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December 12, 2019
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Blue Jays free-agent starting pitching options

Blue Jays free-agent starting pitching options
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Keegan Matheson

TORONTO — The Blue Jays will land in San Diego for the MLB Winter Meetings next week with one item, written in bold, atop their to-do list: Starting pitching.

While the Blue Jays will continue to explore the trade market — where they can and should use their financial flexibility as a tool, like they did in acquiring right-hander Chase Anderson — free agency offers them plenty of opportunities.

“It’s not good enough to have depth. We have to have guys who can contribute in significant ways,” said GM Ross Atkins earlier this offseason, stressing the importance of reliability and durability in discussions about rotation options.

Like any team, the Blue Jays have a type, and that type is always evolving. Last offseason saw the club make value plays on Matt Shoemaker, Clayton Richard and Clay Buchholz, situations where injuries resulted in a discounted price tag. With ample payroll available, though, that factor should hold a lesser value entering 2020.

Here are three groups of free-agent pitchers — and “types” — viewed through the Blue Jays’ lens:

NO TYPE REQUIRED

Near the top of the market, team trends and preferences might not hold as much weight. Simply put, a great pitcher is a great pitcher, and while the Blue Jays aren’t expected to swing big for Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg, they should be open to engaging with the tier just below.

Lefties Dallas Keuchel and Hyun-Jin Ryu have the talent to pitch at the top of Toronto’s rotation. Both bring track records of success sprinkled with truly dominant years, including Keuchel’s 2015 Cy Young Award-winning season and Ryu’s 2.21 ERA over the past two seasons.

Right-hander Zack Wheeler has the pedigree — and supporting metrics from Statcast to suggest that it’s sustainable — but would the Blue Jays stretch themselves to meet Wheeler’s value, which could exceed $100 million?

THE DURABLE

This is where the Blue Jays’ type becomes more specific. After using 21 starters in 2019, including a slew of openers, Toronto would be absolutely thrilled to get 180 innings from a mid-range starter at a 4.25 ERA.

In 2019, the Blue Jays had to bet on durability with pitchers coming off injuries. This offseason, under a different financial reality, they can raise their own odds.

RHP Tanner Roark The 33-year-old had two excellent seasons for the Nationals in 2014 and 2016, but even if we cut those off to look just at his past three seasons, Roark has averaged 176 innings with a 4.46 ERA. His increased four-seamer usage and high-spin breaking ball are worth noting, too.

RHP Julio Teheran With 30 or more starts in each of his last seven seasons for the Braves, Teheran is a model of consistency with a fastball spin rate that ranks him in MLB’s 70th percentile, according to Statcast. Like Roark, a two-year deal could be realistic.

RHP Rick Porcello Still just 30, Porcello has averaged 185 innings per season over 11 years in the Majors. He’s coming off a down year (5.52 ERA in 2019), but he has succeeded in the American League East with a fastball that spins above-average and a curveball spin that ranks him in the 89th percentile.

Lefty Gio Gonzalez made 27 or more starts in each season from 2010 to 2018 before missing time with arm fatigue in 2019, but the 34-year-old was rock steady for many years. Wade Miley is coming off two strong seasons after struggling in 2016-17. Righty Michael Pineda will need to finish serving a 60-game suspension and doesn’t get the same spin-rate love from Statcast, but the Blue Jays could kick those tires, as well.

THE INTRIGUE PLAYS

This is where we look to some of the younger arms acquired by the Blue Jays to better clarify their type.

Trent Thornton, for example, ranks in the 88th percentile of MLB in both fastball and curveball spin rate. Thomas Hatch, acquired in 2019 and just added to the 40-man roster ahead of the Rule 5 Draft, has a high-spin fastball, and the farm system is filling up with similar arms.

Anthony Kay, acquired in the Marcus Stroman deal, has above-average fastball spin and his curve profiles similarly. Last year’s bullpen, as another clue, was built on high-spin fastballs, while recent Minor League signing A.J. Cole fits the same bill. This doesn’t make it the word of law for the Blue Jays, but it’s valued internally, and it’s enough of a trend to look for comparable hurlers.

LHP Rich Hill Hill’s fastball spin ranks him in the 91st percentile and his curve ranks in the 95th. When the 39-year-old is healthy, he’s excellent, but does he fit on a young Blue Jays team at this point in his career — especially when he’ll reportedly miss the first half of the 2020 season after offseason elbow surgery?

LHP Alex Wood Still just 28, Wood missed the majority of 2019 with a back injury, but he posted a 3.31 ERA over five seasons between 2014 and 2018, four of which were 150-plus innings. His spin rates don’t grab much attention, but he keeps the ball on the ground when he’s at his best.

RHP Jerad Eickhoff He’s never recaptured the heights of his 2016 season, when he had a 3.65 ERA over 197 1/3 innings with the Phillies, but his well-above-average spin rates help his velocity, which tops out in the low 90s.

RHP Collin McHugh Right elbow discomfort sidelined the 32-year-old multiple times in 2019, and the former 19-game winner has thrown more out of the bullpen the last two seasons, but he still boasts very impressive spin rates, making him an intriguing option in multiple roles.

Former Cleveland starter Danny Salazar is on the market and this front office knows him well. He’s made just one MLB appearance since 2017, but someone will give him a look in Spring Training as a lottery ticket. Former Major Leaguer Josh Lindblom, 32, is generating legitimate MLB interest after dominating in Korea while offering, you guessed it, impressive spin rates.

Keegan Matheson is a reporter/editor for MLB.com based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @KeeganMatheson.



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