The Blue Jays Battle for the Five Spot

By: Dan Grant

There are a few questions still to be answered at Blue Jays camp in Dunedin. The biggest of these  — the lodestone, if you will — is just who will slot in as the fifth starter to begin the 2016 campaign. Once that role is filled, the bullpen picture (previewed in detail here) becomes a whole lot more clear.

It’s important to note that while any one of the four leading candidates might take on the role initially, it’s entirely possible that another of them (or somebody else entirely) may take over the job before the season blooms. It’s equally possible that each of these four guys will start multiple games for Toronto this season. Let’s not forget: having this depth is great! For a team that began 2015 with a ton of questions in the starting rotation, it’s actually a pretty nice problem to have, particularly since Marco Estrada has already been dealing with some back tightness.

If you’ve been following the coverage of camp, you’ll be familiar with the four guys below, but I thought it would be a good idea to get to know them a little bit better. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each candidate? What do they bring to the table? Are they a long term solution or just a short term fix?

Below I break down each candidate. We’ll have a quick look at their particulars, as well as what they throw and how often. After that, we’ll play a fun little over/under game; will each guy start more or less than 10.5 games for the Jays in 2016?

chavezjays

Jesse Chavez

Status

Age: 32

Contract: 1 year, 4 million. Unrestricted free agent at seasons end.

What He’s Working With

(All numbers via Fangraphs Pitch F/X Data. Support Fangraphs!)

Four-Seam Fastball, Two-Seam Fastball, Cut Fastball, Change-Up, Curveball, Slider

Though he’s a man of many offerings, Chavez is primarily a fastball pitcher. If you combine the three variations of the pitch that he uses, he throws it 68.3% of the time, with the majority of his other pitches being change-ups (17.8%). He throws in the slider or curve to keep hitters honest, but he has success when he’s hitting his spots and changing speeds. His four-seamer averaged 91.3 mph last year, though he can dial it up a bit harder when pitching in relief. He made 47 starts for Oakland the past two seasons, and appeared in another 15 games in relief. His FIP, xFIP, K and BB rates were basically identical the past two seasons, so the Jays know what to expect.

Over/Under 10.5 Starts

If everything goes according to plan, he should be comfortably under. John Gibbons has already been floating out other possibilities, mentioning that he’d be comfortable using Chavez towards the back end of the bullpen, rather than in the long relief role that many have speculated he’ll fill if he doesn’t win the 5th starter job. Gibby cited that Chavez is a strike thrower, and that bears out: he threw strikes on 62.3% of all his pitches last season, a very strong number.

Beyond that, he’s not exceptional at any one thing, really. He has a good strikeout rate and a good K/BB rate. He features a slightly below average ground ball rate (42.3%), but doesn’t allow excessive hard contact. He’s going to give up some homers, since he’s around the plate so much. The fact that his HR/FB rate was slightly above league average (11.1%) last year when he was pitching in the hurlers paradise that is the Oakland Coliseum is a bit worrisome, but all in all, Chavez should fit in nicely in the Jays bullpen.

I’m still not sold on the fact that four years of Liam Hendriks will be worth the one of Chavez, but I do see why the move was made: at the time of the trade, the Jays starting depth was greatly depleted, and Chavez offers a versatility that Hendriks didn’t. It’s a nice luxury for Toronto to have; instead of automatically having to send to Buffalo for a spot-starter, the Jays will be able to turn to Chavez in a pinch (in theory). With that said, if he becomes a mainstay in the rotation, something will have gone awry.

gavinfloydjays

Can the former Chicago stalwart regain his form?

Gavin Floyd

Status

Age: 33

Contract: 1 year, 1 million. Unrestricted free agent at seasons end.

What He’s Working With

Four-Seam Fastball, Two-Seam Fastball, Cut Fastball, Change-Up, Curveball

Like Chavez, Floyd is a strike-thrower who works primarily off his fastball. He threw his four-seamer on 52.2% of his offerings last season, an extremely high number, though it was over just 13.2 innings. He’s normally thrown it roughly 35-40% of the time for his career. He does mix in a breaking pitch more often, throwing his curve 15.1% of the time, and that number used to be closer to 20% in his White Sox days. In 2011 and 2012, his last two healthy years with Chicago, he dialed back the four-seam quite a bit and switched to throwing his cutter a ton, over 35% of the time. The cutter is generally known to be hard on a pitchers arm, and the fact that he’s sustained multiple elbow injuries the past few seasons may have led him to scale back its use, though he still threw it on 16.1 % of his pitches last year and actually threw it harder than he did in his White Sox days, so who the hell knows?

Over/Under 10.5 Starts

This is the hardest one to peg. Floyd was solid at the end of the season for Cleveland last year and has been fine so far in camp. In a recent interview, he revealed that he was told he’d be breaking camp with the big team as long as he was healthy. He has by far the most starting experience of any of the available candidates, and if the Jays can ride him while he’s healthy, why shouldn’t they? He’s cheap and easily replaceable if he struggles. I think that Floyd will get the first crack at the 5th starters job, but be on the shortest of all possible leashes.

The 10.5 number is a good one for Floyd and I’d expect him to be right around there, as I think he’ll ultimately move to a relief role as the season progresses, even if he is healthy. He could fill in for another starter in an injury situation, but I don’t see him moving back and forth between roles that much. I can’t be a wimp though, so I’ll say under 10.5 starts, but just barely. The injury history definitely plays a huge factor here, as the guy has injured and re-injured his pitching elbow multiple times over the past three seasons and while I think the Jays should try to juice the lemon, it’s unclear just how much citrus there is to be had.

Drew Hutchison

Drew Hutchison

Status

Age: 25

Contract: 1 year, 2.2 million. Arbitration-eligible for two more seasons, free agency in 2019.

What He’s Working With

Four-Seam Fastball, Two-Seam Fastball, Change-Up, Slider

Hutchison really only throws his four-seam fastball, using the two-seamer on 0.6% of his offerings in 2015. But like most major leaguers, he relies heavily on the heater, throwing it 65.2% of the time. His slider (23.0%) is his primary other pitch but he does mix in his change-up (11.8%) a significant amount.

Hutchison was excellent in late 2014, and many expected him to break out last season. He had made a subtle but devastating change to his slider and appeared like he could be poised to join Marcus Stroman as an anchor in Toronto’s young rotation. A 5.57 ERA and a a disappointing 150.1 innings pitched later, everyone was wondering just what the hell went wrong. It’s not that Hutchison was flat out bad, exactly (though he was, sometimes). He had some great starts, and some great pieces in other starts, but he had trouble stringing the whole thing together. He also got incredibly unlucky — despite a career low walk rate (6.6%) he posted a career high WHIP, at an ugly 1.48. This was driven by an astronomical .343 BABIP, well above his 2014 and 2012 marks, which were .293 and .291 respectively, much closer to league average. However, I am of the mind that it’s pretty hard to walk people if you’re throwing meatballs and they’re knocking the crap out of the ball, so it’s fair to say that like myriad young hurlers before him, command and consistency are the issues Hutch has to battle.

Over/Under 10.5 Starts

Unless there’s a significant injury to one of the four entrenched big league starters, I think this is a definite under. It’s easy to forget, since we first saw him in 2012, but Hutchison is just 25 years old and still has a great deal of potential. With R.A Dickey, Floyd and Chavez all coming off the books after this season, Toronto will want Hutchison to iron out his issues in Triple A Buffalo with an eye towards 2017; if that doesn’t work out, you can start thinking about converting him to a relief role. I’ve written it before, but I actually think that Hutchison would make a hell of a late-inning reliever, if he can command his fastball. His slider can be wipe-out and as we saw in relief appearances last year, he can dial it up to 95-96 when he comes out of the ‘pen. Setting that aside, it would obviously be best for Toronto if he figured things out in Buffalo and pushed for a promotion to the big leagues as a starter.

Aaron Sanchez

Aaron Sanchez

Status

Age: 23

Contract: Pre-Arbitration Minimum – $512,000. Arbitration-eligible in 2018, Free Agency in 2021.

What He’s Working With

Four-Seam Fastball, Two-Seam Fastball, Change-Up, Curveball, Slider

Like the other three candidates, Sanchez relies heavily on his fastball. Unlike them, Sanchez uses a wicked two-seamer with nasty sink, and he uses it the majority of the time (61.8%). Combine that with the four-seamer (21.8%) and you get a picture of the Aaron Sanchez story- heat, heat and more heat. He does mix in his curve (14.3%) but his change (1.3%) and slider (0.7%) are basically non-existent. Sanchez averaged 97.1 mph on the two-seam fastball out of the bullpen in 2014 and 95.1 mph split between two roles in 2015. That’s with movement. What kind of movement, you ask? Feast your eyes.

.

I mean, come on now.

Over/Under 10.5 Starts

The future of Aaron Sanchez has been discussed by far more competent factions than me. Andrew Stoeten of Blue Jays Nation broke down the question here, coming to the conclusion that Sanchez should absolutely remain a starter if Toronto thinks that where he’s best suited long-term; however, that might mean him starting the season in Triple A. That’s an over-simplification of his piece — I’d definitely take the time to read it. He further points to Sanchez’s horrible numbers against left-handers last season; this is a real thing, as he allowed a .279/.390/.488 line against them last season.

Sportsnet’s Mike Wilner argues the other side of the coin, saying that Toronto should absolutely use Sanchez as a reliever, because as a reliever he’s a known commodity, and an excellent one at that. He says that this, an all-in year, is not the year to waste time figuring out whether or not Sanchez is a starter long-term. He’s still young and should be used in the role where he can absolutely help the team right now, especially since it won’t hurt his long-term prospects of starting.

To that I say phooey. You heard me. Phooey!

History is littered with World Series champions that have relied on young and relatively inexperienced arms in their rotation. Last years Kansas City Royals heavily featured Yordano Ventura, sent down to the minors mid-season. The 2010 San Francisco Giants had Madison Bumgarner. The 2007 Red Sox had Jon Lester. Hell, the 1992 Jays had Juan Guzman, and the ’93 edition had Pat Hentgen, if you want to keep it close to home. I’m sure there are lesser examples elsewhere, but the point is, it’s not that rare and it’s not that big a risk.

In his article, Wilner mentions a stretch of last season that leads me to my faith in Sanchez. After a somewhat bumpy April (which was really just control problems, if you really look at it), Sanchez found himself in May. For 7 starts beginning on May 2nd and ending June 5th, he was easily Toronto’s best starter, pitching to a 2.57 ERA. Remember, this was when Marcus Stroman was freshly injured, R.A.Dickey was struggling mightily and David Price was but a dream. Sanchez allowed just 39 hits over 41.1 innings in that stretch, and while he still walked a few batters, he was absolutely trending in the right direction, culminating in a dominant 8.0 inning performance against the Houston Astros in which he scattered 6 hits and looked untouchable. I watched just about every one of those starts and remember thinking: ‘He’s figuring it out. This is awesome. This is so awesome’.

Cue the lat injury, 6 weeks on the DL and the necessary move back to the bullpen.

Adding an elite arm like Sanchez mid-season is something that can galvanize a winning ball club and put it over the top. So yes, I do think Sanchez is going to start the year in Triple A, unless he morphs into a young Kevin Brown over his next several spring starts. But I think he’ll be back by mid-May at the latest and along with Marcus Stroman, will feature in Toronto’s rotation for years to come.

10.5 starts? I’m going over. Way over.

 

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4 responses to “The Blue Jays Battle for the Five Spot

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