April 12, 2012
Jays pitching picture scary good
By Ken Fidlin, QMI AGENCY
All through spring training, manager John Farrell’s mantra was consistent: the Blue Jays would go as far as their rotation can take them.
That talking point has not changed, and will not change.
Six games into the season, the Jays are 4-2 and their starters, with only a couple of exceptions, appear to have gotten the message.
Other than Ricky Romero’s uncharacteristic hiccup on opening day and rookie Joel Carreno’s nervous reaction to his start in Game 3, the starters have thrown strikes, challenged hitters and relied on their defence. They’ve averaged about 6 1/3 innings per start, with a WHIP under 1.00 and an ERA of 2.63.
Friday, Brandon Morrow, who gave up one hit — a home run — over seven innings in his season debut in Cleveland, will try to get his first win against the Orioles.
Despite the relative success of the starting staff so far, it will remain a rather fluid outfit in the coming weeks. Carreno was sent back to Triple A after his start so the bullpen could be expanded to ease the workload that back-to-back season-opening extra-inning games put on the relief corps.
Toronto does not require a fifth starter until Sept. 21 in Kansas City and that assignment could be filled in a number of ways. Aaron Laffey is the probable choice, since he’s experienced and already on the staff. There are other options, whether it is Carreno again, or perhaps one of the Double A prospects — Drew Hutchison, Chad Jenkins, or Deck McGuire. Hutchison and Jenkins are both off to solid starts while McGuire got beat up in his first start, victimized for five home runs in as many innings by a gale blowing out in Trenton.
GM Alex Anthopoulos has said he is unafraid to tap the depths of his minor league pitchers, feeling that several are very close to being ready for the majors.
For a couple of years, the Jays have talked proudly of their stockpile of elite arms but it hit home especially this spring for anyone who visited the minor league complex and saw the multitude of young, quality pitchers. That quality is already asserting itself in the current minor-league season.
Take the Lansing Lugnuts, for example, fourth from the top in the Blue Jay chain. They play in the low class A Midwest League and their pitching staff is a who’s who of major league prospects.
The Lugnuts, through Wednesday’s games, were 6-0 on the season and the pitching staff had an ERA of 1.76 as a unit. Eight of the 13 pitchers who had appeared in games to that point had not allowed a run.
High-end prospects in Lansing include Noah Syndergaard, 19, Anthony DeSclafani, 21, Justin Nicolino, 20, Aaron Sanchez, 19 and Jesse Hernandez, 23. With the exception of Hernandez, those young arms are being stretched out slowly and are being piggy-backed in games. Syndergaard is paired with DeSclafani; Nicolino with Sanchez. Right now, they are limited to three innings each, per game.
Syndergaard and Sanchez have both been clocked at 99 mph this spring.
“Those poor kids,” said assistant GM Tony LaCava, shaking his head and thinking about Lansing’s opponents. “One night they get Syndergaard and DeSclafani. The next night they get Sanchez and Nicolino.”
Between them, those four pitchers have tossed 18 innings, allowed 10 hits, six walks, just one earned run, with 24 strikeouts. It is entirely possible that any or all of them could blow through this level and through Dunedin (high class A) this season.
The Jays have three other short-season teams (Gulf Coast, Bluefield and Vancouver) which begin play in June. As they wait for those seasons to begin, the club has 104 players in extended spring training in Dunedin, working out and playing informal games against teams from other major-league camps. That doesn’t account for the kids in the Dominican Republic who will play for the Blue Jays-sponsored club in the Dominican summer league.
Once those short-season class A teams are populated, the Jays will be ready to bring in this year’s draft class, yet to be selected in the June draft.
Up until just a few years ago, the entire Toronto farm system accounted for, maybe, 150 players tops. Now, in addition to the full rosters at Las Vegas, New Hampshire, Dunedin and Lansing, they have more than 100 biding their time in Florida with as many as 50 more to come from the draft.
In the recently-signed collective bargaining agreement, the signing deadline for players selected in the June draft was moved ahead by more than a month, from Aug. 15 to July 13. That should prove to be better for everybody and allow late signees to join teams and start their pro careers faster than in the past.
The smart players have always known that the quicker they sign, the quicker they can start moving up the professional ladder. In Toronto’s case that is a ladder laden with talent. It’s only a matter of time before it starts to pay off at the big-league level.