Blue Jays' Young Pitching Key For Contention

Cleveland, OH, USA: Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Brandon Morrow pitches during the first inning against the Cleveland Indians in the game at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: Eric P. Mull-USPRESSWIRE

Toronto will need all of their young pitchers to produce if they want to see the playoffs.

The Toronto Blue Jays don't have it easy. They have to contend with baseball's version of Cerberus if they want to get into the playoffs. With the new Wild Card system, it's more likely the Jays get to October than it was before, but they still have to get by at least one of the Yankees, Rays, or Red Sox to do it.

A big season from the likes of Colby Rasmus or Kelly Johnson could go a long way towards that goal, but what Toronto needs more than anything is help from their young pitchers. Ricky Romero is the only dependable starter on the staff, especially after Brett Cecil, who has spent the last three years and nearly 400 innings in the majors, started the year at Double-A after posting a 6.48 ERA and nearly as many walks as strikeouts.

That leaves a whole lot of pressure on the trio of Brandon Morrow, Henderson Alvarez, and Kyle Drabek. It's likely that all three of these pitchers will need to have productive seasons in order for Toronto to have a real chance, but there's no guarantee.

Morrow has spent the last two years with the Blue Jays. He struck out just under 11 batters per nine in 2010, and then he led the American League in strikeout rate in 2011. He's been inconsistent overall, though, as evidenced by the 92 ERA+ in those 325 innings. You would think his K/BB would be higher given the strikeouts, but he gave up over four passes per nine in 2010, and his improved 2011 still saw him walk 3.5 per nine.

He's right-handed, and just 27 years old. He's still young enough to turn things around and become the dominating pitcher he shows flashes of being. Sometimes it takes pitchers awhile to turn those flashes into actual production. Randy Johnson wasn't the intimidating force we remember him as until his age-29 season. In the three previous years, he led the league in walks with K/BB under two. Cliff Lee was also 29 when he put things together and became the pitcher who would sign a lucrative, long-term deal with the Phillies.

It took Frank Viola until his age 27 season -- over 1,000 innings into his career -- before he was consistently better than the average pitcher. Darryl Kile didn't put things together until 1997, when he was 27. Even Nolan Ryan took until he was 37 before he posted a walk rate under 3.5 per nine (not that it hurt him much, and not that Morrow is Ryan).

If Morrow starts the transition to dominant starter this year, then he's not only going to be a huge help to the Jays and their push for relevance, but he might also be their most productive pitcher instead of just the one who's the most fun to watch.

Kyle Drabek impressed in his 2010 debut, considering he was a 22-year-old who jumped to the majors from Double-A. His first full season in the majors last year wasn't to be, though, as he bounced between starting, relief, and the minors, and pitched poorly across the board. His 6.06 ERA not only booted him from the 2011 rotation, but until his strong spring, it was keeping him from the 2012 team as well. Nearly 20 innings and a bunch of groundouts later, Drabek was named the fifth starter

Tuesday was his first start of the season, and he showed both the best and worst of his qualities. Through five innings, Drabek struck out four batters and didn't allow either a run or a walk. He began to look fatigued in the sixth, his command vanishing: Drabek walked three batters and gave up a run before the Jays got him out of there.

He's just 24 and is a year removed from being a top 30 prospect according to Baseball America. He's never going to be a strikeout pitcher, but he has the stuff to get plenty of outs on the ground. If he's even average, that's a boost for the Jays.

Even younger -- and just as promising -- is Henderson Alvarez. He's just 22, and coming off of a very successful 10-start stretch in 2011. He didn't miss many bats, but he has fantastic control, and he struck out five times as many as he walked.

Alvarez killed it at Double-A last year before going to the majors, but he's not quite a finished product yet. He's very reliant on his impressive fastball and sinker, pitches he induces grounders with and throws in the low-to-mid 90s. Neither his change-up nor his slider are effective offerings, though. They don't generate swings-and-misses, and in the case of the slider, doesn't work well for groundballs, either.

He'll need to work on making one of those pitches useful, as he can't get by in a division like the AL East with a fastball, sinker, and cutter forever. The three pitches are all productive for him, but they're all fastballs, and he isn't Mariano Rivera. It's expected there will be ups and downs for him, but, like with Drabek, if he can be useful more often than not, then the Jays might have a chance in the East.

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