2021 Toronto Blue Jays Spring Training Preview (Part 5B: Other Starting Rotation Hopefuls)
Note: Because of the sheer amount of starting pitchers in camp, I’ve decided to split the starting pitching section of the preview into two parts. The first part is already out, so check that out before or after reading this post.
Part 1: The Bullpen
Part 2: The Outfield
Part 3: The Infield
Part 4: Catchers
Part 5A: Starting Pitcher Locks
In 2020, the average MLB team used an average of 9.8 starting pitchers over the course of the season. If you want to go back to a season that wasn’t U N P R E C E D E N T E D , the average in 2019 was 12.3. My point being that you can’t just run five guys out in the rotation and call it a day. To not account for injuries and the constant flux of an MLB team is to beg for the opportunity to burn a 40-man roster spot the likes of Mike Hauschild, Ryan Feierabend, or Joe Biagini out there. Not that we would know anything about that.
For as shaky as the Jays’ projected starting rotation is, the upside is that they have some solid depth waiting in the wings for their shot. At least a few of them will almost certainly get a shot, and for the moment, the Jays can feel okay about hucking one of them out there and remaining reasonably confident that they won’t get embarrassed.
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FEELS WEIRD TO HAVE A SECTION SPECIFICALLY FOR TOMMY MILONE, BUT HERE WE ARE
Tommy Milone, left-handed, non-roster invitee, no options (pictured)
This soft-tossing veteran left-hander started the 2020 season with Baltimore, where he posted an ERA of 3.99, and peripherals of 3.99 xFIP, and 3.85 SIERA. On July 20, 2020, he was traded to Atlanta, where a nice season became a catastrophic tire fire. Milone only played three games and 9 ⅔ innings with Atlanta before being placed on the IL, and his peripherals for that stint aren’t terrible (though they aren’t particularly good), but they can only do so much to cover up a 14.90 ERA.
Over the last three seasons, Milone hasn’t struck out a lot of guys, but he’s only walked four per cent of batters and has done a good job at limiting hard contact. The Jays could do a lot worse for depth candidates, regardless of how dogshit Milone’s tenure with Atlanta ended up being. He has an off-chance to start the season with the team, but will likely begin the year on the taxi squad (assuming he accepts that assignment) and maybe get called up for spot starter duty while attempting to carve out a permanent, or at least more stable, role on the team.
THE BUFFALO BISONS STARTING ROTATION
Julian Merryweather, right-handed, options
Trent Thornton, right-handed, options
Thomas Hatch, right-handed, options
Anthony Kay, left-handed, options (pictured)
T.J. Zeuch, right-handed, options
It almost feels like yesterday that Merryweather was shipped to the Jays from Cleveland as the Player to be Named Later in the much-maligned Josh Donaldson trade. It’s a shame that’s what he’s most known for, because in an admittedly tiny sample size, Merryweather has kinda fuckin’ ruled. His vicious fastball is his best pitch by far, sitting in the high 90s and flirting with triple digits. His slider, changeup, and curveball aren’t shabby at all either. If he can put it all together as a starter, he could be a low-key special pitcher.
Of course, that’s a big “if”. The main knock against Merryweather has been his devastating injury history. He missed the entire 2018 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and since then, he’s pitched a grand total of 25 innings at any level. And he’s currently being held out of spring training games because of lower back tightness. Not ideal!
Even if he can’t handle a starter’s workload though, Merryweather, who ranks at #12 on FanGraphs’ Blue Jays prospect list, has the stuff to excel in the pen, so long as he can stay relatively healthy. Let’s hope so, because his stuff is too good not to play.
Speaking of stuff, Trent Thornton!
It’s hard not to feel bad for Ol’ Goggles. After a perfectly serviceable rookie season in 2019, (1.6 bWAR) Thornton hoped to carve out a more permanent niche in the Blue Jays’ rotation in 2020. Suffice it to say, that did not happen. Thornton pitched a grand total of 5 ⅔ truly bad innings, with an 11.12 ERA and 3.18 WHIP being the stats I will use to illustrate the point (though the 2.66 FIP and 5.72 xFIP are a little more optimistic to, uh, various extents. Again, small sample size). He’ll hope to compete for the fifth rotation spot, but his most likely destination is Triple-A, where he’ll hope to put in some solid innings in Buffalo and get some spot starts with the Jays, though his high-strikeout, high-walk tendencies and nasty curveball lead me to believe the bullpen is probably his long-term home anyways.
Thomas Hatch came over to the Jays over the 2019 trade deadline in exchange for *checks notes* David Phelps? Neat! Hatch made the 2020 Jays right out of the gate and impressed, riding his four-seamer, sinker and changeup to a 2.73 ERA in 26 ⅓ innings. And as a fellow four-seam/sinker/changeup pitcher (albeit inferior in pitching ability by a trillion degrees, and in height by four inches), that speaks to me personally.
Of course, that excellent ERA comes with a whole bunch of qualifiers. In July and August, Hatch pitched to a 1.56 ERA over 17 ⅓ innings. Which is good! Grand even! However, he faded down the stretch, posting a 5.00 ERA in nine innings in September. There’s also the possibility that there was a little bit of smoke and mirrors at play. None of his 5.06 xFIP, 4.80 xERA, or 4.80 SIERA paint a super rosy picture. He definitely profiles as more of a starter anyways, so some more time to develop into the role in Triple-A wouldn’t be the worst thing.
Anthony Kay is kind of in the same boat, though his 5.40 ERA in 35 big league innings matches his peripherals (4.86 xFIP, 4.80 SIERA) a little more accurately. Kay looked good coming out of the bullpen at points for the Jays last year, but his metrics don’t exactly stand out, as his hard contact and strikeout rates are about average, and he’s still walked way too many hitters. He’s looked good in spring training so far, where he and Hatch have been working on new pitches, but a little more refinement at Triple-A and the occasional spot start is the likely outcome for Kay.
T.J. Zeuch, the 2016 1st round draft pick, feels like the forgotten man out of the “Buffalo Five”, a name that I desperately hope catches on. It’s not been for lack of trying, either. Zeuch ditched his curveball for a mid/high 80s cutter that nicely compliments his sinker/slider combo. He gave a heroic performance last year on September 26 against the Orioles in which he pitched five shutout innings, though the fact that he allowed a bunch of hard contact and didn’t strike anybody out is a little deflating.
That’s not to say he’s bad! He has the potential to be a fine pitcher, if not a ton much more. On a team with less depth, maybe Zeuch, 30th on Fangraphs’ 2021 Jays prospect list, has a clearer shot at a back-end spot in the rotation, but as it stands with the Jays, he’s going to have to out-pitch a whole bunch of guys to get a shot at any significant amount of big-league action.
WAITING ON 2022
Simeon Woods Richardson, right-handed, non-roster invite
Alek Manoah, right-handed, non-roster invite
Elvis Luciano, right-handed, options
C.J. Van Eyk, right-handed, non-roster invite
Adam Kloffenstein, right-handed, non-roster invite
Nick Allgeyer, left-handed, non-roster invite
Along with Anthony Kay, Simeon Woods Richardson came over to the Jays in the Marcus Stroman trade. He’s highly regarded in prospect evaluations (72nd on Eric Longenhagen’s Fangraphs’ Top 100 list, 3rd on their Jays prospect list, and 8th on Keith Law’s Jays prospect list), and his eye-opening spring debut has prompted the question of if he’ll be ready for the call to the Majors at some point this year. Far be it from me, some dope on the internet, to suggest that we should pump the brakes, but Woods Richardson hasn’t pitched above High-Class A yet, and his velocity, usually at around 92-94 mph, was sitting at 90-92 at the alternate site (though he was trending upwards later in the season), according to Longenhagen.
Buzzkill aside, Woods Richardson has still been excellent in the minor leagues, racking up strikeouts and limiting walks with excellent command. Longenhagen says the following on his profile.
“SWR works with both four- and two-seam variants, and also has the screwball action changeup that’s now en vogue and a curveball that has good shape thanks to his arm slot but lacks power. An athletic two-way high schooler, Woods Richardson was lauded a little extra because he’s so competitive and works about as fast as any pitcher in the minors. There’s still a viable three-pitch mix here but I’d like to see the velocity bounce back in 2021.”
So there’s definitely a ton to be excited about! But there’s also enough refinement to be had to think that SWR will spend the vast majority of the season in the minors. There’s a chance that he may earn himself a late-season call-up, but given that he doesn’t even turn 21 until September 27, I don’t think the Jays are going to be feeling much pressure to call him up until they think he’s ready.
23-year-old Alek Manoah had a similarly impressive spring debut and is roughly just as highly regarded as Woods Richardson. He comes in at 8th on Longenhagen’s Jays prospect list, 3rd on Law’s, and 79th on Law’s Top 100 list.
Law says the following on Manoah:
“Manoah sits 93-94 and can touch 98, with an above-average slider and above-average changeup as well as a curveball he can land for strikes. He is big, 6-6 and 260 in college, and only pitches from the stretch, but he throws strikes and attacks guys consistently with his fastball, an approach that should continue to serve him well as he moves up the ladder. He does have to keep his body in shape, but if he stays healthy he should be in the Blue Jays’ rotation within the next two seasons, with mid-rotation upside.”
Manoah has pitched a grand total of 17 innings in the minors in Short-Season A ball with the Vancouver Canadians, so he’s probably even further off than Woods Richardson. That said, he’s gotten rave reviews so far and could find himself on the fast track, even if it’s probably not realistic to expect him up this year.
Fun fact about Elvis Luciano: Despite not having pitched in the majors since September 27, 2019, there are only seven pitchers currently in camp with the Jays that have pitched more innings on the big league team than Luciano’s 33 ⅔: Hyun-jin Ryu, Tanner Roark, Jacob Waguespack, Ryan Borucki, Trent Thornton, Francisco Liriano, and Anthony Kay.
Luciano made his debut for the Jays in April 2019 at the age of 19, after being selected in the previous December’s Rule 5 Draft from the Arizona Diamondbacks. He became the first player born in the 2000s to play in MLB, filling me with existential dread in the process. He had previously never pitched above Rookie ball, so expectations were not high for him beyond maybe soaking up some garbage time innings.
As it turns out, he was… Well, he was still bad. He had no business being in the big leagues, which was entirely not his fault at all. But! He held his own way more than expected, and the Jays valued his potential and kept him on the active roster (when he wasn’t injured) throughout the whole season. In his recent piece on “post-prospects,” Longenhagen says the following on Luciano.
“His pitch data from the alt site has him sitting 93-94 with average slider and changeup movement; I have nothing on the command. I think the workload leap teams’ pitching staffs are about to experience and the fact that Luciano has option years makes it likely that we see him in the big leagues at some point in 2021. He’s still only 21, and would be a 35+ FV prospect (major league-ready up/down relievers live there) were he eligible.”
For the moment, Luciano is being developed as a starter. That said, the fact that he does have major league options and experience does mean that him getting called back up to the majors at some point is very possible. With that said, I think there are other options the Jays would probably prefer to turn to especially in terms of starters.
Both Longenhagen and Law have 22-year-old C.J. Van Eyk at number 10 on their Jays prospect lists. Cornelius Johannes Van Eyk, who, tragically, does not go by his full name, is a bit of a mystery to evaluators, as his only action since being drafted in June 2020 has been in the Fall Instructional League, out of which there is very little information. So they only really have their evaluations from his time at Florida State to go off of.
“Van Eyk might have ended up in the first round had there been a full spring in 2020; he looked great in preseason and in his first outing, was up and down for three outings after that, then the world ended before he could prove the early version was real. He was 91-95 mph with a nearly 12/6 curveball that was plus when he was at his best and a hard changeup. I didn’t love the cutoff in his delivery, which limited his ability to go to his glove side, but the Jays can probably get him more online to the plate. He has a good chance to be a No. 4 starter, with a ceiling a tick above that.”
Meanwhile, Longenhagen says the following:
“Van Eyk flashes three plus pitches, but rarely all at the same time, and his control comes and goes. There’s mid-rotation upside here if everything comes together consistently. What scouts think of Van Eyk has depended on when they’ve seen him. Late in 2019, he put on some clinics against Georgia and NC State and again in his first start of 2020, which put him in the Day 1 mix, but in other games he’ll walk four or five guys and look like a reliever. You might attribute this to a lack of balance in the lower half that could improve with strength and flexibility.”
Sure! Sounds grand! More importantly, GO BY CORNELIUS JOHANNES VAN EYK PLEASE, I BEG OF YOU.
Adam Kloffenstein was one of the few minor leaguers to log easily accessible stats, receiving permission to pitch in the Constellation Energy League, a temporary league organized in Sugar Land, Texas by the Sugar Land Skeeters, then of the independent Atlantic League, but who have since become the Houston Astros’ Triple-A affiliate. More fun facts: The CEL also played home to the likes of Dalton Pompey, Brett Eibner, Brandon Beachy, Scott Kazmir, and the God-King Fernando Rodney. You can’t say you don’t learn things here at JAYSLAM.
In 21 ⅓ innings in the CEL, Kloffenstein pitched to a 4.64 ERA, 20.8 K%, and 12.5 BB%. That’s certainly not great, but given that the CEL was an offshoot of the Atlantic League, which is at around a Double or Triple-A calibre of play, and given the additional fact that Kloffenstein had never pitched above Short-Season Class A, I think those results are probably fair.
Longenhagen says the following on Kloffenstein:
“Still just 19-years-old for much of 2020, Kloffenstein filled out pretty fast, maybe a little too much, but he looked a little leaner during the summer. In the past Kloffenstein has shown two different (but not especially distinct) breaking balls and a changeup, but the sinker and slider are clearly at the forefront of the profile right now and mostly what he worked with in 2020. The mean projection is somewhere on the sinker/slider Blake Treinen reliever and a grounder-getting No. 4 or 5 starter line.”
FINALLY. The last player I’ll be talking about in these spring training positional previews. The last entry in this Great American Novel that I ended up writing. That distinction goes to Nick Allgeyer, by far the most recognizable of any player I’ve listed.
The 25-year-old Allgeyer was drafted in the 12th round of the 2018 draft out of the University of Iowa. In 2019, he pitched 118 ⅓ innings in High-Class A Dunedin to a 3.95 ERA, 3.56 FIP, and 3.48 xFIP, striking out 20.9% of hitters while only walking 5.8%. That last stat is key, as Allgeyer’s success depends on him limiting walks as much as possible, as he doesn’t rack up a lot of strikeouts. Currently unranked on any of the major prospect lists, he’ll likely start the season in Double-A, where he’ll hope to keep his under-the-radar success going.