Unlike on the position player front, the Toronto Blue Jays are aligned favourably with their pitching plans for the 2024 season, both in the starting rotation and bullpen. However, they’ll need to bolster their staff by adding at least one arm this winter.
With Hyun Jin Ryu now a free agent, odds are that addition will likely come in the form of a starting pitcher, albeit a back-end one whose eventual arrival probably won’t send shockwaves throughout the club’s fanbase.
Starting pitching depth has proven troublesome for the Blue Jays in previous seasons due to their failures to develop MLB-calibre hurlers. It’s a recurring crisis that nearly derailed the franchise’s 2023 playoff hopes amid Alek Manoah’s disastrous campaign.
Toronto received below-replacement-level production from its Opening Day starter last season. In most cases, that likely would’ve meant missing the postseason — only it didn’t. Instead, with the rest of the staff staying healthy, they used an MLB-low eight starters.
The Blue Jays were fortunate things played out that way, and they can’t assume their top-four of Kevin Gausman, José Berríos, Chris Bassitt and Yusei Kikuchi will remain as healthy as they did last season.
On top of that, there’ll be an open competition for the No. 5 rotation spot next spring, headlined by Manoah. But he’ll also be joined by Mitch White (out of options), Bowden Francis, Wes Parsons and, potentially, top prospect Ricky Tiedemann — creating the need for an external addition.
As such, let’s comb through a few free-agent starters who could help fortify the organization’s starting pitching depth.
LHP Martín Pérez
2023 Stats: 35 appearances (20 starts) — 4.45 ERA, 93 SO, 49 BB
Pérez could be an ideal low-risk, high-reward signing for the Blue Jays, with the 32-year-old coming off a 2023 World Series victory with the Texas Rangers and only two seasons removed from being a four-win pitcher.
This past season was a struggle for Pérez, whose strikeout rate dropped 5% from a career-high 20.6% in 2022 while also struggling to avoid the long ball (1.33 HR/9). But most of his woes were caused by one pitch: his ineffective cutter.
That offering, which he utilized 22.1% of the time this past season, was the veteran lefty’s best weapon in 2022, as evidenced by its plus-13 run value. Just one year later, however, it fell to a minus-13 value — making it the worst cutter in baseball by that metric.
So what happened? And more importantly, why would the Blue Jays be interested in a pitcher who lost his starting role a season ago?
One of Pérez’s biggest issues was his command, especially with his cutter, which went from being located up and in versus righties to missing off the plate inside. Part of the problem may have lied with his horizontal release point, as it rose almost 20 inches on average from season to season.
If Toronto’s coaching staff can help the former Ranger reverse course, he could return to the pitcher who effectively limited barrels (4.3%, 92nd percentile) and induced plenty of ground balls (51.9%, 86th percentile) in 2022.
RHP Michael Lorenzen
2023 Stats: 29 appearances (25 starts) — 4.18 ERA, 111 SO, 47 BB
After spending most of last season with the Detroit Tigers, Lorenzen was sent to the Philadelphia Phillies in a deadline deal, and the 31-year-old didn’t waste any time becoming a fan favourite in the City of Brotherly Love.
In just his second post-trade start, the veteran righty no-hit the rebuilding Washington Nationals, punching out five while walking four. That followed his remarkable debut with the franchise, where he allowed only two runs on six hits across eight innings.
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) August 10, 2023
The good vibes didn’t last much longer, though, as Lorenzen performed to a 7.96 ERA with 11 walks and 14 strikeouts over his final five starts, leading to a move to the bullpen for the rest of 2023. But that may have been a blessing in disguise.
Shifting to a relief role was met with positive results, with the seven-pitch hurler twirling 6.2 scoreless innings to conclude the season, including his two playoff appearances. And that versatility is an integral piece of what makes him an intriguing target for the Blue Jays.
Lorenzen doesn’t throw hard or rack up waves of strikeouts, but he’d likely be a worthwhile depth addition to Toronto’s staff. Plus, he’d give the team a reliable innings eater out of the ‘pen if he fell short of claiming that final rotation spot.
RHP Kenta Maeda
2023 Stats: 21 appearances (20 starts) — 4.23 ERA, 117 SO, 28 BB
Injuries have been a major story for Maeda over the last few seasons, as he missed all of 2022 due to Tommy John surgery and sat out for two months this year because of a triceps strain. He did, however, impress when he was on the mound for the Minnesota Twins.
On the surface, most baseball minds probably didn’t give the 35-year-old much attention after witnessing his ERA north of four. But if we look under the hood, we’ll find his value stemmed beyond his traditional metrics.
Maeda placed in the top third percentile of the majors in multiple categories: chase rate (31.2%, 76th), strikeout rate (27.3%, 77th) and walk rate (6.5%, 78th). He was also well above average at generating swings and misses (28.2%, 66th).
While hitters registered a 42.1% hard-hit rate (26th percentile) against the veteran righty, he still finished with a 3.77 xERA, with most of his damage coming via home runs. His slider, in particular, was the main culprit behind that issue, as it was responsible for 10 of his 17 dingers allowed.
The pitch that sets Maeda apart is his splitter, just as it does for Gausman, as it earned a plus-8 run value in 2023 — three spots behind Erik Swanson’s (+14) for the major-league lead — while serving as his premier punch-out offering.
Despite spending this fall in the bullpen, the Twins primarily used Maeda as a starter during his three seasons with the organization. But he thrived in a hybrid role with the Los Angeles Dodgers earlier in his career, a template the Blue Jays could follow in 2024.