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As the GM meetings get underway in Tucson this week, everyone and their Furby agrees that the Blue Jays need pitching; more specifically, a #2 or #3 starter to provide some meat to a rotation with filet mignon at the front end and Quarter Pounders at the back. The consensus appears to be that these meetings will mostly be about laying groundwork, and that trades and (less likely) free-agent signings will take place at the winter meetings next month in Nashville.

There’s not much more to be said about Roy Halladay, and I’ll leave the subject of potential trade acquisitions to a later column. This article is going to take a brief look at the in-house candidates to fill the five-man Toronto rotation next year -- the Royales with Cheese, if you will -- and inquire into whether any of these guys are likely to step up sufficiently to provide around 200 useful innings.

The youngsters
There’s precedent for a young pitching staff collectively “getting it” around the same time. In 1988, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz put up seasons of 7-17, 4.56 and 2-7, 5.48, respectively. The very next year, they went 14-8, 3.68 and 12-11, 2.94. They never looked back, even though the Braves continued to struggle, continuing to lose around 100 games every year till '91. That’s when Steve Avery went from 3-11, 5.64 to 18-8, 3.38, part of the whole Braves team suddenly clicking into place. All of which is to say that while pitchers’ development is usually gradual, sometimes the whole process accelerates, the staff suddenly jells, and a team shocks everyone with its competitiveness.

It's unfair to compare these Blue Jays with those Braves, of course, since Glavine and Smoltz should be in the Hall of Fame someday. But I do think that Mark Hendrickson and Justin Miller are closer to “getting it” than one might think.

Hendrickson, of course, shouldn’t really be called a youngster – he’ll turn 29 next June, and spent several years as an NBA centre of limited effectiveness. But his delayed arrival seems to have been a blessing. Hendrickson’s NBA experience has shielded him from the culture shock of arriving in the major leagues, and he seems to understand his own developmental curve. Many young pitchers become frustrated when the out pitches that worked at AAA become ringing doubles off big-league bats. But Hendrickson should be largely immune to that: he has an old head attached to a young arm, a great combination. He sees the path to big-league success before him, and more importantly, has a good sense of where he is on that path.

In terms of numbers, Hendrickson was lights-out once inserted into the rotation late last summer (three earned runs in 26 IP). But September starts can be deceiving, particularly against the cream-puff opposition Toronto faced that month. Hendrickson went 20-9, 4.02 in his Syracuse career, allowing 170 hits in 165 innings, with 40 walks and 101 strikeouts. But I don’t think these numbers are completely instructive. For one thing, 37 of his 57 appearances were in relief, which evidently is not his strong suit. But more importantly, he really is learning to pitch as he goes along. He did make great strides last year, his coaches marvelled at his on-the-job progress, and I think he’s closer to putting it all together than his experience would indicate. I'll be taking a late-round flyer on him in my '03 fantasy drafts.

As for Miller, he arrived at the AAA level back in 2000, throwing 54 innings for Sacramento and establishing himself as Oakland's 5th-best prospect, according to Baseball America. It was his 2001 season -- 7-10, 4.75 -- that damaged his stock and made him expendable in the Koch deal. Miller has now thrown 264 AAA innings, most of them in the hitter-friendly PCL, and it's quite interesting to compare his AAA and big-league numbers:

Justin Miller

Miller didn't get hit much harder in Toronto than he did in AAA: slightly more hits per IP, slightly fewer HRs. The difference, as it so often is, was in his BB/K ratio, which for the first time in his career was worse than 1/2. Even during his difficult 2001 season at Sacramento, Miller's BB/K was 64/134, which promised a turnaround ahead. From AA onwards, Miller has always given up about a hit an inning and a homer every nine or so; the fact that this didn't change in Toronto is a positive sign. I think that once his BB/K ratio returns to normal, he's going to become more dominant on the mound.

So why did the ratio get so out of whack? I think part of it was that his stuff breaks so hard and so late that umpires didn't know what to make of it, and the benefit of the doubt went against the rookie pitcher. Another factor was his notorious first-inning difficulties. Check out this breakdown of Miller's BB/K ratio and OPS-against according to number of pitches thrown:

# pitches------BB/K-----OPS against

Now, we're getting into sample sizes so small here as to be ridiculous, but that's a remarkable difference in BB/K after the first few batters or so. Now, Miller got knocked around pretty good a few innings later too, despite a good BB/K ratio, suggesting that he may simply have concentration lapses, nothing unusual for a rookie pitcher. It may also suggest that we're getting down to an absurd degree of minutae here, which is distinctly possible.

I suppose that I'm trotting out all this data to suggest that Miller is not far away from being a very effective pitcher. He has the pedigree, the repertoire and the experience to indicate that he's just around the corner from putting it all together. Although I'm not a big believer in spring training performances, I'll be watching Miller's progress in Dunedin to see if he's improving his control and concentration. If he is, then I think you're looking at a solid #3 or #4 starter for the Blue Jays in 2003. If not, it won’t be long afterwards.

The oldsters
Fun fact: Pete Walker was once traded for sabrmetric tragic hero Roberto Petagine, back in 1996. You could look it up. Speaking of tragic heroes, try this exercise: think back to where you were living in 1990, 12 years ago. How many times did you move? How many different schools did you attend or companies did you work for? Now compare your itinerary with Pete Walker’s:

Pittsfield – St. Lucie – Binghamton – St. Lucie – Norfolk – New York – Arizona– Las Vegas – San Diego – Florida – Trenton – Pawtucket – Colorado Springs – Denver – Norfolk – New York – Norfolk – New York – Toronto

Next time someone mouths off about overpaid, pampered baseball stars, show them Pete Walker’s life.

Anyway, as I mentioned in a previous column, Walker’s journeyman career finally turned around in 2001, when he went 13-4, 2.99 for the AAA Norfolk Tides, sporting a nifty 46/106 BB/K ratio with 145 hits in 168 IP. It was the first time since 1992 that Walker had been used primarily as a starter. Ricciardi noticed, took a flyer on him in May and inserted him into the rotation in June. The result: 10-5, 4.33, a 51/80 ratio with 143 hits in 139 innings, and a stabilizing influence on a rotation that sorely needed it. And there was much rejoicing: Walker was cited as an example of Ricciardi’s ability to spot talent wasting away on another team’s bench. And so he was.

That said, let’s not get carried away: Walker did not have a great season, and in many respects had an utterly mediocre one. His 4.79 ERA as a starter was well above the ML median. He allowed 18 long balls and almost 200 baserunners in his 139 innings. And he averaged just 5 2/3 innings per start. These are not bad numbers; they’re just not very good. On most teams, they’ll warrant the 4th or 5th-starter slot and not much else. There’s no reason to expect improvement from Walker, and there’s always the concern that the wheels could come off again. If he has another useful season, consider him to be the gift that keeps on giving.

So who’s this year’s Pete Walker, the diamond in the six-year free agent rough? Ricciardi has already signed a couple of interesting candidates, former Phillies prospect Evan Thomas and one-time Blue Jay and current greybeard Doug Linton. I covered both of these guys in Post #34, below, so I won’t repeat myself here. But my early favourite is Linton. In the last four years, he’s pitched for four different AAA clubs. Here are the results:

1999 – Rochester
7-5, 3.65, 118 IP, 120 H, 27 BB, 97 K
2000 – Colorado Springs
10-13, 5.38, 174 IP, 189 H, 42 BB, 136 K
2001 - Norfolk
7-3, 3.21, 75 IP, 74 H, 10 BB, 67 K
2002 – Richmond
9-11, 2.53, 174 IP, 157 H, 25 BB, 150 K

Toss out his ERA at Colorado Springs: that ballpark is essentially Coors Lite. In each season, he’s giving up around one hit an inning, with superb control, a surprising number of Ks and few extra-base hits. That kind of track record bodes well for a one-year renaissance in Toronto. If Linton can put up the kind of numbers Walker did last year, then the back end of the Blue Jays rotation should be OK. If not, he should at least be a stalwart for Syracuse and end his career in the organization where he began.

So, there you have it. The optimist says that Miller and Hendrickson could both take great strides and turn the corner next year, while Walker and Linton can provide serviceable innings at the back end. The pessimist, who also happens to be a realist, would be happy if two of these four events came to pass. Certainly, the fate of next year’s starting staff rests more heavily on whether Ricciardi can pry a #2 starter from another team. But these four pitchers will have a part to play as well.
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Coach - Wednesday, November 13 2002 @ 11:30 AM EST (#102325) #
As usual, Jordan's done his homework and presents his case well. My observations often fall "between the stats" and are dismissed as "hearsay" by the sabermetric courts, but that doesn't prevent me from sharing them.

Hendrickson was briefly shut down with a sore arm in AAA last summer, and after starting in the first half, was shifted to the Syracuse bullpen when he returned, presumably as a precautionary measure, but also to see if he could help the big club in relief. (He did appear fine after being stretched back out to start for the Jays.) Fans, and the team's medical people, should be a bit concerned about his stamina and durability. If he can stay healthy, and is limited to modest pitch counts, there's little doubt about his ability to hit the low-inside and low-outside corners. A Jamie Moyer slow curve or straight change would be a welcome addition to his arsenal.

Walker, way back when, was part of the Mets overhyped group of young arms -- Jason Isringhausen, Paul Wilson and Bill Pulsipher were supposed to be the second coming of Seaver, et al -- but suffered a number of serious injuries. If I'm not mistaken, he's had numerous major surgeries on his arm and legs. His "conversion" to starting came late because he was never sound enough before. And his Toronto numbers last year reflect the difficulty of adjusting to the role of having no defined role, which could change in 2003. I'm wondering if Pete's even part of the plan; pretty sure he's a six-year FA and no word yet that they've signed him.

Miller, I've mentioned before, strikes me as a guy with some kind of cognitive or emotional handicap; it would be no surprise if he's on medication, a constantly evolving, trial-and-error means of managing a wide range of disorders. His facial expressions and nervous tics are my only clues, but I've coached enough kids with similar challenges to form this opinion, and there are big-league precedents like Jim Eisenreich and Jimmy Piersall, plus many other "characters" who were never diagnosed. Maybe the Jays recognize this, maybe it's been ignored, but there's room for improvement in his apparent lapses of concentration, which may have a physical component. I'm hopeful that he'll continue to improve as he gets more comfortable. I loved watching his September fastball hop all over the place like a souped-up knuckler; it was lively enough to give umpires problems calling it and baffle catchers, so it must be nasty to hit.

The "new" veterans, with oldtimer Linton the most likely to contribute immediately, and young Josh Towers a possibility to thrive in an organization where he's respected, will at least make the competition in Dunedin more intense, and give the club better options than rushing Mike Smith or Vinny Chulk into service.

By the way, the pessimist is never happy. He's a columnist for the Star who will always find fault, even if three of the four rotation questions become answers.
_DS - Wednesday, November 13 2002 @ 01:56 PM EST (#102326) #
This site is probably the most informative and insightful I've read that deals with the Jays. Keep up the great work, guys.

For your point about Justin Miller and his "condition", I remember reading an article on the Jays' official site talking about Scott Eyre and ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). He became aware of it through Miller, who also suffers from it and is also on medication to help cope. I don't know what else they could do to increase his focus....unless they get him to increase his dosage.
_Jordan - Wednesday, November 13 2002 @ 03:04 PM EST (#102327) #
Thanks for the info (and the compliment!), DS -- that's very helpful. I have a friend with ADD and the symptoms match up very well with Kent's observations. It's good to know the Jays are aware of this and are helping him through it. Hopefully, the days of Jim Eisenreich's experiences are behind us.
_Kent - Wednesday, November 13 2002 @ 04:21 PM EST (#102328) #
Parentbooks, my favourite client, hosts "our" blog on their server. They are an amazing resource for families and professionals, and their new Web site (which resembles this one because I'm a beginner) kicks ass.

One of the owners, who has coached with me for years, is an expert on ADD and ADHD, Asperger's, and the entire autism spectrum. The first time we watched Justin pitch, my friend and I agreed he reminded us of some kids we'd worked with, and whenever we see him, that first impression is confirmed. Doesn't mean he can't become a reliable starter; just means he has a different kind of "concentration" and faces some problems much of the baseball establishment doesn't handle well. The Jays, of late, are forward thinkers.

Most pitchers take time to re-learn their craft at each new level, so a lot of Miller's 2002 troubles were normal growing pains, and his improvement from April to September bodes well for his continued development. I wish I knew how he grips that darting fastball.
_Richard - Thursday, November 14 2002 @ 02:41 PM EST (#102329) #
A few comments regarding the Jays starters.

A)Hendrickson:I like this guy a lot(especially after reading an article on extremely tall hurlers in a recent S.I. article)Like Jordan says he's got a 22 year old arm on a 29 year old body.He seems to have a nice fluid motion for a big guy.It's obvious that he's an athlete.Given his relative lack of experience I think there's lots of room for growth.Strangely(given his size), he's at this stage, more of a finesse Glavine type than a power pitcher.If he can use his leverage and athletism advantages to gain 2-3 more MPH on his fastball,he could be special.

B)Justin Miller:Great stuff, but I wonder if he'll ever gain any consistency.The ADD angle is incisive.I also have some concern about this guys mechanics.The "would be scout" in me thinks his herky jerky pitching motion while great for movement,is hard to replicate on a consistent basis.(I also worry about potential injury).I think he struggles early(as Jordan has illustrated)due to problems finding his release point.

C) Escobar:Not a mis-print,he'd be in my starting 5 (with the caveat that his mysterious arm numbness issues are not cummulative in nature.My recollection was that they were always present but not increasing in nature).

Here's why I'd move him back;

1.)Necessity is the mother of invention.
2.)His 2001 tenure as a starter(even with his arm numbness)was outstanding![68 I.P.-53 hits-60 S.O.-25 bb-1.15 whip-3.18 era]
3.)Unlike Politte he has a 4 pitch repitore.
4.)Starters are harder to find than reliever's
5.)Like Miller it takes him several pitches to "lock in".Pitches 1-15 an ops of .795,16-31 a .538 ops[2002 numbers)In 2001 the data is not as strong but still indicative of improvement as the game progresses,.592,.656,.580,.545.
Craig B - Thursday, November 14 2002 @ 08:48 PM EST (#102330) #
"compare your itinerary with Pete Walker’s:

Pittsfield – St. Lucie – Binghamton – St. Lucie – Norfolk – New York – Arizona– Las Vegas – San Diego – Florida – Trenton – Pawtucket – Colorado Springs – Denver – Norfolk – New York – Norfolk – New York – Toronto"

Oh, this is fun. Starting in 1990:

Halifax - Ottawa - Halifax - Montreal - Halifax - Montreal - Ottawa - Montreal - St. Albans, VT - Halifax - Montreal - St. Albans, VT - Hamilton - Halifax - Hamilton - Montreal - Toronto - Hamilton

OK, nowhere near as exciting in terms of destinations, but overall I'd have to say not bad. I only put in transient locations where I didn't actually have a home of my own.

Richard, your analysis of Escobar is bang on.
_Jordan - Friday, November 15 2002 @ 09:23 AM EST (#102331) #
Wow, Craig -- my travelogue isn't nearly as interesting, only four cities (St. John's, Kingston, Toronto, Ottawa) in the space of ten years. But I had 11 different residences during that time, developing a whole new angle on "travelling light." I got so good at moving that I could fit my worldly possessions in a Ford Expedition. Then again, you could fit Roy Thomson Hall inside a Ford Expedition....

I agree that Escobar has the tools to be a dominant starter. The only two obstacles, and I fear they're insurmountable, are (1) this mysterious "arm numbness" that cropped up a couple years ago, and (2) the fact that the team jacked him around so much from role to role that he'll now go ballistic if returned to the rotation again. He's got it into his head now that he wants to be a closer, and I'm not sure the Blue Jays will ever manage to dislodge that. A shame.
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