DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The Blue Jays’ pitching staff, like everyone else’s, is entering uncharted territory in 2021.
Ramping back up to 162 games after the shortened 60-game season in 2020 will strain rotations and force clubs to dig deep into their system for depth, especially in the latter half of the season.
Toronto’s depth is already being tested, as No. 1 prospect Nate Pearson is out with a right groin strain. It’s not considered serious, but a week or two missed in March carries more weight than it would mid-summer, given that this is when Pearson is building up for the season. On Tuesday, club president and CEO Mark Shapiro said that right-hander Ross Stripling would be stepping into that rotation spot if Pearson isn’t ready.
“[Stripling's] role is either pitching out of the bullpen or giving us depth out of the starting rotation -- the same thing he did with the Dodgers is his role with us,” Shapiro said, appearing on Sportsnet’s 590 The FAN. “He’s going to get a chance, most likely, because it’s hard to see Nate getting built up, although it’s possible still because we’re so early in camp.”
Regardless of how this shakes out on April 1, the Blue Jays’ pitching strategy will take a dozen different forms in 2021. The arms most impacted will be the club’s young starters, given their ability to operate in a variety of roles. Here’s a look at those other options:
RHP Thomas Hatch
The upside: Pitching coach Pete Walker said Hatch has "the potential to be an outstanding Major League starter”
Hatch, 26, had a great debut in 2020, pitching to a 2.73 ERA primarily out of the bullpen. He could make a push for a rotation job based on performance alone this season, but his advanced arsenal and mound presence give the Blue Jays plenty of confidence in him, regardless of role. If you’re looking for true rotation upside from this group, Hatch might be your guy.
RHP Julian Merryweather
The upside: Back-end bullpen potential
Toronto is stretching Merryweather out in camp, but he has the potential to be dominant in a bullpen role, where he could max out his fastball while still leaning on his plus changeup and a slider that he found a better feel for in 2020. Unfortunately for Merryweather, he’s dealing with lower back tightness and is “day to day," so he won’t be appearing in a game this week.
“It’s clear the stuff is there, the weapons are there, the ability to attack hitters is there -- he’s just got to stay healthy,” Shapiro said. “If he stays healthy, he’s going to be a good Major League pitcher.”
LHP Anthony Kay
The upside: The power lefty
Kay’s 5.14 ERA from 2020 is heavily tilted by two rough outings to end the season against the Mets and Yankees, in which he allowed a combined seven earned runs over just 2 2/3 innings. Prior to that, he owned a 2.45 ERA over 18 1/3 innings and he was matching Hatch stride for stride. The Blue Jays like his aggression and Kay brings a fastball that can consistently reach the mid-90s, so a hybrid role could be in the cards. Kay attacks hitters early and often, and being a lefty never hurts.
RHP Trent Thornton
The upside: Maxing out the first time through
Thornton isn’t far removed form leading Toronto in starts and innings in 2019, but it’s a much different group now. Thornton’s role will be interesting to track, but thinking back to ’19, the right-hander often found his trouble in the fifth or sixth after rolling through the early innings. The first time through the order that season, Thornton held hitters to a .229 average and a .696 OPS. If there’s a hybrid role at some point, that could work in his favour.
RHP T.J. Zeuch
The upside: Steady throwback who can haul innings
Need a pitcher to get through six innings, keeping his pitch count down by allowing hitters to put some balls in play with your best defensive infield out there? That’s Zeuch. The big right-hander doesn’t rack up strikeouts and he won’t see high-leverage spots if he’s coming out of the bullpen, but there’s some value in his style and his ability to produce ground balls.
Prospects to keep an eye on
Digging deeper into the system’s depth means prospects, too, and the Blue Jays will be careful with whose timelines they choose to accelerate. Right-hander Joey Murray and his high-spin fastball could end up on the club's radar later in the season, and No. 4 prospect Simeon Woods Richardson, although he’s just 20 years old, could make a late push. Alek Manoah, Toronto's No. 5 prospect, is the perfect example of a hard-throwing prospect who could push for a bullpen role late in a season, but that might be expediting his ETA a bit.
As the season goes on, keep in mind that this isn’t 2019, when the Blue Jays were well out of contention down the stretch. Debuting in the middle of a postseason run is a completely different challenge than debuting on a rebuilding team, so factors beyond raw talent will be considered.