We’re almost at the start of the 2018 season. There’s been a lot of talk on Blue Jays Twitter about how Toronto’s rotation stacks up against the rest of the teams in their division. With the return of the American League Beast, the Blue Jays are going to need all the help they can get if they’re going to keep pace with the powerhouse Yankees and Red Sox. Could their pitching staff be an advantage?
Before we begin, I polled my Twitter followers just to get a rough consensus of where they think their team’s pitching staff stands. This is devoid of any scientific research or analysis, but I wanted to get a feel for things. Out of 411 people that voted, only 25 people thought that the Blue Jays had a bottom-tier rotation in the East, which is surprising given the general pessimism surrounding the club on social media. But I’m inclined to agree with Twitter’s assessment. I would definitely take the Blue Jays’ five-man rotation over the four-man one in Tampa, and over the notoriously weak rotation in Baltimore, even with the addition of Alex Cobb.
Now let’s look at some projections. I used Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA along with FanGraphs Depth Charts, which is a mix of their Steamer and ZIPS projections, but with playing time expectations factored in. Let’s see what BP and FG think of the rotations in the AL East. I also included everybody’s 2017 stats for the sake of comparison.
(Disclaimer: These aren’t going to be rotations that are set in stone on Opening Day. Rather, these are what the rotations should be for a large chunk of the season. And to avoid any confusion, I’ve listed the teams in alphabetical order. I also added Matt Andriese to the Rays rotation in case they balk at the four-man idea, and because he made 17 starts for them last year.)
Let’s just say that if the Orioles find a way to do damage this season, it’ll be because of their bats.
The Orioles added Alex Cobb to their rotation over the offseason, and both projections still seem to think that they’re going to be the worst in the division. It’s so bad that I’d advise Orioles fans to skip looking at these projections and scroll down to Boston. They are definitively the worst rotation in the East.
Cobb, Bundy, and Gausman are probably closer to their FanGraphs projections, but unless Gausman returns to his 2016 form and promising starter Bundy takes the next step this year, that Orioles rotation is a whole lot of nope. Before the Cobb signing, it looked like the fifth starter race was coming down to either Gabriel Ynoa or Miguel Castro. Yeah, that guy. For real.
At least Orioles fans can be happy that they aren’t going to watch Ubaldo Jimenez make any more starts for their team.
Boston Red Sox
Going into the season, the Red Sox pitching situation is a bit of a mess. Drew Pomeranz, who already has a job in the rotation when he’s healthy, is starting the season on the DL due to a forearm strain at the beginning of this month, but pitched in a minor league game a few days ago. Eduardo Rodriguez (left knee) and Stephen Wright (right knee), who each could have been the fifth starter, will both start on the DL as well. Manager Alex Cora announced that 27-year-old lefty Brian Johnson will take over one of those spots in the interim.
Barring any setbacks, I don’t think either should be out for long, but I included Rodriguez due to the fact that when Wright returns, he’s going to serve a 15-game suspension for violating MLB’s domestic violence policy.
Up at the top, you have the obvious. Chris Sale is the best pitcher in the division and a perennial Cy Young candidate. After him, the Red Sox are hoping that their 30-million-dollar man David Price is completely healthy. Price is now 32 and is hoping to return to his old form after his elbow injury scare last year. Both PECOTA and FanGraphs think that he’ll finish in the 165-innings pitched range, and even though you aren’t getting 25-year-old David Price production, he should still be pretty good.
Add in Pomeranz and 2016 Cy Young winner Rick Porcello and – when healthy – you’ve got a very strong Red Sox rotation. PECOTA has them at 12.8 Wins Above Replacement Player, tops in the division.
New York Yankees
The goal for the New York Yankees starters this season? Just get it to the bullpen. The Yankees ‘pen will be devastating again this year. If their starting five can be even average and get to the sixth or seventh with leads, they’ll win a lot of games.
But the Yankees rotation is actually pretty good. If Chris Sale is the best pitcher in the division, I think Luis Severino is second. Severino has true ace potential and demonstrated it last year. They won’t need guys like CC Sabathia (age) and Masahiro Tanaka (partially torn UCL) to be their former dominant selves. They just need to pitch quality innings, which is something that both PECOTA and FanGraphs seem to think will happen.
1–5, they should be a top-three rotation in the division, which will definitely play given the bullpen and the mammoth men in their lineup.
Tampa Bay Rays
The joke online is that people thought the Rays elected to run a four-man rotation due to budgetary restrictions, or something else related to being a small market team. In reality, the Rays traded Jake Odorizzi because they had the starting depth and prospects Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon were supposed to make the jump at some point this year. Not even a month after the Odorizzi trade, both Honeywell and De Leon were slated to undergo Tommy John surgery.
While the Rays do have enough starters to go with five guys, it looks like to start the season they’ll go with a four-man rotation, mixing in a few bullpen days. I’m not sure how long this will last, but like I said, relievers like Andriese and Austin Pruitt started games for the Rays last year, so they can always be stretched out if the Rays decide to change their mind.
PECOTA and FanGraphs have them comfortably in third place in the division, and I get that Chris Archer is really good, but I’m not sure unestablished names like Blake Snell and Jacob Faria – with a combined 305 career MLB innings pitched between them – as well as Nathan Eovaldi, who’s coming off of Tommy John, will outperform the Blue Jays 1–5.
If you’re in need of a bullpen game, arms for a doubleheader, or expecting to play well into extra innings, the Rays are an attractive choice. Other than that, they’re at least better than the Orioles.
Toronto Blue Jays
Last season, the Blue Jays brought back pretty much the same rotation that led all AL starters in ERA in 2016, only for Aaron Sanchez to get hurt and an already erratic Francisco Liriano to implode. This season, with a clean bill of health for Sanchez and a new groundball pitcher in Jaime Garcia, the Blue Jays will try to get back to their former dominance. The Jays strength is that their 1–5 is really good, even if they have some depth concerns after Garcia.
I don’t think many people outside of the Toronto sports bubble are expecting much from this group, but I really do think they’re equal to the New York Yankees, if not better.
New York has the more popular names, and probably the bigger star in Luis Severino, but Toronto simply has more quality. Let’s look at a guy like Sonny Gray. He was a big splash at the deadline last year. Looking at PECOTA and FanGraphs, he projected to pitch around 170 innings with a high-three to low four-ERA, walk about three and strike out eight. From 2015-2016, Marco Estrada pitched a quiet 346.1 innings with a 3.38 ERA, walking 2.99 per nine and striking out 7.41 per nine. Aside from a string of ten starts last year that he actually attributed to a lack of sleep, he actually didn’t pitch as badly as his 4.98 ERA would indicate.
Then compare the two leftys in J.A. Happ and Jordan Montgomery. Happ got Cy Young votes in 2016, then got hurt in 2017, but still finished with a higher WARP (3) than Mongtomery (2.1), who was a rookie last season. If I had to pick between starters 3-5 on the Yankees and the Blue Jays, I think I’d take Happ, Estrada, and Garcia over Gray, Montgomery, and a 37-year-old Sabathia.
But, really, it all comes down to this: The X-factor in this rotation is Aaron Sanchez. Sanchez is like David Price. If he stays healthy enough to give you 200 innings pitched as your second-best starter, you’re a lot closer to the Red Sox and Yankees at the top than you are to the Orioles at the bottom. 2017 was supposed to be the year Sanchez took the next huge step forward, and he was only hindered by blisters. I really don’t think it’s a stretch to think that he’s better than Masahiro Tanaka right now, especially with his UCL issues.
In a division with the powerhouse Yankees and Red Sox, an advantage like a quality starting rotation can make a difference. Especially when you face those two 38 times in a season and are expected to fight for a wild card spot. The Jays should be in the hunt this season, even going by these projections, but with a healthy Stroman and Sanchez throwing close to a combined 400 innings, the sky really is the limit for this team. We saw it at the end of the 2016 season, when the starters dragged a slumping lineup into the playoffs with a strong September. If the starters are a strength, this team can wash the bad memories from 2017 out of the minds of Blue Jays fans.
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