Well, it's not working precisely the way we thought it would work, but the Toronto Blue Jays are finally winning baseball games.
After all, R.A. Dickey is probably still broken, as is Josh Johnson, whose fastball still hasn't come back. The same goes for Brandon Morrow, who recently suffered another setback with his right forearm injury, J.A. Happ, the season's first unfortunate victim of a comebacker to the head, and Ricky Romero, whose career is more or less over for the time being. That leaves 34-year-old Mark Buehrle, the projected fourth starter out of training camp, the only man left standing from the team's original starting five and long man, and though he's been better recently, who has a 4.60 ERA on the year.
Good thing the Jays have Chien-Ming Wang and Esmil Rogers holding down the fort.
Yes, the current Toronto rotation looks something like Dickey-Buehrle-Rogers-Johnson-Wang, with Rogers a converted reliever who came to Toronto in the trade that sent Mike Aviles and Yan Gomes to the Cleveland Indians this offseason and Wang the memorable former Yankee and Nationals pitcher who reinvented himself again this offseason, showcasing his new, even more deadball-like approach to pitching for Taiwan in the World Baseball Classic before bouncing around the minors a bit and ending up in Toronto. The rotation has been helped considerably by Johnson and Buehrle having good months, this is true, but in Wang and Rogers' combined six starts in June, they have put up a 2.29 ERA through 35 ⅓ innings pitched -- far better than the flashier acquisitions from Miami and New York have done at really any point this season.
Can they keep it up? Rogers seems to be building steam with every start, going longer into games, and while he hasn't put up gaudy strikeout numbers since joining the rotation, he hasn't been walking batters either. He's got a better shot of sustaining his success than Wang does just because Rogers is younger, has better stuff at higher velocities, and most importantly has none of Wang's injury concerns so far. That said, if Wang is really back to throwing low-nineties with good control and neither his shoulder nor hamstring explode again, he could really be something for the Jays. Of course he's had only one good start and one bad start so far, but it's something to build on, especially for a guy who's going to be at the back end of the rotation either way.
As for Rogers, he'll live or die as a starter on whether or not his sinker keeps working, and perhaps whether or not he can develop his changeup. The sinker is the pitch that Rogers is getting the most rave reviews about right now -- he's now throwing a slightly slower fastball with mean movement down in the zone to induce bad contact almost as much as his standard heater. We heard a similar version of this story with another former Rockies pitcher, Jason Hammel of the Baltimore Orioles, last year. Hammel's newly effective pitch was a two-seam fastball moving low in the zone, but the general results were the same. It's undoubtedly a nice pitch and Rogers has had success with it so far, much more so than with his straight-as-an-arrow four-seamer, but the movement and effectiveness of a high-contact, low-whiff pitch designed to induce weak groundballs can come and go, as Hammel has seen this season. Much more effective for Rogers, if he could manage it, would be finally making his changeup work.
When Rogers was coming up with the Rockies the lack of even an MLB-quality show-me change -- a pitch that wasn't very good, but that hitters at least had to respect and keep in mind -- was the biggest knock on his ability to stay in the starting rotation as opposed to moving to the bullpen. He still doesn't throw it very often (only a couple times so far this year with the Blue Jays, all of them in the past month or so) but it's still eight to nine miles per hour slower than his sinker. It would provide not only a second legitimate non-fastball weapon in Rogers' repertoire, which very few starters can succeed without, but also something that might get swings and misses in fastball counts.
One other pitcher has contributed in a big way to the recent turnaround, even though he's not in the starting rotation: Newly-minted fireman Brett Cecil. Cecil was one of the Blue Jays pitching prospects from the last couple years who, along with Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison, couldn't perform at the major league level, got hurt there, or both. For the time being at least Cecil has found a home in the pen, stabilizing a group that was woefully weak coming into the year and got even weaker when guys like Rogers and Ramon Ortiz had to fill in as starters. Cecil, a former (and perhaps future) starter, has pitched 37 innings of 1.46 ERA ball, relying on a devastating fastball/curveball combo to strike out 42 batters while only walking 10. Should Johnson or Dickey need more time off, it's difficult to argue too much against giving a guy with those results and a starter's repertoire another shot at pitching every five days. With the less gaudy -- but still effective and impressive -- relief years being put together by Aaron Loup and Steve Delabar, it's not even as if he's carrying the entire weight of the bullpen on his shoulders either.
But with things going as they are right now -- the Jays finally back to just one game under .500, within striking distance of not just the fourth-place Rays but the entire rest of the AL East -- boat-rocking of any kind might not be what manager John Gibbons and the Toronto front office want to indulge in at the moment. After all, forget throwing off the rhythms of the other pitchers; Adam Lind is hitting .340/.406/.555 this year and Munenori Kawasaki has four triples, and that's mojo you seriously do not want to mess with.