Blue Jays emerging as elite contenders, thanks to rotation transformation

Pop quiz time. Do you know who made the most starts for the Blue Jays in the 2019 season? If you answered Trent Thornton, you’re the winner.

He made 29 starts that year, of his 32 appearances (the other 3 were behind an opener, so in essence, he did make 32 starts) and turned that into a 6-9 record and 4.84 ERA as a rookie.

Number two and three on that list are Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman, both of whom were gone by the trade deadline. Late in the season, manager Charlie Montoyo dropped a now-infamous line that the next day’s pitching plan was “an opener and a guy”, to highlight how truly thin the club was at the position. It’s an astonishing list, and I recommend Jays fans take a look to realize how far the team has come in a relatively short time.

Fast forward to today, and let’s take a look at how they’ve rebuilt the rotation over the last two seasons.

  • June 3 2019: Drafted RHP Alek Manoah 11th overall in the Amateur Draft. Recalled to MLB on May 27, 2021.
  • December 27, 2019: Signed LHP Hyun-Jin Ryu to a four-year, $80 million free agent contract.
  • July 30, 2021: Acquired RHP Jose Berrios from the Minnesota Twins. Signed to 7-year, $131 million extension in November 2021.
  • December 1, 2021: Signed RHP Kevin Gausman to 5-year, $110 million free agent contract.
  • March 14, 2021: Signed LHP Yusei Kikuchi to 3-year, $36 million free agent contract.

As you can see, aside from Ryu, four of the five starters expected to form this year’s rotation have been acquired or promoted in the last 10 months. It’s a far cry even from the start of last year when injuries forced the second and third games of the season in New York to be started by Ross Stripling and T.J. Zeuch.

It’s a baseball adage so old it borders on cliche, that you can’t win without starting pitching. General manager Ross Atkins clearly recognizes the core of his position player group headlined by Vladimir Guerrero Jr, Bo Bichette, George Springer, and Teoscar Hernandez, deserve a group of pitchers equally as formidable. Too often early in 2021 the offense was expected to patch over the holes of a mediocre pitching staff. In 2022, a better balance of hitting and pitching should lead to the team winning many more games.

But how does their rotation stack up against the rest of the league? Well, pretty good. If you use ZiPS projections on FanGraphs, their top five starters project for the fifth-highest WAR (Wins Above Replacement) in the league, behind only the Brewers, Dodgers, Yankees, and White Sox.

TeamProjected SP WAR
Milwaukee Brewers16.4
Los Angeles Dodgers15.6
New York Yankees14.4
Chicago White Sox13.1
Toronto Blue Jays12.9
San Francisco Giants11.2
Boston Red Sox9.8
Tampa Bay Rays9.7

Will the vastly improved starting rotation be enough to propel them to the playoffs? Of course, the game isn’t played on paper or spreadsheets, so guys still have to go out and perform. On Tuesday, FanGraphs released their playoff odds tool, and it’s very high on the Blue Jays. It has them with the best odds of winning the AL East, and the second-best odds of winning the World Series. And that’s BEFORE they make any more additions to their already potent lineup.

Importantly, there is also depth in the organization and the promise of continuity. Ryu, the de facto ace of the last two seasons, is now down to third or fourth on the depth chart. With just two years remaining, he also has the least amount of time remaining on his current contract. All five starters project to still be around next season. Of course, injuries are likely throughout the season, and the signing of Kikuchi pushes Stripling to the bullpen, though available to make spot starts. It also likely pushes Nate Pearson to the minor leagues to start the year, allowing him to continue his development away from the spotlight of a team with lofty aspirations. After back-to-back injury-riddled seasons, getting consistent starts without the pressure to be promoted is crucial.

The sportsbooks are paying attention to the team in the north, as well. According to Odds Shark, the Blue Jays have the fifth shortest odds to win the World Series, tied with the White Sox and behind only the Dodgers, Astros, and both New York clubs.

The starting rotation has come a long way in a short period of time. The club hopes it’s the final piece of the puzzle to vault this group from playoff hopeful to championship contender.

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