Toronto Blue Jays: Scouting the rotation

The Blue Jays offense was one of the best in the American League last year - first in home runs (257) and slugging percentage (.454) - and Toronto now has ex-Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell, who spent the last four years in the AL East working with some of the most impressive arms in baseball, at the helm. Filling the big shoes of Cito Gaston, this first-time manager will not only teach his offense the importance of small ball, he’ll bring 23 years of major league pitching expertise - he started his career in 1987 with the Cleveland Indians - to a club that has officially declared they are out of the rebuilding phase.

Second-year general manager Alex Anthopolous, who replaced J.P. Ricciardi, came to town with a new and different philosophy in the winter of 2009: Focus on scouting and player development (they have seven of the first 78 picks in the upcoming draft), stockpile young talent, abandon the “win now” attitude, and dump the organization’s large contracts. And he did just that when traded ace Roy Halladay to the Philadelphia Phillies - before Halladay could walk away as a free agent at the end of the 2010 season - in a four-way trade that got him prospect Kyle Drabek (son of former Cy Young winner an ex-Oriole Doug Drabek), catcher Travis d’Arnaud and outfielder Michael Taylor.

In terms of unloading heavy contracts, Ricciardi took $69.35 million off the books when he placed Alex Rios on waivers in August 2009; Rios was picked up by the White Sox. Anthopolous followed suit by trading Vernon Wells and the $86 million left on his heavy four-year contract to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim this past January for catcher Mike Napoli and outfielder Juan Rivera. Anthopolous then wasted no time by moving Napoli to Texas for reliever Frank Francisco just four days later.

Although the Blue Jays’ 2011 rotation has yet to be officially set, Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow and Brett Cecil are a lock with Drabek the frontrunner for the fourth spot. Vying for the last spot are Marc Rzepczynski, who had an injury-filled 2010 season, and Jesse Litsch, who holds a 21-24 record over four major league seasons.

Looking at the numbers in-depth, the Blue Jays’ pitching staff ranked 10th in the American League in ERA with 4.22 and fourth in the East behind Boston (4.19), New York (4.06) and Tampa Bay (3.78) but was tied for fourth in the American League with the Chicago White Sox in shutouts (11). The Blue Jays ranked fifth in the AL in home runs allowed (150) and third in the division in strikeouts (1,184), only five behind third-place Tampa Bay who went on to be American League East Champions. Boston, which did not make the postseason, led with 1,207 strikeouts.

Last April, when the Blue Jays were in Baltimore, veteran catcher Jose Molina, who caught 56 games last season, said Toronto’s young pitching staff was one the most impressive group of young arms he’s worked with. This comment weighed heavy coming from a man who caught both Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes during the Yankees’ 2009 championship season. Not only did Molina claim the Blue Jays had the best bullpen in the majors, he said the plethora of young arms have the potential to be All-Star caliber pitchers. Like Jason Varitek in Boston, Molina - entering his second season with Toronto - is more than a catcher in Toronto; he’s a mentor to 25-year-old J.P. Arencibia, who will start the bulk of the games behind the plate. (As mentioned in my Red Sox piece, Varitek is mentoring young Jarrod Saltalamacchia.)

Without further ado, let’s take a closer look at the top four pitchers in the Blue Jays’ projected rotation:

Ricky Romero: This 26-year-old left-hander was drafted by the Blue Jays sixth overall in the 2005 draft and, after two unimpressive seasons in the minors, made his major league debut March 30, 2009. In his first big league start, Romero faced fellow rookie Rick Porcello in Detroit and allowed just two runs and seven hits for the win. After a short stint on the disabled list with an oblique injury (reportedly from sneezing) in early July, Romero became the No. 2 starter behind Roy Halladay. His biggest achievement of the year came when Romero tied the franchise rookie record for consecutive scoreless innings with 24 against the Yankees.

In 2010, Romero emerged as one of the most impressive young arms in the majors when he went 14-9 with a 3.73 ERA. He also showed his durability by throwing a team-high 210 innings. He recorded a career-high 12 strikeouts against the White Sox and threw one of the team’s 11 complete games with a 6-0 shutout over the Rangers. Known for his fierce change-up and curveball, Romero’s fastball can reach 95 mph. He is a career 3-2 against the Orioles but was 3-0 last year in four starts holding the Orioles offense to a .243 batting average. On May 30 at Rogers Centre, Romero threw a complete game against Baltimore when he allowed six hits and one unearned run while striking out seven in the Blue Jays’ 6-1 victory.

Matt Wieters is a career 2-for-13 (.154) with five strikeouts against Romero, Luke Scott is 1-for-12 (.083) and J.J. Hardy is 0-for-4. On the other hand, Nick Markakis is 8-for-26 (.308) with seven RBIs, Adam Jones is 8-for-23 (.258) and Vladimir Guerrero is an impressive 8-for-13 (.615). Jones, Markakis, Scott and Nolan Reimonld have each homered off the left-hander.

Brandon Morrow: After a rough April and May last season, right-hander Morrow, a first-round (fifth overall) pick by Seattle, almost etched his name in major league history. Just one out away from a no-hitter on Aug. 8, Toronto’s No. 2 starter gave up a single to Tampa Bay’s Evan Longoria in the ninth inning at Rogers Centre. What was more impressive, however, was he finished the game with a career-high 17 strikeouts, just one shy of Roger Clemens’ franchise record of 18 set in 1998. If achieved, the no-hitter also would have been just the second in Blue Jays history.

Morrow spent three years with Seattle before being traded to Toronto for sinkerball pitcher Brandon League in 2009. Morrow - converted from a reliever to a starter by the Mariners in his last year in Seattle - was shut down late last August due to inning restrictions (143 1/3). He finished the season, however, with a respectable 10-7 record and a 4.49 ERA.

As both a reliever and a starter, Morrow is 2-0 against the Orioles (three starts, 10 appearances) in his career and has held the O’s bats to a .207 batting average with 13 walks and 28 strikeouts. He’s 1-0 at Camden Yards in two starts (four appearances) and has held Baltimore to a .226 average in 14 2/3 innings with eight walks and 15 strikeouts. Morrow has dominated the Orioles throughout his career; Guerrero is 2-for-8 (.250) with two strikeouts, Jones is 2-for-10 (.200) with four RBIs, Markakis is 4-for-8 (.500) with two walks, Roberts is 1-for-5 (.200), Scott 1-for-7 (.143) and Wieters - the only current Oriole to homer off Morrow - is 1-for-4 (.250).m

Brett Cecil: A University of Maryland standout and Dunkirk, Md., native, this 24-year-old left-hander spent his childhood days at Camden Yards watching the Orioles. A graduate of DeMatha Catholic High School, due to his grandfather’s influence, Cecil grew up a New York Yankees fan and his childhood hero was fellow left-hander Andy Pettitte. The 28th pick in the 2007 draft, Cecil earned a no-decision in his major league debut against the Cleveland Indians in May 2009, but in his second start, tossed eight scoreless innings against Oakland and earned the first win of his career.

Cecil started the 2010 season in the minors, but dominated once he returned to the big leagues. The left-hander finished with a team-high 15 wins and an impressive 11-3 record against AL East opponents. Cecil is undefeated against the Orioles (3-0) with 18 strikeouts and has held the Orioles offense to a .250 batting average in four career starts. He is 1-0 at Camden Yards with five strikeouts over six innings of work.

You want the good news or bad news first? Let’s start with the bad news: Jones is just 2-for-12 (.167) with four strikeouts against Cecil, Roberts is 1-for-7 (.143) and Wieters is 0-for-3 with two strikeouts. In addition, no current Oriole has homered off Cecil. On a positive note, Guerrero is 2-for-2 with three RBI and Markakis is 6-for-12 with one strikeout.

Kyle Drabek: According to Phillies’ general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., prospect Drabek, Toronto’s potential No. 4 starter, was considered a No. 3 starter (at best) in the Philadelphia rotation. With Toronto, however, he’s believed to have enough talent to be an eventual No. 1. A first-round pick by the Phillies in 2006, 18th overall, Drabek underwent Tommy John surgery in 2007, but rebounded with an impressive year with Double-A Reading, when he went 12-3 with a 3.19 ERA and 150 strikeouts.

Drabek - a bit of an unknown - made his major league debut on Sept. 15, 2010 against the Orioles, when he threw six innings at Camden Yards and allowed nine hits and three earned runs while striking out five. In that outing, Brian Roberts went 2-for-3 with a double and a stolen base, and Felix Pie went 1-for-3 with two strikeouts.

Jesse Litsch and Marc Rzepczynski will battle it out this spring for the last spot in the Toronto rotation.

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