Sunday, April 1, 2012

A Better Back End

We’re greeted this April Fool’s Day by the entirely unsurprising news that Dustin McGowan, sidelined with plantar fasciitis, isn’t expected to be back in action until late April at the earliest, and that his recovery might stretch into May. Everyone put down those ballots for Comeback Player of the Year, and put the caps back on your Sharpie markers, please. This race is still wide open.

I feel awful for Dustin McGowan. The good news, of course, is that this isn’t an arm, shoulder or knee problem, but any setback at this point for the oft-injured pitcher inevitably raises questions about his ability to ever stay healthy for an extended period, and about the contract extension the team agreed to give him during the latter part of Spring Training.

There are still 29 players on the 25-man roster at the time of writing, including McGowan and Jesse Litsch, both of whom will be starting the season on the Disabled List. This is where things get interesting on the back end of the rotation. Kyle Drabek and Aaron Laffey have been, we’re told, in a battle for the final spot that would have been McGowan’s. Drabek would be my pick simply based on upside – an upside that, if even close to realized in the early part of the season, would make for some tough roster decisions when a healthy McGowan is available.

Imagine for a moment a world in which Kyle Drabek, even in limited action in April (since the need for a fifth starter appears scarce), pitches excellent big-league innings. Maybe seven strikeouts per nine, some semblance of control, some knee-buckling curveballs – the sort of performance that makes you want to see more. Can you give him more, if you’re John Farrell and Alex Anthopoulos? Can you, with a newly-extended, now-healthy McGowan coming back on the roster, let Drabek stay with the big club? And if the answer is yes, how do you go about it?

This gets even more complicated if Drabek were to out-pitch Brett Cecil, currently penciled into the rotation alongside Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, and Henderson Alvarez. In that scenario, the options issue enters the equation: both Cecil and Drabek have options remaining, McGowan does not.

Gaming this hypothetical scenario out even further, a resurgent Drabek would force a decision on either a healthy McGowan or a less effective Cecil. This, given the ability to burn an option on Cecil and an already crowded bullpen, becomes not a terribly difficult decision at all. It would surprise me very little to see Brett Cecil in a Las Vegas 51s uniform before the end of May. (Well, I wouldn’t see it for myself, unless someone wants to take me a sweet road trip and pay for it.)

Even highly hypothetical scenarios like this turn Cecil into Exhibit A of the wisdom of accumulating high-ceiling young arms in a team’s system. Cecil was formerly ranked among the top prospects for the organization, back at a time when the organization as a whole was not thought to be all that strong. The Brett Cecil of three years ago probably doesn’t crack the top five pitching prospects at various levels of the Blue Jays’ minor league system that exist today. Sure, Cecil has put in reasonably effective big-league time, which you can’t say about Noah Syndergaard, Justin Nicolino, Daniel Norris or Drew Hutchison. But he’d be behind those guys now.

Now, it probably sounds to you like I’m terribly down on Cecil, but I’m not. I also don’t think Brett Cecil is by any means on the outs with the Blue Jays. He’s just become a different kind of asset for the club than he was when he was first coming up, because the other assets now in place are so much better. In a nutshell, this is exactly what I think Alex Anthopoulos set out to achieve when he took over the organization and set to re-stock it: healthy competition from high-ceiling athletes at all positions, pushing hard against a much stronger core at the major league level for playing time.

If Brett Cecil makes 30 starts for the Jays this year, it will likely either be because of trades and/or health issues with other pitchers, or because the arms pushing against him for a spot didn’t quite reach that ceiling the organization expects – yet. But they’ll still be there, creating tougher, more intense competition, next spring and the ones after that.


George said...

And we can all have wet dreams about how in a couple of years we could afford to trade Ricky Romero for a Roberto Alomar doppelganger, because there are better arms coming up.

Anonymous said...

And after todays Cecil sh!tshow, I hope we don't see Cecil at all...

Paul said...

And explain to me again why we shouldn't have won the bid for darvish or another quality free agent starter?