While not the official midway point through the season, the allstar break certainly serves as the unofficial midway point in the long, 162-game season that is major league baseball. I thought it would be fitting to take advantage of the allstar break to prepare a report card of sorts and break down the different aspects of the Blue Jays organization. This is part one of the series: The Starting Rotation.
Going into Spring Training, the rotation was much discussed as one of the strongest in baseball – on paper. Leading the pack was last year’s NL Cy Young award winner, knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. Dickey only seemed to get better in his first three seasons in the show as a knuckler and there was no reason to doubt the trend wouldn’t continue. To follow Dickey, the Jays had Brandon Morrow – a hard throwing righty soaring with potential. In 2012 he ended the season with a sub-3.00 ERA and was thought to be a dark horse for the AL Cy Young in 2013 if he was able to stay healthy and throw at least 200 innings. Then we have the ever-consistent, Mark Buehrle. With a decade of at least 10 wins and 200 innings, the Jays knew what they were getting. The number 4 on the squad – likely a number 1 or 2 in most rotations – Josh Johnson. And in a contract year. Many felt Johnson might just end 2013 with the best numbers in this rotation – even with all the depth. At number 5 to round things out, the Jays were going to turn to its opening day starter the previous two seasons – Ricky Romero. Sure, the lefty struggled mightily for 3/4 of the 2012 season, but prior to that he had gotten better every year, pitched to a sub-3.00 ERA in 2011, and had great success in the AL East. J.A. Happ was the insurance policy. Happ? An insurance policy? He could be a number 4 on most teams! The rotation was a lock to carry the load and limit the innings of a perceived weak bullpen.
Fast forward to present: The 6 starters above have a total of just 18 wins in the first 94 games. The team has just 45 total wins (meaning 27 wins have come from pitchers outside the ‘group of 6’) and the team ERA ranks 10th of 15 in the AL at 4.22. Take away the bullpen ERA, you ask? The Jays starters has pitched to a whopping 5.07 ERA – 29th of 30 teams in the MLB. Only the lowly Twins are worse. So what the hell happened? What went so horribly wrong? Well, injuries for one thing. The Jays have already used 13 different starters this year. No team in the MLB has that sort of starting depth. But also the guys that haven’t hit the DL haven’t pitched up to par. Let’s take a look at each of the 13 starters for the team and evaluate.
R.A. Dickey (128.2 IP, 8-10 record, 4.69 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 93 K’s) – Dickey struggled out of the gate and has been inconsistent all year long. He’s early struggles were blamed on a minor injury he was pitching through. He had tightness in his back and neck which caused a drop in velocity and therefore a loss of control. For instance, last season Dickey issued 54 walks. This year he has already issued 47. Because he lacked velocity, he was forced to abandon his vintage 78 – 82 mph knuckler and focus on a 68 – 71 mph variety (just a tad harder than Tim Wakefield threw). The slower knuckler and lack of control mean two things – 1) when Dickey gets behind in the count, he turns to a low-80s fastball that pretty much looks like batting practice if a batter is ready for it, and 2) while a slower knuckler is harder to control because it has more break (which leads to hitters counts where hitters look for bp fastballs), when it does flatten out it’s much easier to crush. Dickey gave up 24 homers last year. This year? 20 already. With the back and neck issues behind him, Dickey has been pitching better, albeit still inconsistent, of late. In his last 10 starts, he has allowed 36 earned runs of which 31 came in 5 starts. It seems like he has been awesome or awful with no middle ground. I find it hard to believe that the 616.2 innings Dickey threw in the prior 3 seasons were a fluke. With the minor injuries behind him and his velocity back, I look for him to have a solid second half and dominate with the best of them.
Mark Buehrle (116.0 IP, 5-6 record, 4.89 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 77 K’s) – Buehrle was absolutely awful in April and it has severely skewed his overall numbers. Over his last 10 games, he has pitched to a respectable 3.63 ERA – this includes a 8 earned runs outing in his final start before the break. Buehrle’s trouble this year has been avoiding the longball. He’s actually on pace to give up close to his average in homers per season and HR/9, but this season it seems like he’s either giving up 3 per game or none at all. Look for Buehrle’s home run numbers to even out a bit in the second half and for him to continue his decade long streak of at least 10 wins and 200 innings.
Esmil Rogers (71.2 IP, 3-4 record, 3.64 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 49 K’s) – While Rogers started the season in the bullpen and only came into the rotation due to injuries (his performance in the ‘pen certainly didn’t warrant a look as a starter), he looks very comfortable in the rotation with a new-found sinker. His secondary stuff is probably below average, but he has the ability to throw his curveball for strikes which has been keeping hitters off balance. When his sinker is on, he has looked nearly untouchable. Where he can get into trouble is when he opens his front shoulder early in his delivery which causes his throwing arm to drag – which causes his sinker to flatten out. If he can learn to more consistently repeat his delivery, he should have no problem maintain a rotation spot when both Happ and Morrow return from the DL. His sinker is that good.
J.A. Happ (33.0 IP, 2-2 record, 4.91 ERA, 1.55 WHIP, 26 K’s) – Happ’s season has included a lengthy DL stint thanks to a frightening ball to the head and a sprained knee during his fall to the ground. Prior to the injuries, Happ pitched 7 games and gave the Jays pretty much what you would expect. When Happ attacks hitters and keeps his pitch count down, he is tough to beat. His issue is when he gets behind and tries to nibble the corners of the plate too much. When behind he either ends up throwing down the middle (which leads to hits) or pitching around certain batters (which leads to walks). A 1.55 WHIP is too high for a starter hoping to have success and higher than his career 1.40 mark, but it was only 7 games and a small sample size. I like Happ as a number 4 or 5 guy in a rotation and I’m happy that liner off his head didn’t result in a more serious injury. Happ is scheduled to be back early August and, at the moment, looks to replace Todd Redmond in the rotation.
Brandon Morrow (54.1 IP, 2-3 record, 5.63 ERA, 1.49 WHIP, 42 K’s) – Morrow’s season has been a complete bust thus far and once again the high-potential righty finds himself on the DL. After posting a career-best 2.96 ERA in 21 starts last season, Morrow – for some crazy reason – decided to change what he was doing and develop a cutter. He started using it in Spring Training and made only 10 starts before hitting the DL with right forearm soreness. This is one of the biggest “if it ain’t broke, then go out and change everything” moments that becomes a complete head scratcher for fans and scouts alike. Morrow also almost completely abandoned his curveball, which was such a huge change-of-pace pitch for him a year ago and perfectly complimented his hard fastball and slider. Fans can only hope that Morrow can finish his forgettable season strong – he’s due back mid-August from the DL barring any further setbacks. Hopefully when Morrow returns, he’s read this paragraph, dropped the cutter, and focuses on the deadly fastball, slider, curveball combination that made him so great last season (when healthy).
Chad Jenkins (15.0 IP, 1-0 record, 3.60 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, 6 K’s) – Jenkins did the job filling in the rotation for 3 starts after only throwing 5 innings in double-A prior to his call-up. The sinker specialist is always going to give up hits, but he’s also likely to get double-play ground balls when he’s going well. I know his 3 starts were just a very small sample size and I understand that he has struggled since his demotion to triple-A and the fact that he projects to be a longman/spot starter with his stuff, but for a rotation seeking to fill holes having cycled through its vast handful of pitchers already this year, it’s makes a fan wonder why Jenkins was ever sent down after only 3 starts in the first place.
Josh Johnson (66.1 IP, 1-5 record, 5.16 ERA, 1.49 WHIP, 67 K’s) – Arguably the biggest disappointment on the entire Jays roster this season, Johnson hasn’t lived up to the “ace contract-year” hype. Call me crazy, but I’d be looking to extend Johnson on a one-year deal with a club option right now. He’s too good of pitcher with too good of stuff to continue going this poorly. His value is arguably at a career low in a free-agent year. Johnson could be well served to sign a one year deal and try and improve his market value for 2015/16. If the Jays really believe they have a window to compete through the 2015 season, they should be trying to buy low on Johnson now. He has almost no trade value as a 2-month rental pitcher with the way he’s pitched this season. For a guy who has thrown more strikeouts than had hits allowed in his career and boasts a career 3.29 ERA, the Jays should try and lock this down. What’s one more year with a club option? If he still stinks next season, the Jays can dump him for nothing at next year’s deadline – because they aren’t going to get anything for him this year and I think he’ll shine in the second half.
Ramon Ortiz (25.1 IP, 1-2 record, 6.04 ERA, 1.78 WHIP, 8 K’s) – Everyone loves a feel-good story and for 2 starts this season, the Jays had one with 40-year-old comeback pitcher, Ortiz. Then reality set in. There is a reason he has bounced between the MLB and triple-A for the last 5 seasons – he just isn’t that great anymore. After 2 solid starts for the injury-ridden rotation, fans were calling it a great comeback. Then fans were quickly reminded that pitchers rarely, if ever, get better beyond their late 30s. Ortiz will always have a soft spot in my heart, though. When he shredded his elbow and winced in pain on the mound before throwing his glove in the dirt in disgust and beginning to cry, it was the first time in my life I witnessed a player recognize that, due to injury, he had just thrown his last major-league pitch. I’ll never forget that moment and the emotion I saw in his face. He is a warrior. Unfortunately, he’s not much of a pitcher at the MLB level anymore.
Todd Redmond (16.2 IP, 1-1 record, 4.32 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 14 K’s) – Redmond has pitched well in his 2 starts for the Jays (he also made 3 relief appearances). His sub-1.00 WHIP is very impressive and his ability to reach back for a big strikeout when needed has helped him out of some jams. But before anyone gets too excited, I’ll remind everyone that there is a reason Redmond was pitching in triple-A. There is a reason that his triple-A ERA is above 5.00 this season. There is a reason he has been a career minor leaguer. Redmond just isn’t that great. Although he has impressed in this very small sample size, the reality is that late-bloomers are rare and I highly doubt Redmond is one of them. Hopefully he can continue to hold his own until Happ makes his return in early August. If not, perhaps we give Jenkins or Chien-Ming Wang another go.
Chien-Ming Wang (24.0 IP, 1-1 record, 7.13 ERA, 1.83 WHIP, 11 K’s) – Wang, a fantastic low-risk signing by the Jays, pitched extremely well in his first 3 starts and extremely poorly in his last 2 before being demoted to triple-A. The former Yankee allstar and multiple 19-game winner has had arm issues that derailed his career. Through his first 3 games with the Jays, Wang pitched into the 7th inning each game to the tune of a 2.61 ERA. Then in his next 2 starts he couldn’t get through the 2nd inning and allowed 13 earned runs in 3.1 innings – sending his ERA to 7.13. Yet, I think the Jays were too quick to demote Wang. Granted that Redmond has pitched well in his two starts, but I still feel Wang gives the team a better chance to win. The 2 blowouts were vs. the Red Sox and the Tigers – 2 teams that have offences capable of sending any starter to the showers early. Since his demotion, Wang is 1-1 with a 2.08 ERA in 13 innings. I really like him as a back-of-the-rotation or depth pitcher. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him back with the team at some point this season if there are further injuries to the rotation.
Aaron Laffey (2.2 IP, 0-0 record, 6.75 ERA, 2.63 WHIP, 0 K’s) – Last season, Laffey stepped into the injury-plaqued rotation and did a decent job. This season the Jays picked him up off waivers hoping for more of the same. After one start where Laffey issued 5 walks and couldn’t get out of the 3rd inning, the Jays demoted and subsequently released him. Laffey hasn’t pitched another game in the majors since. Why he wouldn’t accept his minor-league assignment with the Jays organization is a bit of a head scratcher.
Sean Nolin (1.1 IP, 0-1 record, 40.50 ERA, 6.00 WHIP, 0 K’s) – I really hate when a club calls up a young kid, he has a bad first start in his major-league debut when he’s full of nerves, and then he is immediately sent back to the minors. That’s exactly what happened to Nolin and it’s a shame. Although he got hit around in his debut, he showed good stuff and continued to throw strikes. I would have liked to see him get at least 3 starts before sending him back down. Especially with so many rotation holes due to injuries. For what it’s worth, Nolin has gone 6-2 with a 2.09 ERA and more than a strikeout per inning in double-A this year – I think the kid is ready for the next step.
Ricky Romero (4.1 IP, 0-2 record, 12.46 ERA, 2.77 WHIP, 4 K’s) – Oh how the mighty have fallen…. Romero continues to work in triple-A after being called up too early by the Jays hoping he was ready to get back to the show. After being the opening day starter the previous two seasons and slated to be the number 5 going into 2013, Romero was cut towards the end of Spring Training and was told to re-work his mechanics with the goal of gaining better command of the strike zone. Fast forward and Romero a 2-3 record, a 5.56 ERA, and nearly a 1:1 BB/K ratio in triple-A. With an un-tradeable contract and limited signs of finding his former self, Romero’s fall from grace is absolutely mind blogging. The Jays are stuck with him so they might as well be patient and hope (and pray) that he can work through his control issues. Oh… and he has since abandoned the new mechanics in favour of the old ones since the new ones did nothing for him. I wish the best for Romero, but I’m not holding my breath.
So what does the rotation need to do to turn things around? They need to get and stay healthy and pitch to potential. That’s all. Easier said then done? Yes. Possible for the second half? Very.
Hope you enjoyed part one in the mid-season series. Stay tuned for more….
Right-hander Brandon Morrow will take another step forward in his rehabilitation by throwing a side session on Friday, but it seems unlikely that he will be able to return before the middle of August.
Here’s a quick peak at where a couple of our starters sit with respects to their rehab assignments:
Brandon Morrow – He hit the DL on May 28th with soreness in his right forearm and failed miserably during a rehab stint in June and had to shut things down for a while. Morrow threw a side session earlier this week and was schedule to throw another one today. He says he is throwing completely pain free now. Morrow, 28, will have to pitch in a few rehab starts to build up his pitch count and the Jays have announced they are targeting a mid-August return (barring any setbacks). Morrow thinks the forearm issues are related to his cutter – a pitch he developed in Spring Training and used frequently early this season. It’s not uncommon for pitchers to develop forearm inflammation if they throw too many cutters. The question I have is why is Morrow experimenting with a new pitch when he had an ERA under 3.00 last season? If it ain’t broke……
J.A. Happ – The Jays would like Happ to get into his first rehab start this weekend. Happ hasn’t pitched since being hit on the head by a line drive on May 7th. His head injury healed rather quickly but he sprained his knee when he fell to the ground and it’s been nagging ever since. Happ has been throwing bullpen sessions and participating in long toss with the aid of a knee brace, but he hasn’t been able to attempt to field his position so wasn’t pitching in game situations. He recently started sprinting and appears he is ready to go. Happ could be back late July if all goes well.
While Brandon Morrow had a setback earlier this week during his rehab and was shut down with forearm inflammation, J.A. Happ feels like he should be ready to join the Blue Jays sometime around the allstar break. Happ has been on the DL since May 7th after being struck in the head by a line drive. Happ was diagnosed with a fractured skull, contusions, and a sprained right knee (his knee twisted when he collapsed to the ground).
Surprisingly, it has not been the head injury that has kept Happ off the mound. His knee has taken longer to heal than initially expected. Happ wore a knee brace for several week, but is now able to jog and run. He is still having issues with cutting and turning off his right leg.
Happ has made enough progress, though, that he has begun throwing off a mound without a knee brace.
The question becomes who will the Jays send down when Happ is ready to return? The rotation is on fire right now. I expect, barring an injury to anyone on the big club, the Jays will be very patient and stretch out Happ’s rehab time.
Returning by the allstar break might be a bit optimistic.
For a team that needs to play over .600 to have a shot at the playoffs, going 3-4 on its most recent road trip just isn’t going to cut it. It’s tough, though, when the rotation is in tatters. But injuries or not, the Blue Jays need to win games.
Tomorrow the Jays return home for 3 vs. the Rangers. We have to go 2-1 which means we either need to beat Yu Darvish on Saturday (Mark Buehrle might just do it) or we need Esmil Rogers to step up big time in tomorrow’s series opener. While R.A. Dickey has been far from a lock so far this season, coming off a classic performance yesterday, I feel that the Jays should have a definite advantage when Dickey toes the rubber to close out the series on Sunday.
To win 90 games which would give the Jays roughly an 80% shot at the postseason, they have to go 65-38 the rest of the way (.631 baseball). Yikes.
Although a friend of mine reminded me that the A’s were under .500 at the allstar break last season and went on to win the AL West. Not an easy task. So it’s possible for the Jays to make a run.
I also saw an interesting stat in Sportsnet magazine. Every team has injuries, so it’s hard for fans, coaches, and players to use injuries as an excuse for the Blue Jays situation. But here is the stat: at May 10th (when the article was published), the Blue Jays had 10 players on the DL. To put that into some perspective, the Red Sox had 4, the Orioles 6, the Rays 3, and the Yankees a whopping 11. So the Jays can’t complain, right? The Yankees have just as many injuries, are still performing, and well into a divisional race.
WRONG! Of the Yankees on the DL, only 36% are pitchers. In fact, no team in the MLB has a higher percentage of pitchers on the DL if you take the DL’ed pitchers divided by the total players DL’ed on a team. The Jays are at 90%! Also, no team has more than 7 pitches on the DL other than the Jays (9 pitchers on the DL). Of the 11 Yankees on the DL, only 4 are pitchers (which is 2nd most in the AL East after Toronto).
We all know pitching is the key to success. And right now, the Jays pitching staff is hurting. Getting Josh Johnson back healthy is huge. Having Dickey pitch healthy is huge. Now we just need Brandon Morrow and J.A Happ to come back and we’ll be set to make a run. With the rotation healing, I’m not counting out a Blue Jays run just yet.
There is a glaring question in Blue Jay land: What the heck should we do with Ricky Romero?
Romero was outrighted to triple-A last Saturday afternoon to make room on the 40-man roster for Ramon Ortiz. The fact that Romero was outrighted to the minors means he passed through waivers without any of the other 29 Major League teams deciding to claim him. The lack of interest doesn’t exactly come as a surprise considering Romero is earning $7.5 million this season with another $15 million on the way through 2014-15. When the Jays originally signed Romero to this contract in 2010, he proceeded to pitch to a career year in 2011. Both the Jays and Romero were happy with the deal – the Jays got what looked like a bargain for a young lefty, and Romero had the security of a 5 year deal worth $30 million. Now the contract seems burdensome on the Jays.
Romero’s well-documented struggles with command last season and again this year have totally negatively transformed the young pitcher, who had previously improved on his numbers every season in the majors prior to 2012.
In his last start, he allowed five runs through the first four innings. The 28-year-old lefty finished his outing after six innings, allowing five runs on eight hits while striking out three. The most positive aspect was that he didn’t walk a better although he did throw three wild pitches.
Romero entered that start with 20 walks and just 6 strikeouts in four appearances in triple-A.
Two starts ago, he was unable to pitch his way out of the first inning. In that outing, Romero surrendered eight runs on five hits and three walks while recording just two outs. He threw just 13 of his 32 pitches for strikes. His ERA in triple-A now sits at 11.84 and he has allowed 31 hits in 19.0 innings.
The Jays have to be wondering what steps they can take from here.
Romero was cut by the Blue Jays at the end of Spring Training to overhaul his mechanics on the mound. He spent almost a month in extended spring training in an effort to change his delivery and limit the way he throws across his body.
Bottom line: you’ll remember I didn’t think the Jays should have called up Romero from single-A to pitch in the majors after only a single minor league start. If you want a guy to rebuild his mechanics, it doesn’t happen over night. But the Jays had few options and felt like Romero gave them the best option to win that night. Two starts later – one average and one extremely ugly – the lefty went to triple-A where he has continued his profound struggles. So what can the Jays do? Not much. With Romero set to earn $7.5 million this year and another $15 million between 2014-15, the Jays would most likely have to eat some of his salary in any trade scenario. And it’s really hard to trade someone that has had success at the major league level at the bottom of his value – especially when he is only 28 years young. So the Jays will have to stick to the status quo – Romero will keep on grinding it out in the minors until either the Jays completely give up on him or he is able to regain some consistent control of the strikezone. Going into spring training, who would have thought that with Brandon Morrow, J.A. Happ, and Josh Johnson all spending time on the DL that Romero would not be an option? Not me. But he clearly isn’t. Right now, he’s not even close (just like his fastball).
Blue Jays right-hander Josh Johnson will make his long-awaited return from the disabled list against tonight vs. the Giants. Johnson, who has been on the DL since late April with right triceps inflammation, has only made four starts this season.
In those outings, the 6’7″ right-hander has a 6.86 ERA, although most of that damage came in the shortest start of his career on April 11, when he allowed six earned runs in 1.1 innings against the Tigers.
Johnson’s return comes at a time when Toronto’s rotation is in need of a pick-me-up. Of their top six starters entering the season, only Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey have yet to miss a start, and they are the only ones to not find themselves on the disabled list or demoted. While Buehrle struggled early, he has pitched well during his past 5 outings and looks to be on track, the same can’t be said about Dickey who is struggling to regain his “ace-like” form. Dickey’s lack of command and velocity have been his undoing so far this season.
Let’s hope Johnson can provide a much needed boost to rotation that is coming undone at the seams. With Ricky Romero outrighted to triple-A (are we really surprised nobody wanted him off waivers?), Brandon Morrow nursing a sore forearm on the DL, J.A. Happ trying to get his leg back under him (sprained knee and also on the DL), the return of Johnson couldn’t come soon enough.
If Johnson remains healthy, look for him to perform extremely well as he is in a contract year. Also look for him to become trade bait near the July 31st deadline if the Jays can’t gain any material ground on the division by the allstar break.
I love watching pitchers for the first time. Therefore, I love when a young kid makes his major league debut. We are fortunate enough to see it twice this series, – last night with Kevin Gausman of the Orioles and tonight with lefty Sean Nolin.
MLB.com ranks Nolin as the Blue Jays number 8 top prospect. After being drafted in the 6th round of the 2010 class, Nolin has excelled the past couple years in the minors. Making the leap from short season A-ball, to rookie ball, to low-A ball, to high-A ball, and finally double-A this year. Overall in the minors, Nolin sports a 16 – 6 record, a 2.92 ERA with 263 strikeouts in 246.1 innings. In three starts in double-A this year, he is 2-0 with a sparkling 1.17 ERA while adding 16 K’s in 15.1 innings. It will be fun to see how he reacts to the big stage. If he can manage his emotions, he might just be able to steal us a game since there will be little to no scouting report or video on him for the Orioles players to prepare. First time through the line up, it’s important to note if he is throwing strikes and getting ahead. Too often excitement gets the best of young pitchers or they feel they need to be “too perfect” with their pitches, which leads to walks and hitters counts. If he can settle in the first time through, it will be equally interesting to see how he pitching the second and third time through the Orioles line up. Once MLB players see what a pitcher has, they are very quick to make adjustments.
To make room on the 40-man roster for Nolin, J.A Happ has been transferred to the 60-day DL. Happ is able to play catch and cleared from to play from a perspective of his head injury when he was hit by a vicious comebacker square in the ear. His right knee sprain, however, from when he fell after being struck by the ball in the head has not healed well. Doctors do not want him throwing off a mound yet without a brace, which has been ordered and is on route. This means Happ won’t be back until early July at the earliest. I’m guessing shortly after the allstar break if all goes well during his rehab.
To make room on the 25-man roster, Darren Oliver has been placed on the 15-day DL. The move is retroactive to May 19th meaning Oliver (he last pitched on the 18th) meaning Oliver could come back on June 3rd if healthy. The 42-year-old lefty has been plagued by a sore pitching shoulder and has been held out of games recently. The soreness has persisted so the Jays have decided to give him a breather. Oliver has again pitched well boasting a 3.17 ERA in 17 appearances this season. If we are going to make a serious run, we’ll want him healthy and pitching some late innings for us. Look for Steve Delabar and Brett Cecil to split the 8th inning work until Oliver can come back.