Wednesday, 11 March 2015

What next?

There's a scene somewhere in Clint Eastwood's "Heartbreak Ridge" in which his character, Gunny Highway, tells the recruits under his command how a marine meets difficulty - "Improvise, Adapt, Overcome."

Apparently that's a motto that is worthy of a place in the Blue Jays clubhouse after today's emotionally devastating injury (and if you don't know what injury I mean, I'm uncertain why you are reading this blog). The loss of Marcus Stroman of course prompts a thousand writers to offer facts and opinions on how this will present a challenge to Blue Jays' management to address, but I'm going to take the position that the only practical reaction is to stay the course. We are told repeatedly that necks are in the noose if the team doesn't make the playoffs this year (an absurdity, BTW, more on that in another column coming up soon) and that sort of pressure might in theory lead to reactionary actions. I hope it does not. First of all, let me take a moment to put something on the record. For most of the winter the "Let's analyze just how awesome Marcus Stroman is" meme has dominated Jays' related commentary but there's another, less noticeable but still vibrant stream of discussion: Drew Hutchison might be pretty damned great too. Don't be surprised if Hutch turns out to be the big story of 2015. Now, about those openings.

It's well understood that the Jays were running a 3 way competition for the #5 spot, with other dark horse options lingering on the fringes. That's still true, though the dynamics of the situation have shifted.  Let's look more closely.

Aaron Sanchez - Barring a very surprising trade, the great shift starts here. Sanchez likely slots right into the 4th starter role right out of camp. This has bullpen implications, of course, and is not without risk, but ultimately, if not now, when? It was only ever the bullpen issue that prevented it being a virtual lock he'd be in the rotation in the first place. He will need careful nurturing by Martin and the risk of underperformance is significant, but he does enjoy the benefit of a best friend at his elbow to provide insight into the potential rookie pitfalls and how to avoid them.

Daniel Norris - on sheer ability, he'd be the favorite for the #5 spot and there's certainly no reason to be unhappy if he gets it. Like Sanchez, he'll require constant supervision but there's no better catcher in the game to serve as a tutor and perhaps no better rotation-mate mentor for him than Mark Buehrle (who'll also no doubt exercise that role for Sanchez as well). If you HAVE to break two rookies into the rotation at once, it's not possible to be better equipped to deal with it from a personnel perspective.

Marco Estrada - That said, no matter how well-equipped, it's simply not ideal to plug two rookies, even two this good, into a rotation at the same time.  It would be a better, or at least more stable, situation to let one get their feet under them for a couple of months. Estrada isn't a top-shelf talent the way the kids are but by no means is he chopped liver. The casual observer might be a bit panicky abut that - isn't he the guy who gave up tons of homers last year?  It's true he did give up 29 in 150 IP, BUT he gave up half of those in one five 33 day stretch covering seven starts. In that one very atypical period he gave up slightly more contact and a LOT more homers than he had previously. He corrected himself and had three nice starts leading into the ASB before being shifted to the bullpen for the rest of the season. Over that period his HR rate normalized to just what it had been before.

Oh. Before? Before that one awful month, he had started 53 games in 52 appearances over two plus calendar years. Here's what his stat line looks like for those 53 appearances:

309.2 IP, 273 H, 127 ER, 69 BB, 300 K, 46 HR, 3.69 ERA, 1.10 WHIP
- pro-rate that to 32 starts and -
186.0IP, 164 H,  76 ER, 41 BB, 180 K, 28 HR, 3.69 and 1.10

All of you would would not be ecstatic to get THAT out of your #5 starter (or #4 for that matter) are kindly invited to GTFO. So, as always assuming no untoward Spring developments, I'd be in favor of Estrada at least starting the season in the rotation unless it is judged by the staff that the bullpen simply can't stand the absence of both he and Sanchez. Meanwhile, Norris gets a chance to consolidate his gains in AAA and stands as a very nice first option when something else goes sideways.

Johann Santana - see my last previous post for my thoughts here, but in brief, if Santana looks like a real contributor, then either of Sanchez or Estrada (depending on performance and need) can be shifted to the 'pen to make way for Santana for ever how long he can hold it together and provide value.

Todd Redmond - Don't laugh. Discounting his last start of the season, Redmond stepped into the 2013 rotation as an emergency replacement and reeled off 13 starts with a 3.80 ERA, a 1.18 WHIP and slightly more than 1 K per IP. He's not the guy I'd be certain of over a full season, but as a guy who could serve to give Norris some time in AAA, you could do a lot worse.

Liam Hendricks - Kicks ass in AAA, including an outstandingly low walk rate, gives up too much contact in the majors. He's still only 26 and you have to think that there may be something there yet to unlock (another thing where fresh eyes -Martin's - may help?) but he has to be considered a very dark horse.

Juan Oramas - Here's your sleeper. The lefty did fine work through the Padres system, and not pitching to younger kids or any such caveat, until he got to AAA. The notoriously-hard-on-pitchers PCL had their way with him and Alex grabbed him on a waiver claim over the winter.  It's not practical to suggest he could beat out Norris for a rotation spot, but in terms of the depth chart, he's perfectly viable and may well generate some nice buzz in Buffalo. He'll still be 24 on Opening Day.

Andrew Albers - Imagine of one of those guys the Jays picked up as an Org guy, say Casey Lawrence or Scott Copeland, reached the majors at a "too old to be a prospect" date and proceeded to pitch well anyway? That's Andrew Albers.  He was plucked out of Indy ball by the Twins after having disappeared from the associated minor leagues for two years and moved up their ladder always being "too old for the level" to be considered a prospect. In 2013 he pitched well as a 27 year old at AAA and found himself recalled by the parent club. He started 10 games, respectably, and then was allowed to sign with a Korean team for 2014. There's no denying that if a contender has to resort to Albers for very long, it's a good sign things have gone very very wrong. But you might see him get a tiny bit of buzz at some point (I think Wilner is fond of him).

Chad Jenkins - Another unexpected and, as far as I know, unmentioned by others, possibility. He's a smoke & mirrors guy who's in relief for a reason, but he does have starting xperience and I'd as soon trust him with the job as, say, Jeff Francis.

Ricky Romero - Hell, if I can mention Jenkins why can't i mention the ever so tiny possibility that RickyRo somehow remembers who he is? If Scott Kazmir can do it . . . don't tell me you wouldn't love a good feel-good redemption story on the way to October, we both know you'd be lying.

So, there ya go, 10 names deep. Not 10 GOOD names (who as that, exactly?) but at least a cheat sheet on the possibilities.

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