Fans and pundits alike are making their voices heard for the Toronto Blue Jays to go out and get a top-flight pitcher on the free agent market this offseason.
The problem is that playoff-calibre teams are not built with free agent or late-career acquisitions: they’re built by acquiring most of their starting pitching early in the pitchers’ careers, particularly for a team with budget constraints (like most major league clubs).
I did an examination of starting pitchers of the 10 playoff teams from 2013 and then I looked at the Blue Jays and what I found was not encouraging at all.
First, my methodology. I had to decide which pitchers to take into consideration and I had to make some seemingly random decisions about where to cut things off. First, I eliminated any starter who made fewer than 8 starts, or a quarter of the season.
Second, I took the starters who were left and put them into two groups: early-career acquisitions (ECA) and later-career acquisitions (LCA). In this case, the cutoff age was 25. Obviously, drafted players and international free agents who signed with the team that they played on in 2013 are ECAs. If a player was 25 or younger when he was traded for, he also considered an ECA. Any player traded for or signed as a free agent at 26 or older is an LCA. Now, let’s look at some numbers.
The ten playoff teams were the Boston Red Sox, St. Louis Cardinals, Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Dodgers, Tampa Bay Rays, Pittsburgh Pirates, Oakland A’s, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves (an appendix is below that has a list of the pitchers I looked at). 63 starting pitchers made at least eight starts and 43 of them were ECAs for a total of 68.25%. This means that, of a team’s starting rotation, more than three-fifths of the rotation was either drafted/signed originally by the team in question or acquired early in his career. If we accept the fact that even playoff teams will have six pitchers who contribute significantly to the starting rotation over the course of the season, four of the six starting pitchers who will be relied upon to get the team to the post season are ECAs.
How do the Blue Jays compare? In 2013, only one starter who made more than eight starts over the course of the season was an ECA: Brandon Morrow. He only made 10 starts last year thanks to injuries.
R.A. Dickey? Acquired before his Age-38 season. Buerhle was 34 in 2013. Happ was acquired during his Age-29 season and Josh Johnson before his Age-29 season. Todd Redmond was picked up on waivers as a 27 year old and Esmil Rogers was also traded for at 27. Only Brandon Morrow was younger than 26 when the Blue Jays acquired him.
To me, this is what sends up the biggest red flags for the Toronto Blue Jays’ chances to compete for 2014.
I’m not saying that teams must build their pitching staffs with ECAs in order to be a playoff team. Most of the teams that went furthest in the playoffs — the Dodgers, the Red Sox, the Tigers — had at least two pitchers in their rotation who were picked up later in their careers. The difference is that playoff teams usually have a home-grown #1 starter and home grown pitchers to fill out the back of the rotation (especially as injuries take their toll) using a couple of later-career acquisitions to beef it up.
Additionally, the teams that have the most LCAs tend to be the ones that have the most money. The Dodgers can afford to bring in big-money free agents like Greinke and even mid-market free agents like Capuano and Nolasco. But they’re also relying one of the best pitchers in baseball, Clayton Kershaw, a guy that they drafted and developed.
Even the Boston Red Sox had three of their six top starters come from their own farm system in Lester, Doubront and Buchholz and don’t get me started about the four or five highly touted minor leaguers that the BoSox have approaching the majors very quickly (including Henry Owens, Anthony Ranaudo, Allen Webster, Matt Barnes and Brandon Workman).
The Tigers, hardly a “budget” team lately, have plenty to boast about with Verlander and Porcello drafted by the team and Max Scherzer acquired at the age of 24 before he really broke through.
As for the Cardinals . . . well, if there’s ever a team you want to model yourself after, that’s it. Of the eight pitchers that made at least eight starts for the club, seven were home grown. Of those seven, six were 26 years old or younger in 2013. If there was ever a recipe for consistent playoff contention, the Cards are providing it; in 2013 alone, the Cardinals made use of more than a full starting rotation of home-grown, good, young starters.
The major leagues have seen a renaissance of good, young pitching and the staffs discussed above are excellent examples. They all have stud starters who have broken through at the major league level with their current team and have been successful. It’s something that the Blue Jays, who could have been doing the same thing in 2014 and 2015, abandoned in 2013 while looking for veteran starting pitchers. Not only did the plan backfire with the veterans struggling to adapt to the AL East or getting injured but they traded away pitchers who could have filled out the spots that contending teams usually fill with their own players: the #1 starter spot and the back of the rotation.
Imagine, if you will, a rotation in 2014 that had Brandon Morrow, Marcus Stroman, Sean Nolin, Kyle Drabek, Drew Hutchison and Henderson Alvarez. R.A. Dickey may very well have been available in free agency after the 2013 season and Noah Syndergaard and Aaron Sanchez would likely have been able to make an appearance at the end of the season much like Michael Wacha and Sonny Gray did last year.
2015 would paint an even brighter picture with Syndergaard and Sanchez anchoring the rotation. How’s that for a 1 and 1A combination — at least one of them will turn out to be an excellent major league starter. You’d also have Justin Nicolino looking to find a spot in the rotation with Anthony DeSclafani (a minor name from the Marlins trade who was named the Marlins’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2013) challenging as well. Don’t even get me started on some of the players that the Jays gave up for J.A. Happ.
If the Blue Jays had stood pat in the 2013 offseason, granted, we wouldn’t have had Jose Reyes on the team but the club would have saved over $40 million on its payroll (not paying Dickey, Buehrle or Reyes) which might have made a more serious offer on Tanaka possible. There would be room for a free agent or two without breaking the bank and even a second baseman. The offense would still be anchored by Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion with Colby Rasmus in center and fans hoping for a breakthrough out of Brett Lawrie. Travis d’Arnaud would still be on the team and would likely have pushed J.P. Arencibia out of the starting role by 2015.
I understand the allure of established major league talent but, as we have seen, it doesn’t always work out. Prospects don’t always work out either but both the quality and quantity that the Blue Jays have traded away has outweighed the talent that they’ve gotten in return. It’s not just about the quality of the players that the Blue Jays gave up, it’s about the way that it impacted the philosophy of the club and about the way that the successful teams have been going about building their starting staffs in the post-PEDs age of major league baseball.
I’ll be the first to admit that I loved the Marlins trade but I was a little cooler on the Dickey deal. The hype around the club going into 2013 was outstanding with increased attendance, coverage of the team and just a general excitement. Making moves at the major league level made that happen. Had the Blue Jays made the playoffs, I wouldn’t be writing this article but the fact is that they didn’t and I am.
It wasn’t just one trade that sunk the Blue Jays. It was three trades from mid-2012 to the 2012/2013 offseason that depleted the farm and pushed back the ability for the Blue Jays to really develop their top home-grown pitchers until late 2014 at the earliest. The best teams in baseball are drafting and developing their own talent. If they’re not doing that, they’re targeting young players through trades before they’ve established a high price for their services at the major league level, enabling teams to have them under control for a longer period of time.
Has Alex Anthopoulos and his staff failed to recognize the strategy that the most successful franchises in baseball have been adopting? Most of these teams have had sustained success identifying and grooming their starting pitchers and the Blue Jays have been outstanding at identifying the talent. They’ve just ignored the fact that they need to develop them into major league starters for themselves rather than spend them to acquire pitchers who are further into their careers, meaning that they’re more expensive and more likely to be on the decline.
Whether AA has been unable to recognize the philosophy of grooming your own core of starters or he’s succumbed to the pressure to make something happen sooner rather than being patient is probably something that we’ll never know for sure. The Blue Jays have several starting pitchers who can make an impact in 2014 but it’s unlikely that any will be that #1 arm. Aaron Sanchez is getting closer but hasn’t pitched at the Double-A level yet. Still, it would be a good start to fill the rotation with arms like Drabek, Hutchison, Nolin and Stroman until the high-ceiling arms start to bubble up in two to three years time. If the Jays hang on to guys like Norris, Boyd, Tirado, Labourt, Robson, DeJong, Hollon and Castro, the Jays could end up with a pitching rotation that looks like the Cardinals’ in a few years. The only problem then will be where they’re going to get the hitters.
Here is a list of all of the pitchers included in this study. An “X” means that they are an Early-Career Acquisition.
X Clayton Kershaw
X Hyun-jin Ryu
Zack Greinke – FA in 2013 (29 yr old)
Chris Capuano – FA in 2012 (33 yr old)
Ricky Nolasco – Traded in 2012 (30 yr old)
X Stephen Fife
Josh Beckett – Traded in 2012 (32 yr old)
A.J. Burnett – Traded in at 34 yr old
X Jeff Locke
Francisco Liriano – FA in 2013 at 29 yr old
X Gerrit Cole
X Charlie Morton – traded at 25 yr old
Wandy Rodriguez – traded at 33 yr old
X Jeanmar Gomez – traded at 24 yr old
X Justin Masterson – traded in 2009 at 24 yr old
Ubaldo Jimenez – traded in 2011 at 27 yr old
Scott Kazmir – FA at 29
X Corey Kluber
X Zach McAllister
X Danny Salazar
X Carlos Carrasco (only 7 starts) – traded in 2009 at 22 yr old