Blue Jays' outlook rests with health of rotation
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The radically reconfigured Blue Jays feature a deep, diverse lineup that ought to put up runs by the bushel. Their bullpen is laden with power arms and should keep leads safe in the late going.
Nothing in baseball is a certainty, but there are a lot of reasons to feel confident about those two units. For the Toronto rotation, hope might be a better word than confidence.
To be sure, there's ample reason to have hope. At its best, the Jays' starting five could be as strong as nearly any in the American League. R.A. Dickey is the reigning National League Cy Young winner. Josh Johnson led the NL in ERA three years ago. Brandon Morrow led the AL in strikeouts per nine innings in 2011. Ricky Romero is one year removed from a season in which he was an All-Star and ranked sixth in the AL in ERA.
But all four of them come with questions. Dickey has never had a season like his brilliant 2012, and now he moves to a tougher league and a tougher ballpark. Johnson's health is always a worry. Morrow had a career-best ERA in 2012 but also a career-worst strikeout rate as he was helped by an extremely low batting average on balls in play (BABIP). He's topped 150 innings once in his career. Romero is an utter mystery after a baffling 2012.
Want to be optimistic? There's evidence for your case. Want to worry? Plenty of backing for that too.
In between the extremes is a man who has been the exemplification of stability for more than a decade. Veteran Mark Buehrle willingly pokes fun at his own lack of power, but he's durable and predictable, and there's real value in that.
Buehrle has topped 200 innings in every one of the past 12 seasons. He's managed a league-average ERA or better in 11 of those 12 years. Since 1969, when the mound was lowered and baseball expanded, only Greg Maddux has a longer stretch of 200-inning seasons.
That makes Buehrle the perfect hedge for a rotation that has some high-risk, high-payoff bets. It also means that a lot rides on his left arm. The Jays will be counting on him and Dickey to provide innings in bulk so that they don't have to lean too hard on Johnson, Morrow and Romero.
"He's going to be sitting right there in the middle," said manager John Gibbons. "You know what he's going to give you just about every night. It's not going to happen every night, but the majority of the time."
If Dickey and Buehrle pitch as expected, it takes some of the onus off of the other three, but not all of it. They're going to have to perform. The AL East remains a tough place to pitch, and shaky rotations get exposed. Shaky rotations also lead to overextended bullpens.
Johnson must stay healthy. Morrow must do the same, while also finding a way to remain effective when a few more balls drop in -- as they inevitably will. Morrow allowed an eye-popping .253 BABIP last year, far below his career norms and therefore likely to regress. And Romero just needs to get sorted out.
They are, in total, the biggest variable for the 2013 Blue Jays. If they combine for 80 or more starts of effective ball, it should be a very good year. If injuries and/or ineffectiveness strike again, it could be a very long year.
There's one solid backup plan, but if they have to go deeper than that, it gets a little dicey. J.A. Happ is practically the definition of a sixth starter, someone who is more than capable to take a few starts at a time if need be. But there's not a great deal of depth beyond that. If more than one starter blows a tire, there will be issues.
Mind you, that's true in a lot of places. But the six-month baseball season tends to try every facet of a team's talent and depth. Rare is the team that only needs five or six starters over the course of a year.
"On paper, it obviously looks good," Buehrle said. "But we've got to go out there and stay healthy. I think that's the No. 1 goal for not just the starting staff but the whole team. We've got to stay healthy and go out there and make our starts."
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.