DUNEDIN, Florida – On Tuesday afternoon, TSN.ca sat down with Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker for an exclusive 1-on-1 at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium.
Last season, thanks to injuries and ineffectiveness, Toronto's starting rotation posted a 4.81 ERA, second-worst in all of baseball. If the Jays are going to compete in the ultra-tough American League East, the staff will have to drastically improve that number.
This discussion focuses on the makeup of the rotation, early favourites to earn a spot and whether Walker truly believes this club has enough major league-ready, quality arms to be playing meaningful games in August and September.
To listen to the interview, click here.
TSN.ca: Pete, we've got a lot to get to here so I'm going to fire some bullets here and hope you don't dodge them. Here we go: Drew Hutchison, first and foremost, very, very impressive on Saturday in Sarasota with a fastball clocked in the mid-90s. Could you foresee him on the starting staff when we break camp on March 30, March 31?
WALKER: You know, it's definitely early in camp but watching him work, watching him go about his business and the way he's carrying himself right now and the way the ball is coming out of his hand, the command, the poise, the power, it's a pretty good group of pitches there. Right now, he's just doing everything he needs to do to set himself apart from some of the other guys. Again, it's his first outing. You don't want to put too much stock in it but the evidence points to him being on top of his game right now, feeling great coming back from the Tommy John surgery and, again, you can't say enough about the first impression in camp for Drew. The way it's going for him, if he continues to pitch this way and continues to throw the ball the way he's throwing, he's certainly a strong candidate for that rotation.
TSN.ca: We're looking at what's a pretty obvious top three here right now. R.A. (Dickey) is going to get the opening day start. Brandon Morrow will slot in behind and Mark Buehrle will slot in behind. Then there is that much, much larger grouping of which Hutchison is one, that includes J.A. Happ, Esmil Rogers, Todd Redmond, Kyle Drabek and the list goes on and on and on. In terms of how you're assessing the back end the rotation right now, is there one spot available or are there two spots available?
WALKER: We're looking at it as one. Certainly, J.A. hasn't gotten off to a great start for him right now. We would love him to be in that rotation. Certainly, he's a guy who's pitched in the big leagues and had some success. We like where his slot is right now. Obviously, the last outing didn't go very well for him. We want to make sure he's feeling as good as he needs to be physically and we're going to get him out there many more times this spring. He's a guy we want in that rotation, there's no question about it but with that being said, there's a competition down here and the guys coming in that are performing well, obviously you don't want to put too much stock in spring training, but the guys that come in ready to go, it's hard to deny the way they're throwing the ball and if they continue to throw the ball that way on a positive note, they could definitely see themselves being mentioned in that fourth and fifth slot.
TSN.ca: The business side at this time of year can be just as involved in decision-making as the performance side and Esmil Rogers and Todd Redmond are two guys who contributed to your starting rotation, really in a pinch, late last season and did reasonably well. Both are out of options, which for the uninitiated means they could not be sent to the minors without going through waivers and you run the risk of losing them. How much of a factor do options play in the ultimate decision-making process here?
WALKER: It's a fine line. I mean, obviously, from a player development standpoint you want to make sure the guys who are young are ready to come up here and obviously, you don't want to lose good arms through the waiver process with guys that have had success in the big leagues like Redmond and Rogers. Those guys did a great job for us last year. We're looking forward to them being part of the staff but again, you've got to watch these younger guys, Hutchison, Stroman and watch the way they throw the ball this spring. If those are the guys that are going to give us the best chance to win in April, then you have to strongly consider it. You certainly, over the course of a long season, don't want to lose quality arms, that's for sure because at some point, you're going to need those guys. Rogers is potentially a number four or five starter in the big leagues, going out there every fifth day with the stuff that he throws out there. Certainly at times last year, he looked like it. Redmond's the same. I mean, he did a fantastic job for us late in the season. You can't just overlook those guys; they did do a nice job for us, they are candidates, viable candidates to fill those positions and guys we're very confident in. But it is hard to deny that you see a guy like Hutchison and Stroman and see how poised they are and see how they're doing over the course of spring training and the way they carry themselves that they act and look like big leaguers, there's no doubt about it. It'll be interesting to watch the rest of the spring because there's a lot of pitching left for these guys and certainly guys will have the ability to step up or take a step back.
TSN.ca: Have there been any changes in the way that you guys want to approach hitters this season?
WALKER: From a pitching philosophy standpoint?
WALKER: No doubt. Obviously last year didn't go well for a number of reasons. You always look back on the season and you find reasons why. You look to evaluate certain areas and you look to make adjustments I guess as a player, as a coach, it's a constant changing so to speak so we're always looking to improve. I think, this year, the one thing we do want to implement more is the off-speed pitch, you know, the changeup. We had guys with great stuff that got hurt sometimes because they didn't change speeds well enough, you know disrupt hitters' timing. I think, this year, we're looking to do that a little bit more. I think it's very important from a pitching perspective, in those advanced meetings on the opposing side that they recognize we have good off-speed stuff as well as the power, just to disrupt their timing so that's something we're definitely looking into. Aside from that, strike one more consistently and minimizing the walks. Our walks were too high last year. We want to attack the zone, again it was a philosophy last year it just didn't really follow through but we're definitely emphasizing it more this spring, changing speeds and really going after the hitters early on.
TSN.ca: I don't know if it shows much on TV but when you walk around and you look at Brandon Morrow, you definitely notice a different body type. He's put on some muscle and he shared with us that he tipped the scales at 219 pounds. This time last year, he was 189 pounds on his way to 203 by opening day. Is he healthy? How is he feeling? How confident are you that he can be the guy to give you 180-200 innings and win you 15-18 games because looking at the rotation, that seems to be awfully important?
WALKER: His track record isn't great, you can't deny that but he definitely came into camp ready to go. He looks strong, he feels strong, the ball's coming out of his hand great. He said he feels great so we are counting on him to be a workhorse for us. We need him to be a workhorse for this staff and be a leader out there and take the ball every fifth day. Obviously, if that doesn't happen, that's going to be a big blow to this staff. We need him to be out there. I think he recognizes that and, like I said, he's come to camp in great shape. He's stronger. To me, he looks more durable and, like I said, the ball is coming out nice for this time of the spring. We're counting on him heavily. He knows it and I feel like he's ready for the challenge.
TSN.ca: What's your relationship like with R.A. Dickey because, as a conventional pitcher, you were one of about 99 per cent of the pitchers all-time who were fastball and you work through your repertoire. He's a knuckleballer and you've had him now for a year. How do you help him? What kind of tips do you give him? What does he ask of you because it's obviously not a pitch you're familiar with?
WALKER: I've certainly learned a lot about the pitch, that's for sure, and the mechanics of the pitch. There are some traditional things that he does with his delivery that we look at, no question about it but I've learned over the course of our side sessions and the terminology that he's used in the past, I've learned certain things that we're looking for in his delivery when they break down to let him know. He watches video. He prepares as well as anybody in the game, from a pitching standpoint, to recognize hitters' weaknesses and what their strengths are. It's one of those things, over the course of the year, we learned a lot about each other. He is a determined worker. I know last year didn't go the way he expected or we expected initially. I do believe the WBC and the issues early on physically affected him. This year, he is more focused than I remember last year, that's for sure. His mind is in the right place, he's very determined and he's setting a great example for the younger guys. To me, he looks like he's on a mission to have a very successful season right from the get-go. The ball is coming out of his hand great right now, the movement on the ball, the velocity on the ball is better than last spring. He's in a good place and, again, we need him to not only take the ball every fifth day but be a leader on this team and show the younger guys how it's supposed to be done.
TSN.ca: Two more for you, one is a look back and one is a look ahead. How long did you dwell on last season once you were able to get home and get away for a little bit? With some sober second thought, out of the heat of the battle, how did you assess what went on and some of the reasons why?
WALKER: It was obviously a very difficult season for everybody involved. There were some sleepless nights. I felt like, at the end of the season, I'd thrown 162 games and that's the way it should be as a pitching coach. You take it to heart. It definitely bothered me but going into the offseason, it was like starting with a clean slate, wanting to come into spring training with a fresh outlook and we certainly have. The guys are coming in, like I said we're healthy, we need to be healthy, we need to stay healthy so we're staying on top of those things. We're also coming in with a different frame of mind. I want these guys to believe in their stuff and take charge of their game. Last year, there were times when I think we just expected that we were going to do well and we were all guilty of it. But this year, I think there's a different look in these guys' faces, the pitchers especially and I know there's been a couple of tough games these past two games but overall, the starters and the guys competing for spots are very focused and I like the way they're going about their business and I'm very pleased with where they are.
TSN.ca: Pete, looking ahead, you'll know this as much as anybody else, there is some concern amongst a large portion of the fan base up in Toronto that general manager Alex Anthopoulos did not add to the pitch staff externally this offseason, via free agency or via trade. So the question is, you've mentioned Hutchison, you did use Stroman's name in an answer, Aaron Sanchez as well, how close are we to seeing Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez and some of those guys not just come up and make their big league debuts but potentially contribute every fifth day to a successful team?
WALKER: I think they're real close, especially Drew Hutchison and Marcus Stroman. Whether that had something to do with Alex's decision or not this offseason, I know he was working very hard on a daily basis and we do have good options here. Obviously you're seeing it play out right in front of your eyes right here during spring training and I think you will for the rest of spring training. We certainly, in our pitchers' meeting before spring training started, I definitely emphasized with these guys that we have enough in this room. I look at R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle and the other pitchers in that room and with that bullpen and with the young guys coming up, we certainly have enough pitching to be competitive and to win a lot of games and put us in a position for potential postseason play. But they have to believe it. I know, based on last year, the fan base and the media, it's questionable in their minds but I know in that room, those guys are healthy, they're determined, maybe they have a little chip on their shoulders but they're definitely looking forward to the season and I definitely feel good about the group that we have.
TSN.ca: We wish you guys well, Pete, thanks so much.
WALKER: Thank you.