The boys in the chorus

Tuesday, November 12 2002 @ 10:39 AM EST

Contributed by: Jordan

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.