A little more than a week ago, things looked so very different for the Toronto Blue Jays. Brandon Morrow had just delivered a complete-game shutout of the White Sox in the Cell, and the Jays were 30-26. In the early going, they were a reasonable candidate within baseball’s newly expanded wild-card picture.
And a big part of the reason why they deserved that consideration was a “no-name” rotation that had delivered more quality starts than all but two American League rivals, the Los Angeles Angels and the Chicago White Sox.
What a difference a week makes, because first they lost Morrow to an oblique injury on Monday, his next turn. On Wednesday, Kyle Drabek tore up his elbow and might need Tommy John surgery. And on Friday night, rookie Drew Hutchison had to leave his start early with his own dose of elbow trouble. Within the space of four ballgames, the Jays might have three of five starting pitchers on the disabled list.
Perhaps no team could withstand that sort of rotation wipeout, but at least the Jays still have Ricky Romero in working order -- for now. How good were these three starters?
Morrow: He’d delivered a league-leading three complete-game shutouts as well as eight quality starts in his first 12, striking out 22 percent of opposing batters while cutting his walks to a career low, below 8 percent. All of the expectations that Morrow’s selection as the fifth overall pick of the 2006 draft looked like they were on the verge of being fulfilled as he began to earn ace status.
Drabek: As highly touted as Morrow back in the day, and another canny trade pickup by the Jays, Drabek has had to work his way past wildness on and off the field. He came into 2012 having to pitch for his job, no matter how rosy his former promise had been, but he looked like he’d come around after five quality starts in his first nine, posting a 3.27 ERA. Allowing 34 walks in those 52.1 IP reflected that location was still an issue, but you could hope he was getting back on track.
Hutchison: Ranked before the year as the organization’s sixth-best prospect by Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus and ninth-best by Baseball America, Hutchison was pressed into action with just six starts above A-ball. The 21-year-old didn’t lack the stuff or touch to make it, however, showing excellent touch on a fastball-slider-change mix. He’d cranked out quality starts against the Yankees, Orioles and Red Sox in recent weeks.
These three already have company to keep on the rehab trail, unfortunately enough: The perennially promising and reliably broken Dustin McGowan’s on the DL as well, dealing with shoulder woes. Counting on McGowan hasn’t been a good idea since 2007.
Pickings are slim as far as what else the Jays can do after losing three of their front five in such short order. If Hutchison joins Drabek on the “wait ‘til next year” list, that’s two slots to fill for the remainder of the year, as well as the month-plus of turns that will have to go to Morrow’s replacement while he’s out. Brett Cecil is slipping into Morrow’s slot Sunday, and you can hope the young finesse lefty can recapture some of his former promise. Long reliever Carlos Villanueva might help, but his track record as a starter isn't great.
They don’t really have a promising kid like Hutchison to turn to; Deck McGuire’s getting drubbed in Double-A, leaving the cupboard relatively bare. You get into wondering what well-traveled Jesse Chavez or former rotation stalwart Scott Richmond have left. The borderline bid of convention just got rolled back into borderline bad ballclub possibilities. The sabermetric construction of “replacement level” is a handy fiction -- there’s certainly no guarantee that the Jays will get replacement-level work from their available replacements.
The Jays probably don’t get their fair share of sympathy or schadenfreude, which is a pity considering the remarkable job general manager Alex Anthopoulos has done. Whoever gets the call beyond Cecil, in the meantime the Jays still have Romero and farmhand Henderson Alvarez to rely upon. But that isn’t what the Jays’ slender hopes for contention were based on. If they’re excused early, it’s a shame, but in divisional races as tight as either East boasts, you can’t afford this kind of misfortune.
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Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.