Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Rosterbation: part the Second

Following up on last weeks post, here's my take (pre-potential-acquisitions) on the pitching.

I had planed to make this two separate posts but we all know there's only role in the starting staff to discuss, and that's the "fifth" starter job so I won't waste space on the established four. There are a number of nominal candidates for the job but they fall in two distinct tiers:

top tier:
Shawn Hill, Marc Rzepczyinski, Kyle Drabek, Zach Stewart
second tier:
Brad Mills, Jesse Litsch, Scott Richmond, Bobby Ray
(albeit, some might quibble with Hill making the top tier and Richmond not)

Taking the second group first: I'm assuming the Litsch will be hampered enough by his health to take away whatever shot he had at overcoming the more talented group; Richmond's absence from Toronto in September suggests he's fallen down the depth chart (and his splits suggest he might better find his role in relief if he remains in the organization); it seems clear Ray is destined for the 'pen and that's been an assumption for a while; that leaves Mills who might be left standing if spring broke in his favor but seems likely to either be part of a trade or be positioned to earn his stripes by proving himself out of the bullpen. Some think he might be a reasonable (and much cheaper) facsimile of what Tallet gave the Jays (prior to 2010).

In the top tier, my first assumption is that Stewart simply needs to build up his endurance more. He's a candidate here only in the sense that he is very good and if others were hurt or take a step back, he has the talent to force his way up the chart. But ideally, he ought to go to AAA and just build up his IP total. Zep is the hardest call because he has shown enough talent that he could come into camp and simply force his way into the role but he could also play a significant role in relief (it's not insane to think they might let him close if no closer is imported). Of the four, he's the most likely guy to break camp in the major league 'pen and that inadvertently lessens his chances to be the fifth starter.

The two main candidates are Drabek and Hill. Ultimately, barring injury or some remarkable circumstance, Drabek is going to be the guy in this job - but even though he has the ability to break camp here, the Jays may easily conclude that they are not bound to force that situation because of Hill. The casual fan might not remember just how well regarded Hill was before the series of injuries which kept him from maximizing his results. Rehabbing and recovering through the Jays' system this year, he seemed to still have considerable ability (although one always has to temper their enthusiasm when a recuperating major leaguer dominates kids 5 years or more younger than he). If Hill comes to Spring Training with the skills that once had scouts enthusiastic about him, the team would have the luxury of going a bit slower with Drabek.

I could easily envision a situation where Drabek, even off a strong spring, would get a short stint in AAA while Hill filled in the major league rotation long enough to build up some trade value (assuming no one is injured, of course). At the extreme, Drabek might spend the whole first half in the minors. Of course, Hill does have a fragile track record, and injuries in general are a fact of life. And it's possible that the team feels that there is more value in Drabek breaking camp in the majors than there is in any alternative which prevents it.

For the sake of future discussions about the makeup of the bullpen and the minor league teams, I'm going to go with the ASSUMPTION that Hill is in the first position, and that barring injury he'll open the season there and the other pitchers will begin in other places.

Turning to the bullpen, one has to first acknowledge the three potential free agents. Scott Downs is clearly gone. If the Jays forgo the associated draft pics and break the bank to re-sign Downs, then everything I'm about to say here is pretty much void. Jason Frasor is essentially gone. An argument can be made that Frasor's type A status will lead him to accept arbitration, and while that can't be ruled out, it actually just makes it likely that Frasor will sign on with a team that's already spent their first round pick on some other Type A free agent (for instance, the Angels sign Crawford, then sign Frasor) or even by a team with a protected pick. It's his one chance to cash in and accepting arbitration would seem to be a last-resort.

Kevin Gregg is a more complex issue because of the options the Jays hold on him. My guess is that a survey of available options and the needs around the league will prompt Anthopoulos to let him walk. There's a decent possibility that the Jays could sign an outside the organization closer (more material for a future blog) but I'm going to approach this question as if we are stuck with internal options.

the candidates, then, for the Blue Jays bullpen in 2011 are as follows:

LHP: David Purcey, Jesse Carlson, Brian Tallet, Marc Rzepczyinski, Brad Mills, Rommie Lewis
RHP: Shawn Camp, Casey Janssen, Josh Roenicke, Taylor Buchholz, Jeremy Accardo, Scott Richmond, Bobby Ray, Dirk Hayhurst
(there's some possibility that a AA reliever could jump to the majors but for now we'll lay that aside)

Let's acknowledge up front - Jeremy Accardo will, barring a surprising deal, almost certainly be non-tendered and one has to assume a similar fate for Brian Tallet. Laying those aside leaves 12 candidates for seven roles. the major question of course being who will close.

I'd assume the closer candidates are Purcey (based on pedigree), Camp (based on effectiveness), Roenicke (based on scouting reports of "stuff") and possibly Buchholz as a dark horse. There's a nonzero chance that they might surprise us and give Zep a chance at that role too, but there's been not so much as a whisper about it from the press. I would add to this conversation the observation that before his injury, Casey Janssen finished 21 games, collected 6 saves and had a very low ERA. His supporting stats were much better this year than they were in 2007, and it's not inconceivable he could be a candidate as well - it's at least as realistic as Camp getting the job.

By the way, Stewart has been described as able to close in the majors right now but the Jays have shown no sign of wavering from developing him as a starter (the previously mentioned Bob Elliot report has been denied).

There really is no way to guess who would win out there but I'm going to suggest that just being a closer candidate is a good sign you make the team at least. For simplicity of discussion, I'm going to call the presumptive closer as Purcey based on nothing but his first-round history. You shouldn't assume that's a product of serious analysis.

So if Purcey is in Gregg's role, who's in Downs and Frasor's? I'm going to just go ahead and state flatly that Janssen can give you everything Frasor can. I don't think that question is even a worry. Downs is a much tougher question. Carlson was as good as Downs' typical work in his rookie year, but hasn't been since. He MIGHT regain that form but you shouldn't assume so. Zep might be very good as a set-up lefty, as might Mills but again, we're dealing in the unknown here.

Camp, of course, can't really be asked for any more than he did - if he simply maintains that's enough. If you get more that is a bonus. The pressure is perhaps greater on Josh Roenicke than anyone else. the Jays need him to step up and exhibit the control in the majors that he featured in AAA. One would have to assume there's something mental going on here, as his control was good enough coming up through the minors that it shouldn't be this big an issue now.

The other wild card is Buchholz. In 2008, while pitching for the Rockies, Buchholz was VERY good. He'd been a starter in the minors (well regarded enough to be the #50 prospect in the country according to Baseball America prior to the 2004 season). He'll be far enough removed from TJ surgery by the spring that he should be able to see if he can refine his control back to previous levels. It's almost impossible to say what, exactly, the Jays might get from Buchholz but unless they import morethan one FA reliever, you have to like his chances of making important contributions.

So here's my gut feeling about how that group of 12 shakes out at the beginning of ST:

Closer - Purcey (initially, at least)
Set up - Camp, Roenicke and Carlson (Carlson being on a fairly short leash)
Middle - Janssen, Buchholz and Zep
Long - Mills or Richmond or Ray
Fringe guys - Hayhurst, Lewis

But this is the most fluid group on the team. there's not that much that separates the best guy in this group from the worst(aside from the fringe guys). I wouldn't be shocked if any one of six different guys there broke camp as the closer.

I also wouldn't be shocked if the Jays imported a potential closer and someone for Downs' LH set up role, via trade or free agency. But that's for another day.

One final point: Cito Gaston, and others I'm sure, have (or would) argued that the Jays MUST sign or tradefor more veteran relievers rather than face the future with these guys. I've already ranted about that idea and won't repeat myself here except to say that if the jays are to assume any of these guys have a role to play in their future, 2011 is THE year to put them out there and let them grow into the sort of pitcher who can fill those important roles. Take a guy like Roenicke. If you look at his stuff and think "this guy can be an important pitcher for us when we are contending" then you HAVE to let him learn and grow "in the fire" at some point, and 2011 is that point. Same for several other of these guys. If 2011 were a year when we were pulling out the stops to contend, then yeah, spend some money here. But it's not. So lets grow the pen like we grew the rotation in 2010.

(Note: I've not forgotten McGowan, I simply assume he can't come to camp and do well enough to break camp with the team, even if healthy)

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