DUNEDIN, FLA. — The star-crossed Blue Jays, with 27 days remaining until the opener at Yankee Stadium, took a standing eight-count delivered by fate. On Tuesday morning, promising second-year starter Marcus Stroman tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, and he will miss the season. No longer can the Blue Jays even be considered fringe contenders, heading to opening day.
“We’ll survive this. We just have to move on,” manager John Gibbons said in the wake of a meaningless 6-4 loss to the Twins. “Time is on our side to figure things out, but there’s a big hole, no question. We may have to rely on a young guy who may not be proven.”
A reeling GM Alex Anthopoulos was still processing the devastation when he candidly admitted that there was only one experienced starter available on the market, and that the Jays could not afford him. The reference was clearly to the Phillies’ Cole Hamels. For the moment, the Jays will look internally for a solution to the four-five roles behind R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and 24-year-old Drew Hutchison.
The two men in Jays camp affected the most by the injury — other than Stroman himself, who is expected back healthy in 2016 — are 22-year-old right-hander Aaron Sanchez and 21-year-old lefty Daniel Norris. It was believed the plan for Sanchez involved being stretched out as a starter by Gibbons, then cut back to short relief in mid-March in order to prepare for being at least the co-closer with veteran Brett Cecil. Now he’ll likely remain in the spring rotation.
As for Norris, he has been taking a regular starting turn this spring, but if the situation was ideal the Jays would have loved to be able to send him back to Triple-A Buffalo in April to get some more innings under his belt before taking the next step. Do they have that luxury anymore?
Norris may, in fact, be ready for the competition of the major leagues, but can the Jays afford to have three starting pitchers younger than 25 years old in the same rotation and expect to contend in what should be a wide, wide open AL East?
There is precedent for winning with youth, even in recent seasons. The Oakland A’s, in 2013, surrounded 40-year-old Bartolo Colon with Jarrod Parker (24), A.J. Griffin (25), Tommy Milone (26), Dan Straily (24) and Sonny Gray (23) and won 96 games, advancing to the playoffs. But A’s GM Billy Beane had a plan that winter, while Anthopoulos and the Jays are in scramble mode as we speak.
If the first two candidates to round out the rotation are going to be Sanchez and Norris, then the sixth man in the mix is 31-year-old right-hander Marco Estrada, who was going to be on the major-league staff no matter what. Estrada’s significance is that the only way for Sanchez to move to the back end of the Jays’ bullpen is with Estrada in the starting five. The list of candidates with MLB starting experience is slim. Others in Jays camp include Kyle Drabek, Canadian lefty Jeff Francis and Aussie right-hander Liam Hendriks.
What should be mentioned as a soothing thought, to maybe prevent Anthopoulos from completely losing it, becoming totally depressed, is that emerging from training camp a year ago, it was the same trio of starters, Dickey, Buehrle and Hutchison, who anchored that fivesome and it changed dramatically after one month with adjustments for success, failure and injuries.
Joining the returning trio of starters in the 2014 opening day rotation were since-departed Dustin McGowan and Brandon Morrow. It wasn’t until the Jays had completed a series in Pittsburgh in early May that the adjustments were made to add Stroman and lefty J.A. Happ. It’s a long season.
One name that has not been mentioned in the Jays’ panicky new world order of starters is a true dark-horse candidate, but someone who has exhibited as much talent and showed as much understanding of what it takes as any of the other young candidates in camp: 20-year-old right-hander Roberto Osuna. The native of Mexico is in his fourth pro season and will start the season in the minors, just over a year removed from Tommy John surgery. Osuna had impressed the coaching staff and front office even before the Stroman injury. Now he may be forced into being this year’s Stroman.
All this spring, when asked what their biggest need is in order to still be playing in October, Jays players to a man have answered, “We need to stay healthy.”
They dodged a bullet with the meniscus tear to Michael Saunders, but were not so lucky with Stroman’s knee. Until proven otherwise — and that won’t happen here at spring training — the Jays’ hopes of reaching the post-season must be considered dead in the water, with mediocrity the likelihood.