With injuries in the rotation forcing the Blue Jays to patch their way through April and May, they’re still waiting for a young arm to step up, grab a job and run with it.
Anthony Kay got his second crack at doing just that on Tuesday night in Oakland, but the lefty allowed four runs early in a 4-1 loss to the A's. Kay was followed by Trent Thornton who looked very impressive over 2 2/3 scoreless innings. That’s something to remember as a spot in this rotation is sitting right there for the taking, but given Thornton’s success in that role as part of one of baseball’s best bullpens, the Blue Jays may not want to mess with a good thing.
“Trent’s been outstanding in that job,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “He’s what you want in that job, somebody who comes in as a long guy when you’re down by one, two or three runs and he keeps you in the game. That’s what he’s been doing. Good teams have guys like that and that’s what he’s been doing, just an outstanding job.”
The Blue Jays' bats couldn’t close that gap, with just three hits and a walk on one of their quietest nights of the season against a dominant Cole Irvin, but Thornton did his job nonetheless. With so many bullpen days and piggyback games, the role of a long reliever comes with more value -- and leverage -- than it once did.
On Kay’s side of the equation, both he and Montoyo highlighted the big inning as the elephant in the room. Four-run frames can’t happen, so Kay’s next step is to eliminate that, or at least find a way to limit the damage to just one or two runs.
Montoyo didn’t feel that Kay was pitching inside as aggressively as he usually does, which is something the manager typically loves to see. As a result of Tuesday's struggles, Kay’s approach will be a focus going forward.
“I think the main point is that I might get a little too tight there trying to make too good of a pitch with runners on,” Kay said. “I think I need to keep pitching how I do when I have those one-two-three innings, and hopefully that will limit that.”
One thing that sets Kay apart from others like Thornton, T.J. Zeuch or Ross Stripling is that the Blue Jays view Kay as a starter, period. Hybrid roles are very much in fashion, not just with the Blue Jays but across Major League Baseball, but the Blue Jays have not wavered in their belief that Kay will remain in the rotation. He’s been staying stretched out at the alternate site as rotation insurance for much of April, but this competition is still as tangled as it’s ever been.
The auditions began back in Spring Training, of course, and they’ve been ongoing. This entire picture has changed by the day, though, as Steven Matz is the only member of the originally projected five starters who’s both remained healthy and kept his job.
Hyun Jin Ryu is as steady as ever, but is currently riding out the tail end of a brief IL stint with a glute strain. Robbie Ray is rolling now, but missed the start of the season with a left elbow contusion after tumbling down the stairs. No. 1 prospect Nate Pearson, who was supposed to be this rotation’s most exciting arm, opened the season on the IL after straining his right adductor. He began his season in Triple-A on Tuesday night, where he struck out eight over 3 2/3 innings. Tanner Roark struggled and was quickly designated for assignment.
That laundry list of injuries and inconsistencies has led the Blue Jays to where they stand now. Stripling and Zeuch have gotten looks in the starting rotation, but neither has put up the numbers a club with postseason expectations needs. This would have been a perfect opening for the underrated right-hander Thomas Hatch to step into but he, too, is on the IL.
Prospects will be on the way eventually, led by Simeon Woods Richardson (No. 4) in Double-A and Alek Manoah (No. 6) in Triple-A, but that’s something to hope for come September, not next week. Pearson and Ryu returning to the rotation will get this group back closer to “normal," too, but there’s still a need for some upside at the back end.
The Blue Jays have the depth to play the hot hand when everyone’s healthy, but a hand needs to get hot first.