The oft expressed concern about almost any pitching staff, no matter how seemingly talented, is depth. It is a truism in baseball that you can never have too much pitching. In particular Blue Jays fans have been muttering all winter about the lack of starting pitching depth behind their admirable rotation, but also many were suspicious of the bullpen options until the recent signings of J.P. Howell and Joe Smith. But there’s more here than meets the eye.
Last season, 27 pitchers (not including Darwin Barney and Ryan Goins) pitched at least one inning for the Jays, 22 pitched at least five. In 2015, 23 pitched at least five, in 2014 20 gave them at least five innings. That gives you a fair ballpark of what your depth needs to look like.
As of this writing, there are no less than 33 pitchers who would, were it not for overcrowding, pencil in to the pitching staffs of either Toronto or Buffalo. This includes pitchers on the 40 man roster, pitchers signed to minor league contracts with big league camp invites, and a few guys listed on the Buffalo roster whose age and experience would normally make them at least AAA pitchers. In order to analyze such a group, it’s necessary to break down the candidates into manageable semgent. Let’s sort them according to their projected roles and possibility of being so assigned. In one area, it will be necessary to have some overlap as this article is primarily about bullpen options, but it’s needful to mention the starter candidates in passing. I’ll elaborate as I go. As always and obvious, all this assumes health for all individuals, which will certainly not be the actual case.
Group A – Potential Starters
- Tier 1 (Certain MLB Starters)
- Aaron Sanchez
- J.A. Happ
- Marco Estrada
- Francisco Liriano
- Marcus Stroman
- Tier 2 (Potential AAA Starters)
- Joe Biagini
- Mat Latos
- Gavin Floyd
- Mike Bolsinger
- Casey Lawrence
- T.J. House
- Brett Oberholtzer
- Lucas Harrell
- Jarrett Grube
It goes without saying that the Bisons won’t have a nine man rotation, which is why there will be some overlap with some of these guys and the upcoming lists. Bear with me a bit.
Group B – Potential Relievers
- Tier 1 (Certain MLB Relievers)
- Roberto Osuna
- Jason Grilli
- J.P. Howell
- Joe Smith
- Tier 2 (Potential MLB Relievers)
- Mat Latos
- Gavin Floyd
- Aaron Loup
- Matt Dermody
- T.J. House
- Chad Girodo
- Jeff Believeau
- Glenn Sparkman
- Mike Bolsinger
- Bo Schultz
- Dominic Leone
- Ryan Tepera
- Danny Barnes
- Chris Smith
- Will Browning
- Casey Lawrence
The Joe Biagini Role
You may ask, “Why not Joe Biagini for the Joe Biagini role?” The answer to that quandary is somewhat dependent on how the rest of the bullpen shakes out, which is why we’ll leave him for now. We know that he is going to work through spring as a starter for now to give the team options. If he does end up as a reliever then he will certainly own the fifth job in the Toronto bullpen.
However, he has options, he has a potential future in the rotation next year when two of the front five starters are scheduled to be potentially lost to free agency, and the team need look no further than the closer to see the conundrum that can be created by prioritizing current relief work over future starter potential. Just as importantly, as Matt Gwin explained last week, he’s shown the ability to be viable as a starter. Because of all this, the team may explore sending Biagini to Buffalo and plugging someone else into his spot if another candidate impresses them in the spring. Here are some other candidates for the Biagini slot.
Latos saw his velocity return during a brief stint in the Nationals bullpen last year. As such he may be a candidate for a bullpen conversion, which has, in some cases, worked for other starters struggling with velocity loss. He could be a depth starter at Buffalo, however he has an opt-out at the end of spring training (and another later in the season) and the Jays will have to consider this for conservation of resources. Logically, if the team wants a sixth starter option and a quality bullpen arm, Biagini and Latos would be the candidates. You wouldn’t want both in Toronto’s pen nor Buffalo’s rotation. Of course, it’s also possible that Latos has a poor showing in spring, in which case his major league roster consideration is moot.
Floyd actually pitched well in a relief role before he was injured last year; an injury from which he has not 100% recovered. As always, he’s a ticking clock until his next injury, but he’s similar to Latos in that he has potential for a more back of the bullpen role. Choosing Floyd for one of the remaining relief spots also lets the Biagini/Latos question play out a bit further (assuming the latter accepts an assignment to Buffalo).
The Second Lefty
A team that has a reasonable choice won’t go into the season with only one guy that they can throw at the other team’s left handed hitters. As such the the second lefty is often a specialist only.
Ostensibly, this should be Aaron Loup’s job. But it should have been his last year too and the Jays somehow managed to use him for only 14.1 major league innings. His experience and contract carry some weight here.
A change in delivery last spring enabled Dermody to turn around a marginal career and rocket through the Blue Jays minor league system. However, it wasn’t all good: he didn’t dominate AAA hitters as he had at lower levels. Unless he really impresses in spring, it seems reasonable to expect they would ask him to prove himself before they push Loup aside for him.
The Jays probably want House to be a depth starter in Buffalo, but management has a history with him in Cleveland. Being that he’s a lefty and that he pitched in relief part time in the minors last season they will surely talk about him in this role if he has a good spring.
Having been pushed off the 40 man roster, his chances for opening day are much slimmer. Girodo did deliver excellent results until he got to the second half of last August. It would be unwise to count him out just yet.
For a complete description of Believeau look no further than a piece I wrote on him in December when he was signed. He’s an interesting guy. Like Girodo, not being on the 40 man roster makes it unlikely that Believeau will break camp with the Blue Jays, but I think he could force their hand.
The “We Need to Keep This Guy” 7th Reliever
The final slot will serve as a clearing house, more than likely, for pitchers that the team stands to lose if they do not make the team. There are three prominent individuals (Latos could fall in this category as well) who would seem to be in direct competition with each other.
Sparkman, also known as Biagini 2.0, is a Rule 5 pick that would have to make the team to be kept. If he doesn’t stay on the 25-man roster (or the disabled list) he to be offered back to Kansas City. Given the competition and the conditions, it’s difficult to see how he manages to cling to this spot, but if he does, he’ll have definitely earned it.
Bolsinger pitched really well in Oklahoma City for the Dodgers’ AAA affiliate last season. He’s out of options and the team risks losing him if he doesn’t make the majors. There’s one question that they have to ask themselves: is there another team whose last pitcher is a guy they’d be willing to replace with Bolsinger? If their answer is a yes then Toronto will likely try to sneak Bolsinger through waivers.
Bo Schultz is admittedly a fringy guy, but he’s done good work in Toronto apart from stumbling after a late season recall last year. Also out of options, Schultz is the sort of guy who has a fairly high probability of getting through late March waivers.
Let’s not fail to mention that everyone here, if they stay healthy and in the organization, will likely pitch for the Blue Jays at some point during the year. We’ve gone through 20 names so far, but there are more. Other pitchers in the organization are veterans of the shuttle, are available on the 40 man roster, have major league experience, or will have impressed decision makers in the organization. Here are a few.
Dominic Leone was outstanding in Seattle in 2014, then failed to duplicate that success. The Blue Jays already demonstrated their faith in Ryan Tepera. Danny Barnes has a lot of buzz around him after a successful 2016 minor league season. Chris Smith was added to the 40 man roster late last season and got some time on the major league roster. These guys have some talent; they’re high risk, but not desperation options.
There’s the aforementioned spring training invite starters: Brett Oberholtzer, Lucas Harrell, and Jarrett Grube. If they show well in Buffalo, they might earn a look. However, if any of these guys get much more than a cup of coffee in the majors, the Blue Jays will have been in deep trouble.
Lastly there’s long time organizational arms Casey Lawrence and Will Browning. Browning lingered in big league camp last spring and Lawrence took a step up both velocity and results last season. Both might be dark horse candidates for a breakout moment. You can throw Leonel Campos in to that group as well. While he’s only just gotten to the Blue Jays, he has some breakout potential (albeit not much).
That’s 30 pitchers who might take the mound at least once for the Blue Jays this year. Most of them are respectable options, especially compared to the haphazard depth of Blue Jays seasons past. Bravo on this front, Ross Atkins. For the first time in a long time there will be credible choices that’ll have to be pushed to AAA. While that’ll stink for the pitcher in question, it’s certainly a good thing for the Blue Jays.
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