Four of the Blue Jays’ five starting jobs are set. Alek Manoah and Kevin Gausman both had great seasons last year and will be back in 2023. José Berríos is coming off a disappointing season but has a strong track record and six years left on his extension, making him a lock on another spot. Chris Bassitt will also be in there after the club agreed to give him $63MM over three years this winter, in addition to surrendering a draft pick and international bonus space because Bassitt rejected a qualifying offer from the Mets.
The final spot is less certain, however, with a few potential options that could step up and take the job. Hyun Jin Ryu is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and could be back around the All-Star break, though that’s still an estimate at this point. Someone will have to take the fifth spot for at least the first half. Even if Ryu does meet that timeline and comes back for the second half, it’s possible that an injury to one of the other pitchers creates a continued need for another arm. Without further ado, let’s take a look at the candidates.
Kikuchi is probably considered the frontrunner for the fifth starter right now, just based on experience. After years of strong work in Japan, Kikuchi came over to North America by signing with the Mariners prior to 2019. He spent three years with Seattle, posting some intriguing but inconsistent results.
He reached free agency after 2021 and signed a three-year, $36MM deal with the Jays. He made 2o starts last year but got bumped to the bullpen after registering a 5.25 ERA in that time. He’d go on to toss 18 1/3 innings in the bullpen with a slightly better 4.91 ERA, though the underlying numbers were more encouraging. His 24.5% strikeout rate as a starter jumped up to an incredible 39.8% rate as a reliever, while his control also improved. He posted a 13.2% walk rate in the rotation but walked just 10.8% of batters faced out of the ’pen. A .371 batting average on balls in play as a reliever perhaps helped to push his ERA up, with his 4.15 FIP and 2.28 xFIP suggesting he deserved better, though it’s also possible he was just getting hit hard.
That’s a small sample size but it perhaps suggests there’s a chance Kikuchi has a nice floor as a left-handed reliever if he eventually gets pushed out of the rotation for good. However, it’s also possible he gets another chance to start since he’s the most experienced of this bunch, turning 32 in June. He can at least bring some velocity, as he averages around 95 mph on his fastball, one of the best such marks among left-handed starters in the game. But it doesn’t seem to be a challenge for big league hitters, as Kikuchi ranked in the first percentile last year in terms of barrel rate, hard hit rate and average exit velocity. He has a 5.02 ERA through 466 1/3 MLB innings at this point and will have to figure out a way to get better results. Even if he gets the fifth starter job out of Spring Training, he should have other guys on his heels throughout the season.
White, 28, was a second round pick of the Dodgers in 2016 and had been a well-regarded prospect in the years after that. He’s spent the past three years without a firm role, frequently being optioned to the minors and recalled to the majors as needed, making starts but also relief appearances.
In 2021, he made 21 appearances in the majors, including four starts. He tossed 46 2/3 innings with a 3.66 ERA, getting grounders at a 47.7% rate while striking out 24.9% of batters faced and walking 8.6% of them. Things went even better in 43 2/3 innings in the minors, with White posting a 1.65 ERA, with a 30.1% strikeout rate and 7.4% walk rate.
In the first few months of 2022, White only made a couple of Triple-A appearances, spending most of his time with the big league club. He made 10 starts and five relief appearances, logging 56 innings. He had a solid 3.70 ERA and 8% walk rate, though his strikeout rate dipped to 19.8%. The Blue Jays acquired him at the deadline but the switch didn’t help his results. He made 10 appearances for the Jays, including eight starts, and posted a 7.74 ERA in that time. His walk and ground ball rates stayed around average but his strikeout rate fell even further to 15.3%.
Despite that rough start to his Toronto tenure, there’s plenty to like in White overall. He was in the 79th percentile last year in terms of hard hit rate, 77th in barrel rate and 63rd in average exit velocity. His .276 BABIP as a Dodger and .368 mark as a Blue Jay explain the different results somewhat. All of the advanced metrics liked his Toronto work much better than that huge ERA, including a 3.76 FIP, 4.68 xFIP and 4.70 SIERA. White is now out of options so the Jays will have to keep him in the bullpen as a long man if he doesn’t snag the rotation job, but he has five years of control remaining and should get some starting opportunities whenever the circumstances allow.
Pearson, 26, arguably has the most upside of anyone on this list. Selected by the Jays in the first round of the 2017 draft, he posted great results in the minors and shot up prospect rankings. Baseball America considered him one of the top 100 prospects in the game by the start of 2018 and he got as high as #7 in 2020.
Unfortunately, injuries have stalled Pearson out since then, as he hasn’t been able to throw 50 innings in any of the past three seasons. Elbow tightness limited him to 18 innings in 2020, plus two more in the postseason. The following year, he dealt with a groin strain and a shoulder impingement, then underwent surgery on a sports hernia at season’s end. Between the majors and minors, he tossed 45 2/3 innings on the year. In 2022, his early season ramp-up was delayed by mononucleosis and he then suffered a lat strain while rehabbing. He was only able to throw 15 1/3 innings in the minors, though he was healthy enough by the end of the year to play in the Dominican Winter League. He tossed 12 innings for Tigres del Licey without allowing an earned run, striking out 36.4% of batters faced.
The fact that Pearson finished the year healthy and dealing in winter ball is encouraging, but it’s hard to expect much from him in the immediate future. He might still be a big league starter someday, but after three straight seasons of injuries and scattered appearances, it’s probably unwise to expect him to suddenly jump to the range of 150 innings in 2023. When he was last healthy for an extended stretch, he pitched 101 2/3 minor league innings in 2019 with a 2.30 ERA, 30.7% strikeout rate and 7% walk rate. The talent is clearly there but his workload capacity is an unanswered question.
Hatch, 28, was a third round pick of the Cubs in 2016 but came to the Jays in a 2019 deadline deal that sent David Phelps to Chicago. Hatch had an encouraging major league debut in 2020, tossing 26 1/3 innings with a 2.73 ERA. However, the last couple of seasons have been a struggle, with Hatch posting middling results in the minors and only getting into four big league games between the two campaigns. In 2022, he made a single start for the Jays and allowed 10 earned runs in 4 2/3 innings. In 131 Triple-A innings, he had a 4.67 ERA, 20.3% strikeout rate, 6.8% walk rate and 44.1% ground ball rate. He’s still on the 40-man and has another option year left, but he’s likely just an emergency starting candidate unless he takes a step forward this year.
Francis, 27 in April, was a seventh-round selection of the Brewers in 2017 but came to the Jays in the 2021 Rowdy Tellez trade. He was added to the Jays’ roster in November of that year to protect him from being selected in the Rule 5 draft. Unfortunately, Francis scuffled last year, despite a scoreless MLB debut that lasted 2/3 of an inning. He tossed 98 1/3 innings in the minors with a 6.59 ERA, getting outrighted off the roster in June.
However, Francis suited up for winter ball, joining Criollos de Caguas in Puerto Rico. That stint has gone extremely well for him, with Francis making nine starts with a 1.51 ERA over 35 2/3 innings. He’s struck out 47 of the 136 batters he’s faced for an excellent 34.6% rate. He’s still a long shot to earn a spot with the Jays since he’s no longer on the 40-man, but he could be an interesting wild card in this deck.
The Blue Jays picked up some extra international bonus pool money by trading Kendrys Morales and Dwight Smith Jr. and used that to sign Zulueta out of Cuba in June of 2019, just before the signing period which began in July of 2018 was set to conclude. At that time, Zulueta had already been clocked at 98 mph, per a report from Shi Davidi of Sportsnet.
Since then, Zulueta’s rise has been stalled by a couple of factors. He required Tommy John surgery shortly after signing and spent 2020 rehabbing. In 2021, he faced one batter before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, wiping out the rest of that year. In 2022, finally healthy, Zulueta had a breakout year in the minors, going from Low-A to High-A to Double-A and then Triple-A. He posted a combined 3.72 ERA over 55 2/3 innings, striking out 33.9% of batters faced while walking 12.9% of them.
At the end of the year, the Jays added Zulueta to the 40-man to protect him from selection in the Rule 5 draft and Baseball America ranked him the second-best prospect in the system, trailing only the pitcher below him in this article. Zulueta is probably more of a long-term play than an immediate solution for the Jays. After some extended injury time, he still needs to build up his workload and refine his command. But once he does, he has a triple-digit heater that headlines a four-pitch mix. He turns 25 his month and has a full slate of options, suggesting there will be no rush to push him into the big league rotation. But as the Jays recently showed with Manoah, they can be aggressive with young hurlers once the pitcher shows himself ready.
Tiedemann, 20, was selected by the Jays in the third round of the 2021 draft. In 2022, he began the year in Low-A and then jumped to High-A and Double-A in his age-19 season. He tossed 78 2/3 innings over those three levels with a 2.17 ERA, striking out 38.9% of batters faced while walking 9.6% of them.
That performance led to him shooting up prospect rankings last year. As mentioned, BA now considers him the best prospect in the system, with Gabriel Moreno having been traded to the Diamondbacks in the Daulton Varsho deal. They also currently have him ranked the #28 prospect in the entire league, with MLB Pipeline similarly bullish by ranking him #33.
Like Zulueta, Tiedemann is probably more of a long-term play than an immediate option for the Jays. He’s still incredibly young and won’t be Rule 5 eligible until December of 2025. However, since he reached Double-A last year, there’s a chance he’ll be knocking on the door this year.
It’s also possible that the Jays look outside the organization to find someone they like better than any of these options. The club has reportedly shown interest in Johnny Cueto, suggesting they could add a short-term veteran to take over and push everyone else down the depth chart. Cueto seems to have plenty of interest, with the Reds, Marlins and Padres among those who seem to be in the mix. If the Jays miss on him, some other remaining free agents include Michael Wacha, Zack Greinke, Dylan Bundy and Chris Archer. If the Jays are willing to swing another trade, the Marlins have plenty of arms available, the Mariners seem to have some openness to dealing Chris Flexen, while the Brewers seem stacked in the rotation and could consider trading someone like Adrian Houser.
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