Sunday, 14 September 2008

State of the rotation

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the State of the Bullpen, in which I took a look at who I believe should be in the bullpen for the 09 Jays. I'm not talking about who I expect to be in the pen, but rather, who I think would be best used in the 09 bullpen. I'm going to take a look at who I think should be in the 09 rotation - which is more complicated than it sounds.

I'm not going to waste too much time on Roy Halladay & Shaun Marcum - barring some late season or offseason injury, they're both likely to be the top two pitchers heading into 09. I wouldn't expect Halladay to be this good - as his 154 ERA+ is his third best since 2002. But there's no question he should remain one of the best starters in the AL, if not the majors. Marcum's shown that he can be an above average pitcher, and he should remain one as he gains more experience heading into 2009. The biggest question on Marcum would be his HR rate - is it possible for him to bring it down? He's allowed 21 HR's in 149 1/3 innings pitched, which is an improvement on his 07 season (27 HR's in 159 innings pitched). Still, in order for him to really take that leap to top of the rotation starter, he's going to need to cut down on the HR rates. Otherwise, he'll settle in as a mid rotation guy - and not that that's a bad thing.

Dustin McGowan is a pretty safe bet to have a spot - but the real question is going to be how healthy is he when he comes back. He's expected to be back by spring training, but it's anybody's guess as to how effective he is. Maybe he returns to being that dominant guy we've been waiting for to show up - but he could just as easily be the below average pitcher he was in 08 (98 ERA+). We really don't know, and I think a big part of how well the Jays do next year will depend on Dusty. If he exceeds expecations, and has a huge breakout season (ie sub 4 ERA), the Jays could be in line for a playoff spot. Of course, if he has trouble pitching effectively (due to the surgery or messed up mechanics), the rotation goes from being a strength to a liability.

Assuming McGowan is healthy, Litsch should be the #4 starter heading into 09. Litsch has been surprisingly dominant since his return from the minors - over his past 34 innings, he's won 3 games, has 18 strikeouts (4.7 K/9), and a 1.18 WHIP. Those are good numbers, yes, but the strikeout rate hasn't changed much overall for Litsch. Excluding these 34 innings, the Pre-Litsch strikeout rate was 4.6K/9. Since he's returned, it's 4.8K/9. Not a big improvement to be honest. The only thing I can think of is his groundball rate has improved.

I'll be honest - I'm not really a big fan of Litsch. I feel really nervous when he's pitching, and my gut tells me he's going to regress. I wish him the best, but I just can't shake the feeling he's going to post a 4+ ERA. He's exceeded my expectations this year with a 3.75 ERA, and a 1.28 WHIP, so I'll give him credit for that.

In the end, if Litsch is the fourth starter I think he'll provide us with quality innings, and keep us in the game. Which is all you can really ask. If he's our third starter heading into the season, I think we'll be in for a world of hurt.

Finally, this brings us to David Purcey. Like most young pitchers, Purcey has been very inconsistent. A big reason for that has been his lack of control. He's posting terrific strikeout numbers, and he's allowing less hits than innings pitched. That's always a good sign, but Purcey's lack of control is what's stopping him from being an average, if not above average lefty starter. In September he's walked 7 in 17 1/3 (3.5BB/9), and when you're allowing so many base runners to get on for free it's going to cost you. I think he'll be an adequate 5th starter heading into the year. He won't be as good as Litsch was for us, but really you just want your fifth starter to give you 5-6 innings while keeping you in the game.

What I like about using Purcey in the fifth spot over some veteran is that Purcey has a ton of upside. If later in the season he improves his control, then it'll be one of the factors that helps push the team towards the playoffs. Like McGowan, Purcey is going to be one of the keys to the rotation.

We've all been spoiled by the 2008 Jays rotation, which is second in the majors in ERA (at 3.77). It'll be next to impossible for the 09 rotation to be better than the 08, simply because AJ Burnett will be out of the rotation. What's interesting, however, is that out of all the starters who broke camp with the Jays (Doc, AJ, Marcum, McGowan, Litsch), AJ is the one with the worst ERA+ (102), and the worst ERA at 4.19 (minimum 140 innings pitched).

Obviously AJ is incredibly valuable to this rotation, and him leaving is going to make this team worse. I'm not suggesting that him leaving will make our rotation better because he was effectively our worst full time starter. But it's interesting that in what's his worst statistical year as a Jay, he's been given the most praise. Really, the only thing AJ improved on as a Jay was his innings pitched - but the quality of those innings aren't as high as in previous years.

With so many question marks in the rotation, losing a guy like AJ will hurt. Especially if McGowan isn't ready to start the year. Or even if McGowan/Purcey are ineffective - who can the Jays realistically expect to call up and improve the rotation? Current depth options are John Parrish (who may or may not re sign with the team) and Scott Richmond. I'd like to see Richmond get another chance, but I wouldn't want to count on him to take over for a struggling McGowan or Purcey for an extended period of time.

While it may seem like a minor issue, our starters are bound to be hurt, or be forced to miss games for a variety of reasons. Expecting Doc, Marcum, McGowan, Litsch & Purcey to throw 35 games each is setting yourself up for failure. So while it sounds like a small issue that the Jays 6th and 7th starters aren't very good, as we've seen over the past few years injuries happen and you need to be prepared for them. It'll be vital that JP or whoever is GM in the offseason find an adequate starter who they can stash in the minors in the event of an injury.

There's one option which I've neglected to bring up - I'm sure many of you are eager to see Brett Cecil come up and pitch in the majors. Unless I'm mistaken, however, Cecil only threw 118 2/3 innings this year. As a general rule, you try not to exceed a pitchers maxium innings by 30 per year, or else they find themselves having arm troubles (Gustavo Chacin would be a prime example). So to avoid injury to Cecil, I believe he cannot throw more than 148 innings next year. That means his innings need to be carefully monitored to avoid injuring him in the future. So in my opinion, it'd be wrong to call him up for an extended period of time, because it could put both his development and future at risk.

I want to see Cecil in a Jays uniform for a long time. And the sooner the better. But I don't want to see him pitching for the Jays until 2010, when his innings limit will be closer to 178 innings.

The big theme here is that the Jays 09 rotation is going to be dependent on how effective McGowan and Purcey are. If they both exceed our expectations, our rotation could improve on 2008. What's more likely to happen, however, is that Purcey remains inconsistent, McGowan comes back in May (or is inconsistent as well), and that Doc, Marcum & Litsch have to carry the bulk of the rotation.

As I'm going to address in the next issue, it's going to be up to the bats to make up for the loss of AJ and the inconsistencies of the rotation.

In the meantime though, let's just enjoy the fact the Jays have one of the best rotations in the game, and are doing their best to compete for a playoff spot. Because next year, we're going to miss the consistency (damnit, I've said consistency more times than Joe Morgan...) of the rotation.


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