Before the previous two seasons, which saw the Toronto Blue Jays reach the American League Championship Series in both 2015 and 2016, the franchise went through many subpar years. From 2005 to 2014 the Blue Jays averaged 80.7 wins per season.
During the last seven years of that stretch, the franchise has been without a consistent starting pitcher that falls under the definition of an ‘ace’. In fact, if you are one of the rare fans that was around for the average years you probably remember the name Roy Halladay – the greatest pitcher in Blue Jays history to never pitch in a postseason game for the club.
Since the trade of Halladay to Philadelphia in 2009, the Blue Jays have yet to fill his vacancy atop the rotation. That’s why when the Blue Jays 2017 rotation order was announced by manager John Gibbons on Sunday, it generated some interesting conversation.
Although there’s no true ace amongst the top five, there also doesn’t seem to be a wrong answer when deciding the order heading into the 2017 season. Marco Estrada, who will start opening day on April 3, will be followed by J.A. Happ, Marcus Stroman, Francisco Liriano and Aaron Sanchez. Creating a starting rotation that is amongst the best in the American League, even without a true ace.
Any of those five pitchers could have started opening day for the Blue Jays. Estrada was an all-star in 2016, Happ had his first career 20-win season, Stroman won Most Valuable Player at the World Baseball Classic after six no-hit innings in the championship game, Liriano is a former ace when he was with Pittsburgh and Sanchez probably has the best stuff on the entire staff.
Gibbons and the rest of the coaching staff clearly made the decision to split up their right-handed and left-handed pitchers as Happ and Liriano – the two lefties – are positioned in between the three righties. However, the rotation order is a good one for more reasons than just dividing the righties up.
Placing Sanchez as the number five pitcher more than likely gives the Blue Jays the best fifth starter in the entire MLB. So, when Sanchez pitches, the Blue Jays should have the edge in that category more times than not but Sanchez can also go up against any team’s number one.
The 24-year old is coming off an all-star season and his first as a full-time starter. The one concern in regards to Sanchez could be that the Blue Jays have decided to ease him into spring after he pitched a lifetime high 203.2 innings (including the postseason) last year. The slow start in spring training could mean a slow April for Sanchez, but it could also help him put up another Cy Young calibre season.
Through March 27, Sanchez has pitched 7.1 innings in spring. He’s struck out six, walked six and given up six runs.
The other young pitcher on the Blue Jays, Stroman, is looking to have a bounce back season. Stroman missed much of 2015 after a torn ACL injury. Last season, his third season in the majors, Stroman had a career-high 4.37 earned run average.
At the WBC, Stroman looked like a pitcher out to prove something. He led the U.S. team with 15.1 innings pitched, struck out nine while only walking two, gave up four runs and had a 0.91 WHIP. If this is a sign of things to come from Stroman, he will silence his doubters from 2016 (including me).
Both lefties, Happ and Liriano, are having impressive Springs. Wins don’t mean much for a pitcher, but along with his 20-4 record in 2016, Happ had his best ERA (3.18) since the 2009 season – Happ also had a 1.85 ERA in 11 starts with Pittsburgh in 2015.
Liriano, with the Pirates last year looked to be on a decline in his career. However, once traded to Toronto, he had a 2.92 ERA in 10 games (eight starts). He also struck out 52 and only walked 16. This Spring, Liriano has pitched 14.1 innings, having only given up three runs, striking out 25 and only walking four – his sinker and slider have looked good with solid movement.
The opening day starter, Estrada, dealt with some back issues during 2016, so although he had an all-star season, he’ll have to look to stay healthy in 2017. If he can begin to fool batters with his changeup like he did in 2015 and early-2016, he’ll be an ideal number one.
It’s only March, but this Blue Jays rotation could be a top-five rotation in the MLB. One injury could stall that because they lack depth after these five. They may still have no true ace, but this is the best starting five the Blue Jays will begin a season with over the last three years.
Last year the success of the rotation shocked many as it was supposed to be the offense that led the team. In 2017, no one should be shocked if this Blue Jays starting rotation carries them back to the postseason for a third consecutive season.