There is no doubt that the Toronto Blue Jays enter the 2016 season a better team than they fielded at the beginning of last year. Players and fans alike have every reason to believe that the Jays not only can repeat as American League East champions, but have a legitimate chance of representing the American League in the World Series. The offense ought to be league-best again this season, and a full season of Troy Tulowitzki and Michael Saunders means improved defense. However, if there is an area of concern, it is the same as it was last season: the starting rotation.
The loss of David Price created a void in the rotation, but a bevy of offseason moves ended up creating a battle for the fifth rotational spot. To see how the Jays’ rotation matches up against the rest of the division, here’s a look at the PECOTA projections for all 25 starters in the American League East.
Note: Stated rotational position is per Baseball Prospectus. Projected statistics are current as of April 1st.
First Starter: Ubaldo Jimenez (BAL), David Price (BOS), Masahiro Tanaka (NYY), Chris Archer (TB), Marcus Stroman (TOR)
Jays’ fans need not be reminded of just how good David Price is – his projected ERA, WHIP, VORP and WARP are the best in the American League East. Moreover, he has amassed success despite nearly 50 percent of his career starts coming against impressive AL East lineups. Price will turn 31 before the end of the season but shows no signs of decline. Meanwhile, last season Chris Archer became the ace of the the team that drafted David Price, and is projected to have the second best season in the AL East behind him. His fastball has better than average velocity, but he also possesses great off-speed stuff. Both Price and Archer are good friends with Jays’ Opening Day starter Marcus Stroman, who is projected to have a decent season – few starters have a projected WARP of 2.0 or above. He has an arsenal of five pitches that ought to only improve.
PECOTA may be generous in projecting Masahiro Tanaka to pitch 183 innings this season given that he still has a partially torn UCL and very well could require Tommy John surgery. His 0.99 WHIP last season and projected 2016 stats suggest that, if he’s able to pitch, he’ll be a difficult opponent. Rounding out the list of number one starters is Ubaldo Jimenez, who anchors a relatively weak Orioles’ rotation. He showed improved control last season, posting the best K/BB rate of his career.
Second Starter: Chris Tillman (BAL), Clay Buchholz (BOS), CC Sabathia (NYY), Jake Odorizzi (TB), R.A. Dickey (TOR)
Based strictly on projections, Clay Buchholz, CC Sabathia and R.A. Dickey represent a significant drop-off in comparison to their teams’ number one starters. Buchholz pitched well for two months last season before an elbow injury ended his season in July, marking the third season of five in which he pitched fewer than 120 innings. His ability to contribute to the Sox hinges on his health. The same can be said of CC Sabathia, who was named to the rotation over Ivan Nova just yesterday. In addition to a knee injury, Sabathia has also battled alcoholism, both of which likely contributed (along with age) to a poor home run rate and a diminishing strike out rate last season.
Despite being a 41 year old knuckleballer, I believe that the projections have undervalued Dickey, given that last season he pitched 214 innings with a 1.19 WHIP, 2.57 BABIP and 2.8 WARP. Though it is difficult to imagine that he will be as good as he was last season, I do not think the drop-off will be as significant as projected.
Jake Odorizzi is essentially a two-pitch pitcher and Chris Tillman is coming off a season of decline while also experiencing a core muscle injury this spring. Both may be slightly overrated in terms of their projections for 2016.
Third Starter: Yovani Gallardo (BAL), Rick Porcello (BOS), Nathan Eovaldi (NYY), Matt Moore (TB), Marco Estrada (TOR)
Though 2015 was a career-best for Marco Estrada – boasting a 3.13 ERA, 2.16 BABIP, 1.04 WHIP and a 3.5 WARP over a career-high 181 innings – I also think that he has been undervalued by PECOTA projections. Yes, his peripherals were not good last season (his FIP was 4.40) and he was likely lucky to not have a higher home run rate. However, PECOTA doesn’t credit him at all for the improvements that he did make.
Yovani Gallardo remained on the free agent market until the end of February. His fastball has above-average velocity, but experienced a decline in strikeout rate last season. That’s a concern given that he is a strikeout pitcher. His greatest contribution to the Orioles’ rotation may be the fact that he’s been remarkably healthy throughout his career.
Rick Porcello is coming off one of his worst overall seasons, with a 4.92 ERA, and despite being a groundball pitcher, his 2015 groundball rate was also the lowest of his career. In addition to all of that, he hit the DL for the first time in the majors.
Flame-thrower Nathan Eovaldi relied on his 98 mph fastball until he added – and succeeded – with a splitter last season. His projections do not represent a significant difference over last season.
Twenty-six year old Matt Moore missed all of 2014 due to Tommy John surgery and did not pitch until July 2nd of last season. In August, he was sent down to Triple-A. Though his velocity remains good post-surgery, it is impossible to know how he will fare this season.
Fourth Starter: Kevin Gausman (BAL), Joe Kelly (BOS), Michael Pineda (NYY), Drew Smyly (TB), J.A. Happ (TOR)
Many Jays’ fans disliked the decision to bring back J.A. Happ, particularly at $36 million over three years. Happ has always been a serviceable guy in the rotation, but after being traded to the Pirates at the deadline last season, he was one of the best pitchers in baseball, owing primarily to his fastball. Its likely that there will be some regression as he transitions back to the AL East and the hitter friendly park that is the Rogers Centre. However, there is reason to believe he’ll be better than the mediocre pitcher some fans seem to be expecting, especially if he can lower his fly ball rate as he did last season.
Over the last three seasons, Kevin Gausman has been shuttled back and forth between the big club and Triple-A. He does possess an excellent fastball and splitter but it’s difficult to know if he’ll be able to put it all together on the mound this season.
Joe Kelly pitched a career high 134 innings last season and is projected to throw around the same this year. His fastball has above-average velocity but below-average swing-and-miss rate.
Michael Pineda has had health issues in the past but was able to pitch 160 innings in 2015 and is projected to throw more than that this season. His first half was far better than his second half, with workload likely being a factor. He did, however, greatly reduce his fly ball rate (29.9% versus 42.3%) and increase his ground ball rate (48.2% versus 39.1%) in comparison to 2014. If he’s healthy, he should be more than a decent fourth starter.
Plagued by injury last season, Drew Smyly pitched only 66.2 innings in the majors last season (and only 87.9 innings in total) – his projected 159 innings pitched represents a significant increase, though he did throw a career-high 153 innings in 2014. His fastball does generate more whiffs/swing than the average pitcher, and his 28.0% strikeout rate last season was excellent.
Fifth Starter: Mike Wright (BAL), Steven Wright (BOS), Luis Severino (NYY), Erasmo Ramirez (TB), Aaron Sanchez (TOR)
After gaining 20 pounds of muscle in an overt effort to be named to the starting rotation this season, Aaron Sanchez was lights out this spring with a 1.35 ERA, 19 strikeouts and three walks over 20 innings. Though he will be subjected to an innings limit, the fact that he has pitched 133 innings in a past season suggests that his projected 112 innings pitched is probably low. Assuming that the control he demonstrated this spring is for real, I think he could do better than a 1.40 WHIP.
Mike Wright made his major league debut in 2015, making seven starts with an ERA of 8.90 and a 1.81 home run rate. His projected 90 innings pitched suggests that he will spend time in Triple-A and/or as a reliever this season. Knuckleballer Steven Wright was added to the Sox’s rotation after Eduardo Rodriguez suffered a knee injury earlier this week. He started nine games in 2015, and his projected numbers represent a slight regression over last season (though his projections are based on him being in long relief).
Luis Severino started eleven games for the Yankees last season and will likely have his innings limited again this season. His 96 mph fastball generates a high percentage of ground balls, as does his 90 mph slider. His strikeout rate should be around 20% again this season and ought to provide good value at the backend of the Yankees’ rotation.
Twenty-five year old Erasmo Ramirez threw 163.1 innings for the Rays last season, so his projected 112 innings would represent a step backwards, as does his projected WHIP and WARP (he enjoyed a 1.13 WHIP and was worth 2.2 WARP in 2015). Much of his success last season was due to increased use of his slider.
*Note: PECOTA has not yet been updated to reflect the fact that Steven Wright was named to Boston’s starting rotation in place of injured Eduardo Rodriquez.
Now that we’ve broken down the 25 starters by rotational position, let’s take a look at team projections:
Based strictly on VORP (number of runs prevented compared to an average pitcher) and WARP (wins contributed above a replacement player), it appears that there is concern with regards to the Jays’ starting rotation. There are reasons to be optimistic, however. As previously noted, I do believe that both Dickey and Estrada have been undervalued and will have better seasons than projected. As well, a much-improved defense over last season ought to help the staff prevent runs. And, even if the starting five falters, there are several starters (Floyd, Chavez and potentially Drew Hutchison) who are more than capable of stepping in.
Given upside in Dickey, Estrada, and Sanchez as well as a bevy of depth, the Jays rotation should stack up perfectly fine. Though, even if it doesn’t, all they really have to do is keep the Jays in the game, and the offense ought to take care of the rest.
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