Thanks to an offseason makeover highlighted by blockbuster deals with the Mets and Marlins — a body of work that netted them the only solid A in my winter report card series — the Blue Jays are a popular pick to reach the playoffs for the first time since 1993. The acquisitions of R.A. Dickey, Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle and Emilio Bonifacio, as well as free agent Melky Cabrera, are a big part of the reason why three of our seven staffers picked them to win the AL East in our "experts" poll (Cliff Corcoran, Joe Sheehan and myself), and three others tabbed them as a wild card (Joe Lemire, Ben Reiter and Tom Verducci). The popular ZiPS projection system agrees as well, forecasting the Jays for 94 wins, six more than the Rays, and 21 more than they actually won last year.
The additions of Dickey, Johnson and Buehrle to the Jays' rotation are a huge factor in that consensus, mainly because the trio was supposed to join holdovers Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero in one of the majors' deepest rotations. Plans for the team to open the season with that particular starting five have hit a snag, however. The Jays have decided to option Romero to the minors due to his difficulty implementing mechanical changes in the wake of a season in which he was rocked for the majors' highest ERA among qualifiers (5.77) while issuing the most unintentional walks of any pitcher (104). Instead of beginning the season with him as their fifth starter, they'll go forward with fellow southpaw J.A. Happ — a switch that shouldn't have a tremendous impact on the team's outlook for the coming season.
Coming off an All-Star 2011 season in which he set career bests in innings (225), strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.2) and ERA (2.92), Romero missed only one start last year; he took the ball 32 times just as he had in the previous two seasons, albeit with drastically different results. Injuries weren't thought to be a factor even when he skipped a turn in September, but after the season, the 28-year-old southpaw underwent surgery to remove bone chips in his elbow as well as platelet-rich plasma injections to alleviate tendonitis in both knees. The elbow trouble came as a surprise to even the most ardent Jays fans, though in the wake of his ghastly walk rate (5.2 per nine), it made sense. The pitcher believed the surgery helped; in mid-February, he told Sportsnet's Shi Davidi, "It feels 100 times better. I wasn’t able to rotate it at one point [and] I was so sore at the end of the year."
As for the knees, less than two weeks ago, Romero conceded that the injections hadn't helped, though he felt as though other therapies had. Even so, he hasn't been able to incorporate changes to his delivery quickly enough to improve his results on the mound. Spring stats are virtually meaningless, but there isn't much optimism to take from a 13-inning sample with 10 walks, three homers and eight strikeouts.
While he may have succeeded with those same mechanics in the past — pitching to a 3.60 ERA in his first three major league seasons — Romero's delivery showed telltale signs of trouble. Doug Thorburn, a biomechanics expert who covers pitching mechanics for Baseball Prospectus and who analyzed hundreds of hurlers in the fantasy-minded 2013 Starting Pitcher Guide written in collaboration with Paul Sporer, graded Romero's overall mechanics as a D+, with his posture receiving a 40 grade on the scout scale of 20 to 80 (higher is better) and his consistency receiving a 30. Wrote Thorburn:
Romero has a spine that curves like a question mark between foot strike and release point, and he rarely brings the same time signature to the table on consecutive pitches. His momentum fluctuates, but typically runs much more slowly than the 50-grade listed above, and his charge to the plate had diminished between 2011 and 2012. His posture will often dip into the 30's, and he rarely registers the peak mechanics scores that are imprinted on his report card, as reflected by his lack of consistency. Friends don't let friends draft Ricky Romero.
The Blue Jays didn't began implementing Romero's changes until a couple weeks into spring training, and upon demoting Romero, pitching coach Pete Walker expressed regret that they didn't start sooner.
"I wish I had started it earlier… There's no doubt. But he was also in a position with the knees and some things, it's kind of like you want to see how he feels and if that had something to do with the way things went last year.
"But we saw the same inconsistencies after a few weeks that we were seeing last year. I think at that point it was definitely time to do it. Had I started it earlier, there's a possibility he could be ready to break."
Rather than go to Double-A or Triple-A, Romero will remain at the team's minor league complex in Dunedin, Florida and work with instructors on pitching with his hips more square to the plate and on maintaining a consistent arm slot, via which the team hopes he'll improve his command and finish his pitches properly — a process that could take several weeks.
In the meantime, the team will begin the season with Happ as their fifth starter; coincidentally, the 30-year-old southpaw received a two-year, $8.9 million extension on the same day the announcement was made. Happ is coming off a mixed-bag year in which he pitched to a 4.79 ERA in 144 2/3 innings split between the Astros and Blue Jays. While he set a career best by striking out 9.0 per nine, his walk and homer rates (3.5 and 1.2 per nine) were too high for his own good. His career track record, with a 4.19 ERA, is a bit better, but inflated walk and homer rates have prevented him from matching a 2009 performance (2.93 ERA in 166 innings) that netted him a second-place showing in the NL Rookie of the Year voting and helped the Phillies win the pennant.
Though he lacks Romero's upside, Happ is hardly a bad option for a fifth starter or an injury fill-in; he's been worth about 1.1 wins above replacement per 150 innings during his career. If Romero can recover his form to reclaim his spot — whether it's May or June or whenever — the overall impact of his spring struggles will be small. If he can't, the team has plenty of time to sift through other internal options or go outside the organization to fill out the rotation. That said, the slow speed of Romero's recovery rates as somewhat unsettling news amid their other lingering rotation questions. Will Dickey's knuckleball translate to the AL East? Can Johnson and Morrow put together healthy seasons given that between the two of them, they have one string of back-to-back years above 150 innings between them (Johnson in 2009-2010)? The aforementioned experts' prognostications are riding on such questions, and it will be fascinating to see how Toronto's pitching unfolds once the season begins.