Sunday represented a big day in the finalizing of the Blue Jays’ rotation heading into the season.
Out was Marc “Zep” Rzepczynski, who was informed by coaches that he was no longer being considered for a starting job and would, instead, join the battle for bullpen work. In (or at least getting closer to a job) was Jesse Litsch, fresh off 5.1 innings of scoreless, three-hit ball against the Twins in which he also struck out seven batters.
That effectively left one remaining slot in the rotation up for grabs between Kyle Drabek and Jo-Jo Reyes, with Drabek currently holding an edge but Reyes boasting the advantage of being out of options and, thus, vulnerable to a waiver claim should he be sent down.
With an increasingly clear picture of how things are going to play out among the starters once April 1 rolls around, let’s kick start the 2011 preview with a look at the rotation.
Don’t look now, but with the off-season trade of Shaun Marcum, Romero – all 26 years of him – appears primed to become the veteran leader of the staff. Good thing, then, that the lefty demonstrated plenty of maturation in his second major league season last year. Not only did he pare his ERA down from 4.30 to 3.73, but he allowed three fewer hits and just three more base on balls despite pitching 32 more innings (although, oddly enough, he threw 18 wild pitches in 2010 to just six the prior season). That kind of stability is critical for the Opening Day starter, who could ultimately be bumped as staff ace but will remain a key part of the rotation for years to come.
It’s funny to hear people speak so glowingly of Morrow’s 2010 campaign when, in the end, his 10-7 record and 4.49 ERA hardly resemble the numbers of a breakout star. But moreso than the over-all numbers, Jays brass was encouraging to see a pitcher who demonstrated moments of greatness (his one-hit, 17-strikeout gem against Tampa may have been the best pitching performance in a season full of them) and made a relatively smooth transition to full-time starter while logging more than twice as many innings as he had in any other year. While he will still be reined in by an innings limit this season, it will nevertheless be interesting to see what the 26-year old can offer up in an encore.
The club’s 2010 wins leader must be enjoying his first Spring without a job on the line. He took care of securing his place in the rotation in the final two months of last season, when he went 7-2 over August and September (even if he did see his ERA rise 6/10ths of a run over that time). Of course, his numbers against AL East foes (11-2 with a 3.47 ERA) certainly didn’t hurt his standing, either. One thing the 24-year old will need to work on this season is to not lose his head when he’s struggling, as he tended to do last year. In 28 starts, Cecil was often very good (16 starts of two earned runs or less), but could also be combustible (seven starts of five earned runs or more). If he can find a way to settle down when he gets into trouble (which may prove difficult if rookie catcher J.P. Arencibia typically handles his starts), this could be a big year for the left-hander.
Nice to see Litsch (seemingly) healthy and ready to contribute. This after throwing just 55 innings over the past two seasons, combined. As no better than a No. 4 starter, little will be expected from the 26-year old in terms of production. If he can start his share of games and log some innings for the club, the team will be delighted. However, he may have to do more than that with a bevy of young pitchers (Brad Mills, Zach Stewart, Chad Jenkins, Robert Ray and Deck Mcguire, to name five) looking to make the jump to the majors in the next year or two.
Drabek has reached a point in his development where the only thing keeping him from full-time major league duty appears to be the business side of the sport. As in, will the Blue Jays choose to exercise the minor league options that Drabek still enjoys in favour of ensuring they don’t have to leave any of their pitching depth vulnerable? It would most assuredly be frustrating for the 23-year old to be returned to AA New Hampshire after accomplishing everything asked of him and hardly looking out of place during his late season call-up last year, but it’s a nice problem for GM Alex Anthopoulos to have. While some nitpicking of the Jays’ prized prospect has already begun (critics point to his low strikeout rate per nine innings this spring and wonder if he has the dominant arsenal needed to be an ace), most encouraging is his remarkable ground ball rate, an estimated 62% this spring compared to the 45% major league average.
Reyes looks like a pretty good bet to make the team’s Opening Day roster, but the final week of spring training will go a long way in determining what capacity he’ll be serving in. Interestingly, the 26-year old has been significantly sharper in two relief outings this spring (six hitless innings with just one walk and five strikeouts) than in his two starts (five earned runs and six hits in seven innings). That, plus the uncertain status of veteran relievers Frank Francisco and Octavio Dotel, would suggest that the left-hander is ticketed for the bullpen. But if Jays brass truly view him as a future starter, now is the time to offer him that opportunity. If Reyes can offer the Jays any quality innings in either capacity, it further tilts the Alex Gonzalez-Yunel Escobar trade in their favour (at least until Tim Collins and Tyler Pastornicky come along in the Braves’ organization).
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Written by Ben Fisher