Estrada Reportedly Named Opening Day Starter, and 6th Starter Concerns

Article Written by Adam Corsair (@ACorsair21)

No surprise here. Per Arash Madani of SportsNet - 

Honestly, with the rotation Toronto has, any of the five starting pitchers would have been suitable to take the start on Opening Day. With the exception of maybe Boston, the Jays have the best rotation in the AL East; and that's a Sox rotation that includes David Price - something that is still up in the air at the moment. Removing Price, it's not even close. But, having said that, I'm sure sorting the rotation had more to due with projected matchups than an actual ranking of talent. I advise you not to make the mistake of reading Aaron Sanchez as the No. 5 starter in the rotation and think he's the fifth best starter the Jays have. That's a false equivalency. It really doesn't matter who is positioned in the rotation, as all five of them are not just reliable, but capable of being the number one starter on most rotations in baseball. Yet, if there's one person in this rotation that deserves to start for the Jays on Opening Day, I would have to agree that it's Marco Estrada.

Considering Estrada was brought in battling for a relief role when he was traded to the Jays for Adam Lind by the Brewers, this is a major accomplishment for him. I admit that I was guilty of undermining Estrada as a legitimate pitcher, in any role, when the Jays acquired him in November of 2014. At the time of the trade, Estrada was 31 and had just finished a season with an ERA of 4.36, a record of 7-6 in 18 starts and 21 relief appearances for Milwaukee. I think I, like most Jays fans, was underwhelmed with the acquisition and didn't expect Estrada to turn into the pitcher that he blossomed into with the Jays. For that, I'll gladly eat my words and say "God, was I wrong!" I mean, if I'm going to be wrong, I'd like to be wrong about someone not being awesome. 

In his debut season with the Jays, Estrada started 28 games, pitching 181 total innings, with a record of 13-8, 131 strikeouts, 55 walks, an ERA of 3.13, and finished 10th in the Cy Young voting for the American League. Estrada also developed a changeup that has fooled the best of hitters in baseball, and has utilized it as his go-to pitch in his repertoire. Oh, and let's not forget about his performance in the 2015 ALCS against the Royals in Toronto. If you did - 

It still gives me chills.

It gives me chills because it was someone that a lot of the fanbase thought would be a total non-factor and ended up being one of the most impressive and reliable starting pitchers the Jays had. Total and complete vindication.

Estrada's 2015 performance impressed the new Front Office enough that they resigned him in November of 2015 - ostensibly prioritizing him over David Price (hindsight is strange like the, huh?) - to a 2 year $26MM deal. At this point, no one thought that Estrada was a bad pitcher, but questioned whether or not his 2015 performance was a fluke and was perhaps unrepeatable. Well... yeah, about that...

In 2016, Estrada started 29 games for the Jays, and ended the season with an ERA of 3.48, a record of 9-9, 165 strikeouts, 65 walks, over 176 innings pitched, while further utilizing and mastering his changeup. All of this while Estrada was dealing with severe back pains; discomfort that he admits kept him from being 100% for the entirety of the season, preventing him from pitching to his maximum potential. To boot - 

“It was really bad [...] I was never 100 per cent at any point last year. And I knew you could see it in my velocity. I know I was seeing it. I wouldn’t want to look back at the gun during my starts because I knew it wasn’t good. There were a lot of days where I was like, ‘Man, I’m not feeling great out here.'”

I mean, if he pitched that well while not being 100%, you just have to be excited about what he'll be able to do this season with his back woes reportedly behind him. 

As previously mentioned, you could make an argument for any of the starting five pitchers to take the mound on Opening Day. But with how Estrada has morphed himself from practically a no-name into one of the best pitchers in baseball, while making himself synonymous with the changeup, he has more than earned that right to be honored with the role as first in the rotation. Again, don't get caught up in the order and who is positioned where. I mean, if we're arguing over who should be the number one in the rotation, while at the same time agreeing that a case could be made for all five of these candidates taking the Opening Day role, you have to admit that it's an outstanding problem to have! I'll take this all day!

However, (totally shifting gears here), what seems to be a concern for the brass is the state of the Jays' depth for starting pitching.

This is something that shouldn't be brushed off. Injuries tend to be rather frequent and having a reliable pitcher to ease the tension during the absence of any of these five pitchers - for whatever reason - is heavily valued.  During an appearance on The Fan 590, Jays' President and CEO Mark Shapiro voiced his concern with the not-so-subtle drop-off from the fifth starter to the sixth. As it stands, the Jays currently have Mat Latos, Casey Lawrence, Lucas Harrell, Jarrett Grube, and T.J. House that act as candidates to serve as replacements should any of the current starters need to miss some time. A not-so-subtle drop-off, indeed.

I think this is a fair concern to have. It's not unreasonable to anticipate that at least one of the current set of five starters may need to miss some time throughout the course of the season. Baseball is tricky like that and random things tend to happen... often. Sure, the gut-reaction is to scoff off the concern of the abilities of a sixth starter when things look bright. But what happens if Estrada's back tightens up again? Or there's a forearm issue with Happ? Or Sanchez is dealing with shoulder soreness and/or has to deal with an innings limit thing again? (Side note - I DON'T WISH  FOR ANY OF THIS TO HAPPEN! Ok, continuing...) It's not like any of these situations are impossibilities. Thus, having a sixth starter fill in for a team that has the potential of winning the Division (there, I said it) isn't something that should be overlooked. 

Reading between the lines a little bit, maybe what Shapiro is saying - without actually saying it - is he's actively looking for a pitcher that he would feel more comfortable with as a sixth starter. When looking at who's available in free agency, the barrel looks pretty dry, as Edwin Jackson, Tim Lincecum, and Henderson Alvarez (arguably) being the best available, amongst others. I'm not sure of the asking price of any of the available pitchers, but maybe the strategy is to wait until the season starts and make low-ball offers? I don't know. It's not my department and negotiating isn't my strong suit. Moreover, if you ignore the names of the available free agents, do they make you feel any better than Latos does? Sure, Latos' outings this spring haven't been as encouraging as you'd like them to be, - 6.94 ERA in 11.2 innings, giving up 8 hits, 4 of which were home runs, and issuing 7 walks - but if the Jays give him more time as a starter in Buffalo, maybe he could put together a string of starts that are "good enough".... maybe? 

Yeah, I'm not confident either. 

What I am confident in is the notion that the roster isn't a set-in-stone thing, when it comes to depth. The baseball season is a long one, and acquiring depth via trade and/or free agency is certainly not out of the question. But you have to consider that since Shapiro vocalized it, it's got to be something that's on the top of his To-Do List in terms of improving the team.

That, and ya know, improving left-field. But that horse has long been dead.

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