May 5, 2014
The Situation: With injuries and ineffectiveness dragging the Toronto pen through a month of underperformance, the Jays look to Marcus Stroman (the top prospect in the system entering 2014) to help hold down the late innings.
Background: Stroman was a first round selection out of Duke University in 2012, coming off the board with the 22nd overall pick. Despite one of the loudest arsenals in the draft class, consisting of three potential plus-plus offerings (fastball, slider, and cutter) and an average to plus changeup, Stroman’s diminutive stature (listed at 5-foot-9) and dominant stint as closer for the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team led many evaluators to place the Friday night ace into the “bullpen bin.” The Blue Jays saw a starter and, after easing his arm into the pro game via the pen in late 2012, inserted Stroman into the Double-A rotation for 20 starts in 2013.
Stroman chewed through opposing hitters in his first full season, sporting a 1.13 WHIP while striking out 10.4 batters per nine, with a 4.78 strikeout-to-walk rate and .231 batting average against. After a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League Stroman was promoted to Triple-A Buffalo to start the 2014 season. Through five April starts he maintained his walk rate while improving to 12.2 strikeouts per nine and cutting his batting average against to .220 and his WHIP to 1.09.
The Scouting: Stroman’s bread and butter is a lively low- to mid-90s fastball that he spots to the corners, and a true disappearing slider with tilt that sits comfortably in the mid-80s. Both pitches grade out as plus-plus at their best, and Stroman is comfortable using them against righties and lefties alike in any count, both in and out of the zone as needed. Stroman mixes in a legit cutter (as opposed to a short slider) that can climb to the low 90s and excels at missing barrels due to the late action. He has made strides with the changeup to the point that he is comfortable pitching backward off the offering, and when it’s on it comes with late tumble and is most effective out of the zone as a chase pitch.
Stroman’s biggest hurdle to reaching his front-end ceiling remains his size. He has little trouble maintaining his stuff and turning over a lineup, but the lack of downhill plane on his offerings leaves him susceptible to the long ball, and prone to fly balls in general. Through his first 25 pro starts he has been able to keep hitters honest by bolstering his change piece and improving his situational pitch selection, but it’s likely Stroman will always be a fly-ball pitcher, and as a result will see more than his share of balls leave the park. The hope, and expectation, is the young power arm should be able to minimize the overall damage through his ability to miss bats and limit free passes, with his above-average command serving as the lynchpin.
This is still a starter profile long term, but it is understandable that the Jays would take the opportunity to introduce him to major-league bats via the bullpen—the team has a need in the pen and Stroman has experience in that role. It will be interesting to monitor how well Stroman is able to continue to refine all four of his offerings considering his usage might be limited primarily to one-inning stints, and there is of course the question of whether Stroman will be able to adequately build up his arm for a full season’s worth of starts at the major-league level in 2015 if he is not able to log enough innings in a rotation in 2014. If there is one certainty here it is that Stroman is ready to be a major-league asset and it should be fun to watch him work.
Immediate Impact: Ideally this introduction to the bigs will serve as a transition period, and he’ll be moved to the rotation in Toronto at some point later in the year. In his immediate role, Stroman should be able to step in as an effective major-league relief arm with big enough stuff to take on high-leverage innings once John Gibbons is comfortable calling on him. We should expect the fastball velo to jump a tick, sitting consistently in the mid-90s in short stints, as was the case when he closed out games for the Collegiate National Team and in his limited relief experience at the pro ranks to close out 2012. How quickly Toronto elects to move Stroman to the rotation will likely depend upon where the team finds itself in the standings and where its greatest needs lie as the season progresses, but the rotation is almost certainly still the ultimate landing spot. —Nick J. Faleris
Fantasy Impact: The first big-name fantasy pitching prospect to get the call this year, Stroman is someone we've had pegged as a potential early season call-up for a while, and he demonstrated why by dominating in Triple-A. I covered Stroman's prospective fantasy value in Deep Impact last week, and what I wrote then remains true now. He's fully capable of striking out a batter per inning while posting solid WHIP and ERA totals, and he should get some wins on a decent Blue Jays team as well. There will be bumps in the road, as there are with every young pitcher, but if Stroman is the best fantasy starter in the Jays' rotation for the rest of the year, I wouldn't be terribly surprised.
Don't let the fact that Stroman will pitch out of the bullpen at first dissuade you—he has only to beat out J.A. Happ and Dustin McGowan for starts, and John Gibbons has already expressed a desire to see McGowan back in a bullpen role. Unless Stroman struggles mightily, he's going to see around 20 starts this season and he has the upside of finishing as a top-50 starter during that time. He's a must-add in every league. —Ben Carsley
Nick J. Faleris is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @NickJFaleris