Brett Cecil enters 2012 as one of the Toronto Blue Jays’ biggest question marks. He’s had extended periods of success but he’s also battled inconsistency and hasn’t developed into a top pitcher. It seems like Cecil’s been around a while but he’s still only 25 and could still come on. Let’s look back at his history and see if he can take that elusive next step forward.
The Toronto Blue Jays drafted Brett Cecil in the sandwich round, 38th overall, in 2007 out of the University of Maryland, where he majored in criminal justice. The Blue Jays obtained the pick as compensation for the Angels signing Justin Speier. Cecil was a closer in college but Toronto planned to stretch him out. He signed a week after the draft and began his pro career with the Auburn Doubledays, starting 13 games and going 1-0, 1.27 in 49.2 IP with a terrific 56/11 ratio and only 7 earned runs allowed. He gave up only one home run and only once surrendered two runs.
Cecil featured two quality pitches: a 90-92 mph fastball and a plus slider, his out pitch in college. Early on, the Blue Jays also asked him to develop a changeup as part of a larger organizational strategy. The results were great and it looked like he could move quickly.
He started 2008 with the full-season Dunedin Blue Jays and blew away his competition in four starts (0-0, 1.74 10.1 IP, 11/2 SO/BB, 0.77 WHIP) despite being limited by low pitch counts. Toronto then promoted him to the AA New Hampshire Fisher Cats and the positive performances continued. Cecil made 18 starts in Manchester and went 6-2, 2.55 in 77.2 IP with an impressive 87/23 SO/BB ratio, earning him a spot on the AA All-Star team, before the Blue Jays aggressively gave him a late-season call-up to the AAA Syracuse Chiefs. He was starting to tire at this point but still held his own in the International League, pitching to a 2-3, 4.11 line with a 31/16 SO/BB rate in 30.2 innings. His control slipped a bit, probably due to increased workload, but the overall stuff was still effective. In total, Cecil started 28 games and threw 118.2 IP across three levels. He was the first player from the 2007 draft to reach AAA and his ability to induce ground balls resulted in a meagre .237 BAA. All positives. He also learned a new grip for his changeup from teammate Robert Ray and began regularly incorporated a slow curve into his mix. Toronto had a lot of reasons to be optimistic about Cecil and he finished the year as the organization’s top pitching prospect.
In 2009, the Blue Jays changed AAA affiliates and were now aligned with the Las Vegas 51s of the Pacific Coast League. This was bad news for Toronto pitching prospects. Cashman Field, the 51s’ home, is a bandbox. Cecil began the year there but found himself Toronto-bound on May 1 as the Jays quickly tired of watching Brian Burres and Bryan Bullington futz around. I attended his major league debut and came away impressed. He was obviously nervous – he’s only the second pitcher in the last 75 years to hit three batters in his first game – but pitched effectively, flashing the stuff and command we’d seen in his minor league career. Though short, his first stay was successful and, after another trip to Vegas, he returned for good. Cecil’s numbers with the 51s were tough to evaluate (1-5, 5.69 in 49 IP with declining control: 32/19 SO/BB) because of the environment and his first taste of the show was, on the whole, uneven (7-4, 5.30 in 93.1 IP with 116 hits allowed and a 69/38 SO/BB rate). He gave up 17 home runs (9 to LHB), struggled badly on the road (6.31), and there were some suggestions that he was tipping his pitches by fully extending his left arm behind him during his wind-up. But Cecil had moved through the system briskly and seemed likely to improve with experience. Plus, the Jays were very young. He was still only 23 and his future looked bright.
Cecil seemed certain to start 2010 in the Blue Jays rotation but cut his hand with a kitchen knife in spring training and had to go back to Las Vegas to get his arm in game shape. But his time in AAA was short. He was back in Toronto before May and took a huge leap forward, establishing career highs in every pitching category. The result was 28 starts and a happy 15-7, 4.22 line in 172.2 IP with a 117/54 SO/BB ratio. A lot of Cecil’s success stemmed from new confidence in his changeup that allowed him to rely less on his fastball and slider. 23.4% of his pitches were changeups in 2010 compared to 14.2% in 2009. Consistenly keeping hitters off balance also helped him keep the ball in the park as he gave up just one more HR than in 2009 despite throwing an extra 79.1 innings. But his file wasn’t fully clear of red flags. His 15 wins were buoyed by a team-high 5.5 runs of support per start and he got lit up in September (.365/.413/.548), after again entering new innings territory. Still, Toronto had won 85 games and Cecil was a big reason why. He was emerging as a mainstay in the Blue Jays’ young rotation and a certain building block moving forward.
If only it were so simple. That offseason, Cecil and his wife gave birth to their first child and the change in his personal life seemed to affect his conditioning regimen. He arrived at camp visibly heavier than in the past. Worse, he had trouble repeating his mechanics in spring training and showed a troubling drop in velocity – averaging just 88.5 mph on his fastball, down from 90.1 mph in 2010 and 90.7 mph in 2009. It carried over into the regular season and after four lacklustre starts (6.86, 15/11 SO/BB), Toronto sent him to Las Vegas to find himself. His 12 starts there were inconsistent: 8-2, 5.26 in 78.2 IP with a 63/24 SO/BB ratio. But Cecil eventually worked his way back to Toronto – bringing a raging Mohawk and a set of serious muttonchops with him. He had cleaned up his delivery but still couldn’t find his velocity or the success of his breakthrough season. In 20 total starts, he went 7-4, 4.73 in 123.2 IP with 87 strikeouts and 42 walks. His FB rate rose and, accordingly, so did his HR rate – up to 1.6/9IP, a figure that would’ve rated worst in the league if he’d pitched enough innings to qualify. All 22 dingers he allowed were to right-handed hitters. Though he’d always been tougher on lefties, Cecil now showed a truly dreadful platoon split (.186/.282/.240 vs. LHB, .282/.337/.539 vs. RHB) and some wondered if he could even continue in the rotation. It didn’t help that he went winless through August and September, piling up seven losses and a 5.16 ERA in his last 10 starts despite a solid .249 BAA. Even with no one on base, home runs were killing him. Perhaps most damning was that Cecil’s numbers could’ve been worse. His .267 BABIP suggests he was actually lucky and that his 5.10 FIP is a better indicator of his true performance. It was a forgettable season. He even missed a start after cutting his left index finger cleaning a blender. Cecil ended the year without quieting any of the questions about his velo drop and the Blue Jays braintrust wasn’t happy with his conditioning. For the first time, the organization seemed unsure it could rely on him going forward.
Brett Cecil enters 2012 at something of a crossroads. He’s coming off his weakest season at a time when the Blue Jays must get consistency from the back end of their rotation if they hope to compete in the AL East. His performance this year may well shape the next chapter of his career. The Blue Jays simply have too many rising young arms to endure more mediocrity.
For his part, Cecil appears ready for the challenge. He addressed concerns about his fitness level by adopting a healthier a diet and a more strenuous workout plan this winter. He dropped 38 pounds and now throws with an easier motion and seems to be keeping the ball down well. The problem is that his velocity still hasn’t returned. Without it, Cecil’s probably a 4th starter who’ll have to command his fastball exceptionally well to succeed. I’ve always liked him and sense his teammates do, too. He spends more time with fans taking pictures and signing autographs than anyone on the team (rare for a pitcher) and just participated in the Jays’ winter caravan while simultaneously rededicating himself to better conditioning. So it’s easy to hold out hope that he can still establish himself in Toronto’s rotation. Objectively, his below-average fastball and quality breaking pitches may be best-suited for the National League. Years from now I won’t be surprised if he’s enjoyed a long career as a Jeff Fassero or Scott Downs type. This year, I expect 25+ starts, 10-12 wins and an ERA around 4.50. Solid, if average. I do think his control will come around. But I also think he’ll really fight the long ball. I expect to hear his name in trade talks for other teams’ top starters all summer.
Brett Cecil, SP
07/02/86 Bats: R Throws: L HT: 6-1 WT: 219
Dunkirk, Maryland College: University of Maryland
Drafted by Toronto in the 1st round, 38th overall, of the 2007 MLB Amateur Draft.
Contract Status: Eligible for arbitration in 2013.
Service Time: 2.071