The Aging, Youthful Blue Jays Rotation

Don’t screw this up, Marco Estrada. Just don’t.

That’s not how you’d expect an article about a team that’s clearly trying to contend in 2015 would start, and you’ll understand why it does a little later on. There’s only ever been one article focusing on Estrada on the front page of FanGraphs, and that came back in 2012. This isn’t going to be another. I promise. This is maybe going to be about the fun mark the Blue Jays could potentially set if Estrada never makes a start for them this season, and what that might mean for the playoff dreams.

We’ll get to that, but first, let’s briefly remember the interesting offseason the Jays just had to get to this point. They probably overpaid for catcher Russell Martin, but his skill on both sides of the ball make for a clear upgrade over incumbent Dioner Navarro, to say nothing of whatever PR boost comes from bringing a Canadian star and Toronto native back home. They shocked everyone by following that up with a trade for Josh Donaldson, cashing in Brett Lawrie and several prospects in order to import arguably baseball’s best third baseman. They even made a nifty little deal to add Michael Saunders to help staff an outfield that watched Melky Cabrera and Colby Rasmus depart via free agency, though Saunders’ recent knee injury probably will sideline him for most of the first month, leading to Dayan Viciedo’s minor league deal.

Adding Martin and Donaldson to incumbents Jose Reyes, Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista gives Toronto what might be the best lineup top five in the game, or at least in the conversation. But for all the nice moves the Blue Jays made this winter, it’s not like catcher and third base were their real glaring concerns, and they mostly avoided their real problems. Second base is still a Maicer Izturis / Ryan Goins / Steve Tolleson / Munenori Kawasaki mess, at least until Devon Travis is ready, and as Paul Swydan noted last week, the depth behind both that group and Reyes is hugely problematic. Leaving center field to the unproven duo of Dalton Pompey and Kevin Pillar is more than a little risky. Justin Smoak has done little to prove he deserves a chance to be the first baseman, and his predecessor, Adam Lind, had some choice words on his way out the door.

They also didn’t make any meaningful additions to the rotation, trading J.A. Happ for Saunders, letting Brandon Morrow and Dustin McGowan depart via free agency, and failing on their reported attempts to bring in Jon Lester or James Shields. We still don’t know the identity of the team that reportedly offered Shields a nine-figure contract but was rebuffed because he “didn’t want to play there,” and Toronto would seem to be a reasonable guess. When Jeff Sullivan tried to find a the best home for Shields in January, just before the Padres finalized their deal, he noted that the back end of the Toronto rotation was risky, that the Jays were in a pretty critical position on the win curve, and that “It’s hard to imagine a better fit than this.”

That didn’t happen, obviously, and so they’re left with what they had, and now have. What they have is is a rotation that’s right within a comparable group of about 10 others within the 5-15 range of our projections, and one that has one of baseball’s most exciting young pitchers in Marcus Stroman, who was good last year and should be even better with Martin behind the plate. In fact, let’s just grab a modified version of our rotation depth chart, cutting out a few columns and adding one:

2015 Projected Blue Jays Rotation
Name Age IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP WAR
R.A. Dickey 40 188.0 7.1 2.8 1.2 4.18 4.41 1.6
Marcus Stroman 24 188.0 8.0 2.4 0.8 3.67 3.45 3.4
Mark Buehrle 36 191.0 5.5 2.2 1.2 4.44 4.46 1.5
Drew Hutchison 24 166.0 8.6 2.9 1.2 4.07 4.09 1.9
Aaron Sanchez 22 113.0 7.5 4.4 0.9 4.60 4.36 0.8
Daniel Norris 22 66.0 9.2 3.8 1.0 3.84 3.88 0.8
Marco Estrada 31 28.0 8.3 2.0 1.4 3.47 4.01 0.4
Total 940.0 7.5 2.9 1.1 4.11 4.12 10.5

So, a few things, here. Dickey and Buehrle are known quantities by now, though it will be interesting to see how Martin deals with catching the knuckleball, or what becomes of knuckleball-specialist third catcher Josh Thole if Navarro’s trade requests can’t be accommodated. Hutchison had a quietly good 2014, and seemed to make real improvements with his slider. Stroman, you should know about already; Sanchez and Norris are highly-regarded prospects who may start in the minors or the bullpen, though both have their eyes set on winning a rotation job out of camp.

Not shown here: Johan Santana, 36 this month, who signed a minor league deal in hopes of throwing his name into the fifth starter competition as well, though he’s unlikely to be ready for Opening Day. Shown here: Estrada, who made 72 starts for Milwaukee over the last three years but none after July 7 thanks to a severe home run problem that probably won’t be helped by a move to the Rogers Centre. (He had baseball’s highest HR/9 last year, and may return to the bullpen if the young arms all claim rotation jobs.)

Together, the top six names here average 28 years of age. That’s the opposite of interesting. But “average age” is one way to look at it, and ages on the extreme edges is another. Buerhle and Dickey are both 36 or older. The other four members of the top six are 24 or younger; the oldest, Hutchison, doesn’t turn 25 until August. If you think that’s set up to be a rarity, you’d be right. Dating back to 1900, there’s never been a rotation that made it through an entire season without a start from a pitcher between the age of 25-35. (Seasonal age, that is, not actual age, so a September Hutchison start wouldn’t count.)

There’s only been three teams that have ever had just a single age 25-35 starter make an appearance, most recently the 1994 White Sox of Jack McDowell. That team also only needed six starters in the strike season, so the last time it was done over a full season was by the 1979 Tigers, who had an amazing 10 starters 24 or under to go with 36-year-old Jack Billingham’s final good season. Unsurprisingly, this kind of setup doesn’t come along all that often in baseball, simply because the overwhelming majority of innings thrown — 78.4% in 2014, to be precise — come from pitchers between 25-35.

It’s probably not particularly likely the Jays will really become the first team to do so, because you can’t count on Norris and Sanchez to survive and thrive in the rotation all year long, and so Estrada or some Quad-A type like Liam Hendriks will pick up a start. Even if they do, it’s more of a quirky fact that anything more meaningful. But it will serve as a bit of a barometer as we watch the Jays try to contend in a tightly-packed American League East. If the Toronto rotation continues to be a mix of the very young and the very old (at least in baseball terms), then things are going very, very well. It means Buehrle and Dickey are healthy; it means that the young arms are progressing.

If not? If guys like Estrada or Hendriks or Jeff Francis are making regular starts, it means things might not be going as well as the Jays might hope. After all, Stroman might already be the best starter in the AL East, but he can’t do it alone. It’s why a known quantity like Shields would have looked so good here. It’s why the Jays might be one of a dozen teams hoping to add a free-agent-to-be like Johnny Cueto or Jeff Samardzija come July 31.





Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

13 Comments
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tupac.chopra
8 years ago

“Adam Lind, had some choice words on his way out the door.”

are you serious? 99% of what he said was positive.

the corrections
8 years ago
Reply to  Mike Petriello

even that article is not tremendously negative. he alludes to a disagreement, but disagreements don’t amount to “choice words.” Far giving this to us straight from Lind’s mouth, you were reporting off of a source that cited another interviewer who had spoken to Lind. So we’re getting Lind’s words at…fifth hand, or something.

Ballfan
8 years ago

I am pretty sure Lind even said he’d like to work for the Jays at some point.

Anyways, a guy pitches 200+ innings what, 13 years in a row, and STILL the projections won’t give it to him