Amid a pivotal offseason, the Toronto Blue Jays haven’t made any flashy moves thus far, and that’s OK. They have, however, improved several areas of their roster: the defence, offence, bullpen and, most importantly, their starting pitching depth.
You’re probably thinking, “But wait, how has the organization improved that position when only one notable starter — Chris Bassitt, signed to a three-year deal worth $63 million — has been acquired this winter?”
That is a good question, and while Bassitt should serve as a slight upgrade over Ross Stripling, who signed with the San Francisco Giants earlier this off-season, the improvements run beyond the big-league roster. After all, that is where most of their organizational shortcomings occurred in 2022.
Following a season that tested the Blue Jays’ pitching depth, they’ve added a pair of veteran arms to the mix, acquiring Drew Hutchison, the franchise’s 2014 Opening Day starter, and Zach Thompson — who features three minor-league options — along with re-signing Casey Lawrence.
These names won’t excite much of the fan base, and they’re not supposed to. What they will do, though, is act as a "break in case of emergency" gameplan throughout next season. And they’ll be joined by Nate Pearson, Thomas Hatch, Bowden Francis and Yosver Zulueta.
Planning for injuries is never fun, although it’s crucial for all 30 MLB general managers. With the Blue Jays, in particular, they can’t afford to encounter a similar situation that nearly derailed their playoff hopes a season ago.
Yusei Kikuchi was the front office’s sole starting pitching acquisition coming out of last year’s CBA lockout, leaving the franchise exposed at the triple-A level. Toronto was banking on the left-hander to recover from his second-half woes in 2021, but that didn’t transpire.
There weren’t many appealing options in the minors, with Max Castillo, Shaun Anderson, Lawrence and Hatch occupying the Buffalo Bisons’ starting rotation — a by-product of management’s failures to add to that group before the season.
The team attempted the "opener" strategy, as David Phelps, Trevor Richards, Julian Merryweather and Anthony Banda all made at least one start. But that route also proved ineffective.
Without reliable depth to call upon, the Blue Jays had no choice but to hope the 31-year-old Kikuchi would eventually find his footing again, only he never did. The situation became even more dire once Hyun Jin Ryu underwent Tommy John surgery.
Luckily, Stripling immediately extinguished the fire with Ryu’s vacated spot, emerging as an impact starter alongside Alek Manoah and Kevin Gausman. But with the versatile hurler headed out west, he isn’t available to serve as the pitching staff saviour again this time around.
That's why it was vital for Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins to solidify his team’s minor-league pitching depth this offseason. Even with Kikuchi and Mitch White tabbed as the club’s Nos. 5 and 6 starters, the club didn’t previously feature enough arms to survive another rash of injuries or under-performances.
Toronto lost eight of its 14 games started by Castillo, Richards, Merryweather, Phelps, Hatch and Banda last season. Then there were the 13 combined losses tallied in starts from Kikuchi and White. But if injuries and underperformances arise in 2023, they’ll have significantly more options at their disposal.
Thompson, for instance, has the potential to be a sneaky-good acquisition by the Blue Jays. The 29-year-old, acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates on Tuesday, pitched poorly in 2022 but isn’t far removed from his encouraging 2021 showing with the Miami Marlins.
After posting 21 strikeouts over 15 innings at triple-A, Thompson continued his success upon debuting in the majors, earning a 3.24 ERA and a 3.69 FIP across 75 innings, worth 1.3 fWAR. He wasn’t as effective at generating punchouts (21 percent) but limited hard contact (33.9 percent) and home runs (7.1 percent HR/FB ratio).
Most notably, the 6-foot-7 hurler enjoyed an 11-strikeout performance against the Washington Nationals in his fourth career major-league start, finishing with his second victory on the campaign.
Thompson took a major step back this past season, registering a 5.18 ERA and a 4.87 FIP over 121.2 innings with the Pirates. As a result, he was worth just 0.2 fWAR during his second big-league campaign.
So what changed?
The right-hander induced fewer strikeouts (16.6 percent) while surrendering additional hard contact (39.6 percent) and home runs (14.5 percent HR/FB ratio). His pitches — particularly his cutter and four-seamer — also garnered fewer chases, with his percentage declining by almost one percent.
That may not seem like much, but after ranking slightly above league average in that department the previous year, dropping 23 percentile spots impacted his effectiveness.
There are signs of optimism, though, as most of Thompson’s struggles appear to have been caused by mechanical issues. If he corrects his pitching stride, shortened by a few inches in 2022, his pitches’ vertical and horizontal movements should return to normal.
As for Hutchison, he isn’t the same pitcher that Blue Jays fans remember from 2012-16, and understandably so. It has been almost seven years since his first stint with the franchise concluded, and the 32-year-old isn’t a spring chicken anymore, either.
If Hutchison returns to the majors next season, though, he’ll only need to do one thing for this team: eat innings as an emergency pitcher. The right-hander did precisely that with the Detroit Tigers last season, logging 105.1 innings in 18 starts and 10 relief appearances.
The 15th-round selection from 2009 didn’t make any headlines — for all the right reasons — as he wasn’t a liability with his 4.53 ERA and 4.93 FIP. If something goes wrong, Toronto can rest easier knowing the veteran righty will be waiting for his opportunity.
At this point, the Blue Jays probably know what they have in Lawrence, Hatch and Francis, all of which will likely be below Thompson and Hutchison on the depth chart. But that group is already far more reliable than last season’s, and it doesn’t hurt to have Pearson and Zulueta as possible starting candidates, either.
It will, however, be interesting to see if Pearson or Zulueta are stretched out this spring, as both pitchers are likely better suited for relief roles in the long term. And the same goes for Francis, too.
There is also the potential for top prospect Ricky Tiedemann to factor into the equation this season. The Blue Jays will likely emphasize managing his workload for a second straight season, reducing his chances, but he could debut as a September call-up.
Atkins could also acquire another arm or two before spring training begins, especially with Michael Wacha, Chris Archer and Matt Moore still available via free agency. Or perhaps there is another trade to be made, one that could subtract multiple pieces from the 40-man roster, similar to the 2021 Steven Matz deal.
But even as currently constructed, Toronto’s pitching depth is much better prepared to conquer any obstacles the 2023 season throws its way.
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