As with the entire Toronto Blue Jays lineup, the starting rotation has been constantly in flux this year. Relievers have been converted into starters, younger pitchers have been sent down and new ones have been brought up.
So where does this leave the rotation heading into September, and what will the Jays’ pitching look like in 2012?
Halfway through the season, the only two starters who seemed to be confirmed for next year were their opening-day starter Ricky Romero and their strikeout masterBrandon Morrow.
Brett Cecil struggled early in the year and was sent down to Triple-A for a good portion of the season. But since his return, he has pitched very well. Cecil was a 15-game winner last season; so as long as he doesn’t suffer another regression, he should be the third starter for 2012.
At the start of the season, Kyle Drabek and Jesse Litsch held down the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation.
Drabek had difficulty keeping the ball down and locating the strike zone, so he ended up giving up a lot of walks and hits. He was sent down to Triple-A to work on his location, and though his numbers aren’t strong, both his manager and Drabek believe he is ready to come back to the majors. He has pitched 65 innings for a 4-3 record, a 6.51 ERA, a 2.03 WHIP, with 37 walks and strikeouts.
So does Drabek get the call-up when the rosters expand in September? Or should he have more experience in the minors, perhaps even be sent down to Double-A? The management has suggested that they believe that Drabek has accomplished everything he can in Double-A and that his delivery and mental approach are ready for the majors once again.
He may not find initial success, but he needs to work through any struggles and there is nowhere he can learn more than he can in the majors. The Blue Jays also need to evaluate where he is in his development and if he can fill a rotation spot next year.
Litsch, on the hand, suffered any injury midway through the season, and when he returned, he found a place for himself in the bullpen, where he has done very well. He has allowed just six hits in 13 innings with 16 strikeouts (before Wednesday’s game against the Royals). His comfort in this role makes him a good long-relief candidate for next season who can fill in with the occasional spot start when necessary.
Carlos Villanueva was a converted reliever and performed well throughout the season in the starter’s role, often making at least six innings and keeping the Jays in the ball game. But he too went down with an injury, and John Farrell has said that he will return to his relief role when he is healthy again.
Another converted reliever is Luis Perez, who, when he got his chance to start, pitched six innings and combined with Casey Janssen for a one-hit shutout. Perez has never excelled in the starting role before, but with more experience and a new team behind him, this could be his chance to shine. He should finish out 2011 in the rotation depending on how he pitches and would therefore be a candidate to start with the team next year. He would be the third left-hander in the rotation along with Romero and Cecil.
Henderson Alvarez is also a new addition to the starting staff—one of the youngest Blue Jays to ever take the mound at 21. Alvarez was called up from Double-A, where he was one of the statistical leaders of the New Hampshire pitching staff with an 8-4 record, a 2.86 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP.
Alvarez has asserted himself well at the major league level, While he hasn’t dominated by any means, he has shown poise on the mound, a tendency to throw strikes and the ability to get ground ball outs. If Alvarez continues to develop at this level and adds a third pitch that he can throw with confidence, there is no reason that he cannot continue to be a starter with the Jays next season.
Finally, there is the potential and long-anticipated return of Dustin McGowan. As of August 17th, he had nine appearances between High-A and Double-A, with a 1.90 ERA in 23.6 innings and a 24/10 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
McGowan hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2008, but has worked hard and endured several surgeries to fight his way back. He should be increasing his inning limit to five in one of his next two starts, and if that continues to go well, the Blue Jays should see McGowan back in the majors in September.
It is still far too early to suggest that he is candidate to be part of the rotation in 2012—or even if starting is the role that suits him best at this point, but whatever the case—Blue Jays’ fans will be happy to see his return.