Ross Stripling could be pricing himself out of Blue Jays' future

Ross Stripling has been a crucial member of the Blue Jays' starting rotation. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Ross Stripling has been a crucial member of the Blue Jays' starting rotation. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

At the start of the 2022 season, the Toronto Blue Jays were projected to feature one of the top starting rotations in the majors. While that hasn’t occurred, no one can complain about Ross Stripling’s sensational performance.

Coming out of spring training, Stripling was assigned to the club’s bullpen, serving as a multi-inning reliever. The right-hander later shifted to a starter’s role when the team temporarily changed to a six-man rotation in April, eventually returning to the bullpen in May.

But when left-hander Hyun Jin Ryu went down with Tommy John surgery in early June, Stripling’s role changed again as he was asked to fill Ryu’s spot in the rotation. And the 32-year-old hasn’t looked back since.

The 6-foot-3 hurler set the tone early, tossing 11 scoreless innings and allowing just two hits across his first two starts upon his return to the rotation. That’s when it became clear he’d be just fine as a starter.

Stripling has been far more than an adequate pitcher, though, as he’s been one of the sport’s best starters over the last three months.

Since taking over for Ryu on June 6, Stripling has posted a ridiculous 2.14 ERA, 2.55 FIP, .216 OPP AVG, 21.2 percent strikeout rate and a 3.3 percent walk rate through 63.0 innings in 12 starts. He’s also been worth 1.9 fWAR during this impressive span.

As a result of his outstanding run, the veteran righty possesses the second-lowest walk rate, the fifth-best ERA and the 10th-best FIP among qualified major-league starters (min. 50 innings), according to FanGraphs. He’s also tied for the 12th-highest fWAR rating.

The Blue Jays, who acquired Stripling from the Los Angeles Dodgers at the 2020 trade deadline, have been extremely fortunate to receive All-Star-worthy results from someone who began this season as their No. 6 starter.

No matter the situation, the fifth-round draft selection from 2012 has delivered when needed and did so once again in his most recent outing against the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday. He held his opposition to just one run on six hits and one walk while striking out six batters over six innings, earning his sixth victory of the campaign.

After winning three out of four games in the Bronx over the weekend, this team badly needed to carry that momentum over to Fenway Park, and Stripling’s showing accomplished just that.

Toronto’s starting pitching has largely been unpredictable for much of this season. Between José Berríos’s inconsistencies, Kevin Gausman’s poor luck and Yusei Kikuchi’s command issues, the pitching staff has mostly been hot and cold. Except for when Stripling’s turn has come around.

The 2018 All-Star has arguably served as the franchise’s most valuable player thus far, and considering he’s earning just $3.79 million, he’s also been a major bargain. But that’s likely to change this offseason.

Stripling’s dominating performance as a starter couldn’t be coming at a more opportune time as he’s eligible for free agency after this season. He was likely poised to command a moderate raise prior to Opening Day, but now a row of teams should be lining up to pursue his services.

If the Pennsylvania native continues to excel, he could potentially play his way out of Toronto.

There shouldn’t be a shortage of talented arms on the market this winter as Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander, Carlos Rodon, Nathan Eovaldi, Sean Manaea, Mike Clevinger and Stripling could all be available. It’s certainly a great time to be a free-agent starting pitcher.

Stripling’s versatility could make projecting his next contract difficult. Based on fWAR, however, right-hander Kyle Gibson’s three-year, $28-million deal could be a close comparison.

In 2019, Gibson made 29 starts and five relief appearances, performing to a 2.6 fWAR across 160.0 innings with the Minnesota Twins. Then, as a 32-year-old, he signed with the Texas Rangers in free agency during the offseason.

With roughly a quarter left in the season, Stripling has already registered a new career-high in fWAR (2.5) and could finish as a 3.0-win player — or better — if he remains healthy. That should help increase his average annual salary. But since he’s a year older than Gibson was in 2019, it’s reasonable to assume he may primarily receive three-year offers.

For any team that misses out on signing top-tier starters this winter, they’d undoubtedly benefit from circling back on Stripling.

Considering how valuable Stripling has been since arriving from Los Angeles in 2020, losing him in free agency would be a devastating blow to Toronto’s pitching staff. Management could very well attempt to re-sign him, but with approximately $149 million on the books for 2023, that could prove unsuccessful.

One way the Blue Jays could avoid losing the former Dodger for nothing would be to issue him a qualifying offer — valued at $18.4 million last offseason. If he declines the offer and signs elsewhere, the club would receive a compensatory pick after the Competitive Balance Round B in next season’s draft.

But it remains to be seen if offering Stripling a QO is in the franchise’s best interest. While he’s enjoying an incredible season, accepting the one-year deal could limit the front office’s ability to address other parts of its roster.

Rogers Communications likely isn't willing to push the Blue Jays’ payroll past the $232 million CBT threshold, so maintaining enough financial flexibility will be crucial moving forward, especially with Teoscar Hernandez and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. also nearing free agency.

There will be plenty of time to speculate about those topics, though. The Blue Jays, meanwhile, are in the midst of a tight battle for the first wild-card seed in the American League. If Toronto is to have any chance of securing home-field advantage, its starting rotation must be at its best down the stretch.

An interesting offseason lies ahead for Stripling, but his time with the Blue Jays is far from complete. His time to cash in on a memorable campaign will come, though before it does, he’ll look to embark on a deep playoff run this fall.

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