Blue Jays' Top 5 lefty starters: Matheson's take

June 1st, 2020

No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun and debate purposes only … if you don’t agree with the order, participate in the Twitter poll to vote for your favourite at this position.

Here is Keegan Matheson’s ranking of the Top 5 left-handed starters in Blue Jays history. Next week: Relief pitchers.

Blue Jays' Top 5: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | LF | CF | RF | DH | RH SP

1) Jimmy Key, 1984-92
Key fact: Key ranks third all time in Blue Jays pitcher WAR (FanGraphs) with 28.4, trailing only Dave Stieb and Roy Halladay

Key was quietly a cornerstone for the Blue Jays through the late 1980s and early ‘90s, using exceptional control of his pitches to become one of the game’s more consistent starters. Key’s ERA finished north of 3.90 just once in his eight full seasons in the Blue Jays’ rotation.

Key’s peak came in 1987, a season that had “ace” written all over it. Then 26, Key went 17-8 with a 2.76 ERA over 261 innings. He finished second to Roger Clemens in the American League Cy Young Award voting, with Clemens’ strikeout total (256) and 20 wins surely tipping the scales, but Key was worthy.

After so many of those great Blue Jays teams throughout the 1980s fell just short in the playoffs, Key finally got what he deserved in '92 when Toronto won its first World Series championship.

Key’s success goes hand-in-hand with the organization’s rise, too. He spent nine seasons with the club, and in every single one, the Blue Jays had a winning record.

2) J.A. Happ, 2012-14, '16-18
Key fact: Happ finished sixth in AL Cy Young Award voting in 2016 (his first season back with the Blue Jays) just ahead of Aaron Sanchez

Happ is a baseball rarity. The big left-hander’s raw talent was never doubted, but it took him into his early 30s to develop into the pitcher that Blue Jays fans will remember. We’re quick to pressure 23- or 25-year-old prospects to realize their potential at the snap of a finger, but Happ should be held up as the example of sustained career-long development.

Happ is also unique because in both of his stints with the Blue Jays, he did exactly what he was brought in to do, no disappointments or surprises.

Things really started to take off for Happ when he shaved his walk rate from above 4.0 per nine innings to the 2.5-3.0 range later in his career. Happ was Mr. Reliable for the Blue Jays when he returned as a free agent, and pointed to the importance of that consistency when he was named to his first All-Star Game in 2018.

“I say it all the time, but the hardest thing about the big leagues is being consistent, because everybody has the talent and the ability,” Happ said at the time. “It's about doing it for the long haul and doing it consistently. That's kind of how you separate yourself. I've been proud to be able to do that.”

3) David Wells, 1987-92, '99-2000
Key fact: Wells made 111 relief appearances and just two starts over his first three seasons with the Blue Jays, and didn’t become a full-time starter until age 30, when he signed with the Tigers.

Wells actually made more appearances as a reliever for the Blue Jays, but we tend to remember his 21-year career as a starter, so let’s make an exception for Boomer.

Debuting in 1987, Wells spent three full seasons in the bullpen and by the third, he looked like one of the game’s better young bullpen arms. That season ('89), Wells posted a 2.40 ERA across 86 1/3 innings, but a move to the rotation was coming -- at least in part -- the next spring. Wells spent the '90, '91 and '92 seasons shuttling between the rotation and the bullpen, filling some valuable needs for the club.

Wells’ journey took him to Detroit following the World Series win in 1992, then to Cincinnati, Baltimore and New York, before he returned to the Blue Jays in a trade for two more seasons. By then, Wells was fully established as a starter in the league, and a fine one at that. In 2000, he finished third in AL Cy Young Award voting behind only Tim Hudson and Pedro Martinez.

4) Ricky Romero, 2009-13
Key fact: Romero was the Blue Jays’ Opening Day starter in 2011 and '12

We’re still left to wonder what could have been for Romero, whose tremendous talent was held back by nagging knee, shoulder and elbow injuries.

Romero’s rookie season in 2009 overlapped with Halladay’s final year with Toronto, so naturally, the young left-hander was viewed as the potential ace of the future. He fit the bill, too, on and off the field. Romero followed up his strong debut with two excellent seasons in '10 and '11, the latter of which earned him an All-Star appearance for his 2.92 ERA over 225 innings.

The 2005 first-round Draft pick is still involved with the Blue Jays through alumni events and the club’s Baseball Academy.

5) Mark Buehrle, 2013-15
Key fact: Buehrle pitched 200-plus innings in 14 consecutive seasons, including his first two with the Blue Jays

Buehrle was a manager’s dream and the king of the two-hour ball game. Toronto’s all-in push in 2013 brought Buehrle over from the Marlins in a 13 player megadeal and, even though that version of the club didn’t get over the top, it was by no fault of the crafty lefty.

Consistency and durability are what made Buehrle special, leaving him with 214 career wins, 14 consecutive seasons of 200-plus innings and a World Series ring. Manager John Gibbons loved Buehrle, and gave him a chance to hit 200 innings for a 15th consecutive time in the last game of the season in 2015. Pitching on just two days' rest, Buehrle needed two innings, but he could only get two outs while allowing eight runs, all unearned.

Buehrle doesn’t have a Cy Young Award next to his name or a peak season with a 2.00 ERA, but every club in baseball would have been better with him in their rotation. He was also one of his era’s best fielding pitchers, collecting four Gold Glove Awards.

Honorable mentions
The late John Cerutti recorded the first win in SkyDome’s history on June 7, 1989, and was a valuable piece of those late 1980s rotations and bullpens. Each season, our Toronto BBWAA chapter awards the John Cerutti Award to a player who displays goodwill, cooperation and character. … Al Leiter pitched parts of seven seasons for the Blue Jays with a 4.20 ERA, before establishing himself with the Mets later in his career. … Jerry Garvin was an original Blue Jay, pitching for the club from 1977-82, though he made more appearances as a reliever after debuting as a starter. … Tom Underwood pitched for the Blue Jays in 1978-79, posting a 3.88 ERA. … Mike Flanagan pitched four seasons for the Blue Jays (1987-90) with a 3.94 ERA. … Gustavo Chacin had an excellent rookie season in 2005, and “Chacin cologne” remains one of the all-time great giveaway days in Blue Jays history.