Marcus Stroman is a stud, and somehow returned from a serious knee injury in less than a year. Stroman is going to be an ace. Beyond Stroman, the rotation is very shaky. Drew Hutchison does just enough to win when the Blue Jays bats go off. Aaron Sanchez was shaky as a starter, but pitched well in the bullpen. The remainder of the top pitching prospects were traded for the stars that helped launch the Blue Jays to the playoffs this year.

Price has to be the top target for the Blue Jays this winter. If a deal can be worked out for him, great. Estrada has to be the second highest priority for Mark Shapiro and whoever he hires to be his new GM. Estrada may not duplicate his 3.13 ERA season in 2016 and beyond, but there are no red flags that would indicate that he will regress into a 4.50 ERA pitcher. With a powerful lineup backing him, Estrada flourished, pitched to contact, and kept the Blue Jays in every game. That’s all the team needs out of their third starter. It took some time, but Marco Estrada proved this year that a crafty right-hander has a place in the rotation of a playoff contender.

Though it would have been impossible to envision, Marco Estrada is an extremely important part of keeping the playoff machine up and running in Toronto. There will be plenty of teams pursuing Estrada this winter, but the Blue Jays need to make sure they come out on top once the bidding heats up.

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