If you were to believe what you read in Batters Box recently there is no hope for the Blue Jays. The low payroll dooms the team to eternal mediocrity. JP's signing and trading record is poor. There is no-one to replace Delgado. There is no-one to replace Hinske, and on and on. Several posters have suggested they do not see how the Jays can escape last place. Just remember the old saying "you are never as bad as you look when you are down". So what is the blueprint for success on a low payroll? Does JP have a plan? Is the light at the end of the tunnel a train?
The Jays plan, to my understanding, has three parts. Part one is the moneyball aspect "find undervalued players". Part two is to use the farm system to develop your own players. Finally you need a strong starting pitching rotation. In this story I want to focus on parts two and three, which I will synthesize as grow your own pitching rotation.
Recently Oakland, Minnesota and Florida have had success with low payrolls. I believe the success rests on a foundation of a strong starting rotation. I contend it is easier to find an above replacement-level hitter than it is to find an above replacement-level starting pitcher. I believe the corner stone of the Jays plan is to develop a strong starting pitching rotation. First let's look at the playoff rotations for the three "model" teams.
Oakland made the playoffs in 2000 to 2003. We all know about Hudson, Mulder and Zito who were a part of all four playoff teams. Gil Heredia and Kevin Appier filled out the rotation in 2000. Cory Lidle replaced Appier for 2001 and 2002. Ted Lilly came in via trade in 2002 and Rich Harden came in for 2003. Let's review the experience of the core starters. Barry Zito was a rookie in 2000 and played only part of the season in the major leagues. Tim Hudson was called up in 1999 and 2000 was his first full season. Mulder's first season was also 2000. So when the A's made the playoffs in 2000, their rotation consisted of two rookies, a second year player, and two veterans in their 30's. For 2001 to 2003 the A's moved out the veterans and went younger with a reliever converted to a starter (Lidle) and traded for a younger starter (Lilly). So the Oakland lesson is develop your own starters, at least the core, and fill around them.
Minnesota made the playoffs in 2002, 2003 and 2004. In 2002 the rotation included Brad Radke, Kyle Lohse, Eric Milton, Rick Reed, Joe Mays, and Johan Santana. In 2003 Kenny Rogers was signed to replace Milton. Radke was a home grown pitcher, but he was in his eighth season in 2002. Lohse was in his first full season in 2002, Mays in his fourth and Milton his fifth. Santana was a rule 5 pick but 2002 was the first year he threw over 100 innings in the majors. So the Minnesota approach was similar to Oakland in that they had a strong core of home grown pitchers, Radke, Lohse, Mays, Milton and Santana. They also filled around them with veterans as required. The difference is that the Twins did not make the playoffs as soon as the pitchers arrived, it took a few years. I could argue that the Twins pitchers were not as strong as the A's and so needed some experience to improve their performance.
Florida made the playoffs, and won the World Series, in 2003. Florida's rotation was Josh Beckett, Dontrelle Willis, Brad Penny, Mark Redman and Carl Pavano. Beckett was in his second year, Willis was a rookie, Penny was in his fourth year, Pavano was in his sixth and was not home grown, neither was Mark Redman. So again a core of young home grown talent, surrounded by a couple of older pitchers.
So could the Jays put together a home grown rotation of pitching studs and when will it be ready? Will the Jays pitchers be premium pitchers, as with the A's and the Marlins, or more average pitchers such as the Twins rotation. I am going to agree with JP Ricciardi and say that the Jays will not have a dominating home grown rotation in 2005. I will look to see who will be available in 2006 and 2007.
On 2004 Roster
Roy Halladay is signed through 2007.
Ted Lilly is under the Jays control for 2006 but will be a free agent in 2007.
David Bush may or may not be a stud. He does not have overpowering stuff but he appears to know how to pitch. Call it two definites and a maybe for 2006, one and a maybe for 2007.
Power Pitching Prospects
Dustin McGowan had TJ surgery in 2004. He will likely be ready to pitch in April 2005 and could be in the major leagues in 2006. McGowan features a 94-96 mph fastball with movement, a slider, a curve and a change. McGowan was rated as the Blue Jays #2 prospect coming into this season. He was rated as #18 in baseball by BA.
Francisco Rosario had TJ surgery in 2003 and after some injuries early in 2004 re-emerged at the end of 2004. Rosario is another 94-96 mph power pitcher who was highly rated before his surgery. BA had him as one of their top 100 prospects for 2004 despite his not pitching in 2003.
Brandon League is another power pitching prospect who we saw this year. We still do not know if he is starter or reliever material so he is a question mark.
McGowan, Rosario and League make for two or three power pitching prospects on the horizon.
Less Powerful Pitching Prospects
Gustavo Chacin pitched very well in his two September starts. He does not have the power repertoire of his fellow prospects but his location and deception could make him a solid starter.
Josh Banks is still only 22. He had to adapt to AA this year but by seasons end looked to be settling in. He should move to AAA in the middle of 2005 and be ready for the big leagues by 2006 or 2007.
Shaun Marcum is a few months older than Josh Banks and was selected the round after him in the 2003 draft. Marcum has moved through the system a little bit slower than Banks but still is a prospect.
Ismael Ramirez is a year older than Banks but has turned in a couple of strong years, including being named pitcher of the year in the Florida State League for 2004. Ramirez is a longer shot but as long as he gets the results he can move up.
David Purcey/Zach Jackson were the Jays top picks in 2004. David Bush made the Blue Jays two years after he was drafted. That is quick and I don't want to put that expectation on Purcey or Jackson, but one of them should be ready for 2007.
So who could be in the Jays rotation in 2006? How about Halladay, Lilly, Bush, and two of McGowan, Rosario, League and Chacin. If Lilly is too expensive we need one of the other pitchers to be ready, or as in Oakland and Minnesota, sign a veteran to fill in the staff. In 2007 you can drop Lilly and add Banks or Purcey or Jackson.
The first thing I like is the possibility that the Jays could have three or four starters throwing in the mid nineties, Halladay, McGowan, Rosario and League all throw smoke, and if the Jays make the playoffs those smoke throwers have greater success. The second thing I like is that McGowan and Rosario have already gone through the TJ surgery so that is not a major risk for them.
So I give you the Blue Jays master plan, one more year to get the studs to the big leagues, and away we go. If other pitchers develop into solid starting pitchers they can be traded for hitters. By 2006 the Jays should have a solid pitching rotation to anchor their playoff push. Have faith, that light at the end of the tunnel is not a train.