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Jays could use spark from Marcus Stroman

6/7/2014

The first thing you notice about Toronto Blue Jays rookie pitcher Marcus Stroman is that he's short. There's no two ways about it: at 5 feet 9, he is unusually vertically challenged compared to the pool of baseball players at large. And pitchers? Forget it. He's tiny.

But the second thing you notice about Stroman is that he has a big arm. Like 95-mph fastball big. Filthy slider big. First-round draft pick big. Top-100 prospect by Baseball America twice big.

The reconciling of these facts has produced uncertainty about Stroman's future: Is he a top-flight starter, as the stuff implies he can be? Is he a closer because his body can't take the workload of throwing 100 pitches every five days? Does he spend his entire career injured because he'll break down regardless of his role? The list of good recent short starting pitchers basically goes: Kris Medlen, Mike Leake and Wandy Rodriguez. And those guys are all 5-10. You have to go back to Tom Gordon in the mid-'90s to find a starting pitcher with success while being 5-9. (Not that being big is any guarantee of greatness. Stroman's opponent Friday, Lance Lynn, is a bear of a man, 6-5 and listed at 240 pounds. He has a 98 ERA+ from 2012-14.)

Nevertheless, for now, Stroman is a starter, and an effective one. He has started twice and in each game has gone six innings and given up one run while striking out more than a batter per inning. He doesn't always seem to know where his fastball is going, as seen on a hit-by-pitch of Matt Holliday on Friday as well as a couple of hard-hit balls in the first inning that caught entirely too much plate, but he settled down as the game went on, moving his fastball around and burying the aforementioned filthy slider below the strike zone.

All of this matters for the first-place Jays because they have, for a team with such a great record, a surprisingly mediocre run-prevention unit. While they're busy destroying the ball on offense (their .453 slugging percentage leads the American League by 34 points), the pitching and defense is literally middle-of-the-pack: They rank eighth in the American League in runs allowed. The bullpen is uninspiring and the defense features the memorable sight of Juan Francisco playing third base every day. Those issues can be papered over with a good starting staff, however. The problem is that the Jays don't have one of those either:

• Mark Buehrle is having a crazy year. There aren't many other words for a 35-year-old with a 110 ERA+ since his age-30 season suddenly going 10-1 with a 2.10 ERA. He has been superb so far, but Toronto would be foolish to believe it will continue. His recent past shows that he's a No. 3 starter. That's worth a lot, but it's still just a No. 3 starter.

• R.A. Dickey is the reverse of Buehrle, which is even more confounding: From 2010 through 2012, the ace knuckleballer, who named one of his bats Orcrist, posted a 129 ERA+ and won the NL Cy Young Award in '12. Then he was traded to Toronto, where he has a 99 ERA+ in 303 innings. And he doesn't get to use Orcrist anymore. It's impossible to write Dickey off because the knuckler is a fickle beast and age is less relevant for Dickey than any other player, but with each passing start, it looks less and less like the Jays got the ace they thought they were getting when they acquired him from the New York Mets.

• Drew Hutchison has thrown a good 72 innings this year in his return from Tommy John surgery, but his upside as a prospect was the middle of the rotation, a pitcher who is just a tad more than the sum of his average parts.

• About J.A. Happ the less that is said the better. He won't be this team's savior.

All of which adds up to the Jays being in a position to benefit greatly from a big-league breakout for Stroman. No team can't use a rookie ace pitcher, but this Jays team, with realistically three No. 3 starters and one No. 5, could use a bump more than most if it wants to keep winning at a .600 clip, especially in an AL East that, while not as intimidating as in years past, still has at least three other good teams ready to make a run should the Jays falter. As its 90 percent playoff odds indicate, Toronto is in a strong position to head to the postseason for the first time since winning the World Series in 1993. Stroman, the Jays hope, is the Little Engine That Could get them there.

Jason Wojciechowski writes for Beanball on the SweetSpot Network.