Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro was bang on this past week when he called pitching the weakest link in an organization with designs on contending within three years.
But while he expressed confidence that “waves” of big-league-ready pitchers are on the way to solve the problem inside that time frame, the truth is that the Jays will be lucky if one or two prospects develop into front-end starters. The pipeline is stocked, but developing an ace is a low-percentage proposition.
There’s always free agency, of course, or the trade route. No matter how they approach the solution, it’s the biggest challenge facing the Jays’ front office. Here’s a close look at the starting pitching options in the system today, and who might be available down the road:
The first wave of starting pitching consists of Trent Thornton, Jacob Waguespack, Thomas Pannone, Sean Reid-Foley and Ryan Borucki (out for the season after elbow surgery). All five have made big-league appearnaces this season. The next wave, minor leaguers on the doorstep, is led by Nate Pearson and Julian Merriweather, both with fastballs that hit 100 m.p.h. That group also includes Yennsy Diaz (who made one rocky appearance with the Jays last Sunday), T.J. Zeuch, Patrick Murphy and Hector Perez. Two or three years down the road, the Jays hope Eric Pardinho, Alek Manoah, Simeon Woods Richardson, Adam Kloffenstein and Joe Murray will be ready to contribute. They were all mentioned by Shapiro during his press conference.
Waguespack is probably the most interesting arm at the major-league level now. He’s worked with pitching coach Pete Walker and, in a small sample size, has found some success with four solid pitches. But the only projected ace in the bunch is Pearson.
Pearson dominated Class-A ball and is now in Double-A, where he has 55 strikeouts in 51 innings. He has lights-out stuff and Baseball America pushed him from 70th to 16th in its prospect rankings. His health is a factor, given the broken arm he suffered a year ago. The Jays are managing his workload carefully, but there’s a chance he’ll make a big-league start in September, then challenge for a rotation spot next spring.
Pitchers who throw 100 m.p.h. (Pearson hit 103 at one point this season) with command are highly valuable, but managing that explosive power and throwing 150 to 200 innings a season in the big leagues is the next step. It’s difficult to assess a talent such as Pearson and find the right mix of pitches to get the most out of his talents. The organization is focusing on that challenge right now.
The next free-agent crop isn’t too deep in high-end starting pitchers. Houston strikeout artist Gerrit Cole leads a pack that includes Madison Bumgarner, Zack Wheeler, Stephen Strasburg, Rick Porcello, Jake Odorizzi and Alex Wood. All of them are close to 30 or older, which doesn’t quite fit the Jays’ timeline for a return to contention.
There’s more potential after the 2020 season, from a group that’s projected to include Trevor Bauer, James Paxton and, yes, Marcus Stroman. And the market after the 2021 campaign could be loaded: Noah Syndergaard, Clayton Kershaw, Corey Kluber, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke, Chris Archer and Mike Foltynewicz, plus relievers Aroldis Chapman and Zack Britton.
Shapiro indicated that the Jays won’t likely splurge on a free-agent pitcher until after next season, when the organization has a better grip on how good the current crop of young stars will be. The management team acknowledged that Jays fans are growing tired of waiting, but also expressed confidence in the pace of the rebuild. The goal is to build a contender from within, with enough pitching to take advantage of the young core of position players led by Vlad Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio.
A potential pitching model for the Jays to follow? How about the New York Yankees, who are in town for a weekend series with the Jays. The Yankees had 17 players on the disabled list through Friday, including projected ace Luis Severino (injured early in spring training), yet they are cruising to the American League East title.
The Yankees sought to bolster their starting rotation at the July 31 trade deadline, but while they were reportedly in on Stroman and other prime targets, they didn’t make a move and appear headed to the post-season with plans to share the load among 12 or 13 pitchers. It’s a contrast to AL-leading Houston’s star-studded rotation — led by Justin Verlander, Cole and Greinke — but the Yankees have the arms to make it work, including one of baseball’s deepest bullpens.
It’s a model that could be mirrored in Toronto, where there is the potential among contenders for the starting rotation, but no guarantees.
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Mark Zwolinski is a sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @markzwol