Let’s forget for a moment the possibility of trading for one of Cleveland’s controllable stud pitchers. For the rest of this column, I don’t want you to be thinking about Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber or anyone that wears that stylized C. I want you to think about someone a little off the board: the Blue Jays’ Marcus Stroman.
He’ll turn 28 in May, is under team control for two more seasons, and has shown more than a flash of above-average performance in the major leagues. He threw 200 innings in both 2016 and 2017 while being worth almost seven fWAR across those two seasons.
He’s got warts, and we’ll address them, but as the Yankees’ and Jays’ probable windows shift around, he becomes an attractive option to slot in a rotation between Luis Severino and James Paxton, while probably being better than the rest of the Yankees’ starting staff. With Toronto GM Ross Atkins indicating last week that he’s open to moving Stroman if the right offer comes along, it’s worth taking a dive into his performance on the mound and what to expect going forward.
Let’s start with the warts:
Woof. It’s never a good thing to see an ERA that high, no matter what qualifiers you stick onto it. Run suppression is the fundamental goal of a pitcher, and Stroman couldn’t do that in 2018. There’s also a spooky injury history, without even thinking about the freak ACL tear he sustained in 2015.
He missed time with shoulder inflammation in the spring, an injury that kept him from being the team’s Opening Day starter. After recovering, he battled a blister the entire second half, an issue that ended his season early. Blisters seem to be a Blue Jay issue, with Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Joe Biagini and others being downed by the same problem.
Even with a bad year by overall runs allowed and injury, there are plenty of reasons to look at Stroman as a prime bounceback candidate. He didn’t really lose any stuff over his bad 2018:
The only pitch that saw a noticeable drop in velo was his curveball, thrown less than 1% of the time. It’s not a show-me pitch, it’s an “oops I gripped my slider wrong” pitch. His spin rates were similarly consistent:
Stroman’s stuff seems mostly unaffected by his injury and ineffectiveness. This should indicate that his struggles in 2018 were caused by him playing hurt or rusty. Not only were his pitches on their own effective, but what he did with them was relatively consistent as well. Stroman isn’t a strikeout pitcher; instead he is arguably the best in baseball at generating the “right” kind of contact. He led MLB in groundball rate at 62.1%, almost 10% higher than the second-highest rate.
Stroman gets balls on the ground and his Statcast measures show us that the balls in play don’t hurt him all that much. Statcast has a wonderful metric called barrels per plate appearance percentage, which I’ve talked about before. Basically, it tracks how many plate appearances for a pitcher or batter ends in a “barreled” ball. Barreled balls are the kinds of hits that generally turn into extra bases. By this metric, Stroman is better than Robbie Ray and Masahiro Tanaka, and equal to Zack Greinke and Michael Fulmer.
There’s also the story of Stroman in relation to the Yankee rotation. The top of the team’s staff is anchored by Severino and Paxton, and Stroman isn’t as good as those two. After that, the Yankees boast Tanaka and Sabathia, and have been linked extensively to Happ, who would make a lot of sense as someone the team could bring back:
In 2018, Stroman was the only one of these four whose run prevention was worse than the peripherals indicate. His ERA was almost two runs higher than other metrics say it “should” have been, and he’s by far the best of this class at keeping the ball on the ground. This is even more extreme when compared to these pitchers’ place in MLB over the last three seasons:
Stroman is elite at inducing groundballs and preventing home runs, which both obviously play extremely well at Yankee Stadium. His FIP since 2016 ranks better than the other three starters, and his fWAR is in line despite pitching fewer innings than either Happ or Tanaka. In a healthy year, Stroman is better than Happ and CC, and perhaps as good as Tanaka.
The other comps for Stroman, in terms of fWAR, are guys like Jake Arrieta, David Price and Jon Lester. In HR/9, he suppresses big flies as well as Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg and Paxton. By FIP, he compares well with Ray, Jose Quintana and Dallas Keuchel, who will command somewhere in the neighborhood of five years as a free agent.
Stroman profiles as a good third starter, and could be a number two if everything breaks his way. That’s valuable. The Yankees have two top-of-rotation arms, but what’s really killed them the last two years in the playoffs is a lack of rotation depth. In game seven of the ALCS last year and game four of the ALDS this year, the Yankees sent CC Sabathia to the mound in an elimination game, and he lasted a grand total of 6.1 innings between those two starts. The Astros and Red Sox starters combined for 10 innings over those two starts, which is what you want in a playoff game.
The Yankees don’t have the depth in the rotation to measure up well against the rest of the American League. Rick Porcello, who started that fateful game four, is probably an overrated pitcher. Still, in 2018 he posted a better FIP than Sabathia, a better K-BB%, and pitched almost 40 more innings. Depth matters, especially in a pitching rotation. Stroman isn’t the AL Cy Young candidate a lot of Jays fans hoped for, but he’s a strong third starter and that’s worth an awful lot to a baseball team.
Now, we have to talk cost. Stroman has two years of team control, has been less valuable on a per-inning basis than Paxton, but has been more durable. I think the relative costs will be close, with Paxton maybe a little more expensive since teams tend to value ceilings more than floors. The Jays infield is set for the better part of a decade with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, but what they really need is some help on the mound.
The team’s top pitching prospect is Nate Pearson, who can hit 102 mph with ease. A lack of strong secondary offerings means he’s more than likely to end up in the bullpen, and after that there’s not a lot of promise for future rotation slots. Ryan Borucki and Sean Reid-Foley are interesting, but not enough to move a needle I don’t think.
The Yankees have a surplus of 40-50 FV pitching prospects around, with the likes of Albert Abreu, Domingo Acevedo, Jonathan Loaisiga, Trevor Stephan and Clarke Schmidt all in the org’s top 10. Unfortunately, none of these arms are pegged as better than a 50 FV, and as we said above, teams value upside more than anything else.
Justus Sheffield is also a 50 FV prospect, so it’s possible to get to equal value if the Yankees were to give up pieces like Abreu and Loaisiga. The Yankees are unwilling to move on Estevan Florial, which takes the possibility of a very high-upside prospect out of the equation. It would take a lot of legwork, but by using the Paxton deal as a base and then discounting for Stroman’s lower ceiling, the Yankees probably have the pitching pieces to make it work.
The last obstacle would be whether or not there’s a division premium. It has traditionally been difficult to trade between division rivals, and this year’s two intra-division trades – Happ and Nathan Eovaldi – were deadline deals for expiring contracts. It’s entirely possible the Jays hold out for even more rather than trade to a team they have to play 19 times a year.
The rationality of that depends on interest around the league. If the Yankees are offering the best package and the Jays don’t dance, Toronto would lose half their control over Stroman in a season that’s likely not competitive for them. As with every other trade target, however, the Yankees just don’t have the system to get into a significant bidding war.
There are a ton of green flags in Stroman’s 2018 that suggest he’s better than he showed. As it is, he’d fill in as maybe the third-best starter in the rotation, and is worth a deep look. With the Winter Meetings underway, here’s hoping Brian Cashman is willing to go a little off the radar and have a sitdown with Ross Atkins.