Ross Atkins’ 2016 Postmortem: Part V, Osuna, Biagini, and the Bullpen

Roberto Osuna
Photo Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins spoke to approximately half of my Twitter timeline on Monday afternoon, offering his take on a wide-ranging number of issues that the Blue Jays will face this offseason and going forward.

Naturally, there was plenty that Atkins didn’t say — that he couldn’t or that it wouldn’t have been prudent to say — but that still leaves us with a whole lot to parse. So much, in fact, that instead of writing one giant, unwieldy post about everything he said, we’re going to break it down into sections. (Which is definitely not what I originally intended, but oh man, it’s about time I get posting some of this already!)

Last up: the bullpen.

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Roberto Osuna will not be stretched out * Osuna has been a closer for too long and is too hard to replace to transition to rotation * Club is open to signing a reliever for three years or more if the deal is right * Atkins says the Jays need to add “significantly” to their bullpen * Biagini to be stretched out in Spring Training *

It’s a good thing the Blue Jays’ 2017 rotation is already set and not in dire need of an internal replacement, or it would be slightly infuriating to hear that Roberto Osuna is going to stay in the bullpen. Even as it is it’s not great news. Osuna is too good and too young and has too deep a potential arsenal to be already stuck in relief, but that’s a path the Jays were already well on their way down when Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins arrived here.

Because of Tommy John surgery that Osuna needed in mid-2013, which ruled him out most of that season and the next, the highest number of innings he’d thrown in a pro season heading into 2015 sat at just 42.1. To compare: Aaron Sanchez’s biggest workload was 133.1 innings heading into this season, and we saw the havoc that number wrought.

When the club began the 2015 season with an absolute mess of a bullpen, the Anthopoulos regime brought Osuna north as a reliever. It made sense at the time because he had pitched so well in the role, and because he was only going to be allowed to throw about 70 innings in that season anyway. What it meant, though, was kicking the question of transitioning him into the rotation down the road, and it left the door open for Osuna to become a victim of his own success in relief, which is precisely what has happened.

Had the Jays better addressed their bullpen in the winter heading into 2015, this could have been avoided. But in that universe Osuna may still be waiting to make his big league debut as a starter, rather than the club having received 150 innings of outstanding relief work from him over the last two seasons. They could have found a way to avoid this heading into 2016, too, but even by then it would have been awfully tough to remove him from the job he’d taken so emphatically and so clearly enjoyed.

Those last bits are what mitigate the damage of this turn of events. It’s not like it’s *bad* to have a two-win closer who is young and cheap and has years of control remaining, especially since Osuna genuinely seems to like it and wants to stay in the role. (He also seems to maybe be worried about his violent, inverted-W delivery, which maybe is understandable). It’s just that having him as a starter would be better.

Perhaps the Jays can push him a little more going forward, and follow the trend we’ve seen with guys like Dellin Betances in New York, or the left-hander-whose-name-shall-not-be-spoken in Cleveland, and become more of a multi-inning guy. That could offset the loss in value even more.

But what’s done is done, and the Jays now have themselves a closer, as well as a fully set rotation. What happens in the bullpen beyond that is still to be determined, especially with Cecil and Benoit as free agents.

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As noted in an earlier piece, Jason Grilli will return to the Jays’ bullpen in 2017, which is a very tasty addition to the relief corps, but Joe Biagini may not. At least according to what Atkins said on Monday.

The GM told reporters that Rule 5 pick and late-inning reliever will be stretched out as a starter in Spring Training. This is perfectly in character for Atkins, who has cited the club’s flexibility with Aaron Sanchez early on as one of the keys to how the pitching staff came together so successfully. It only makes sense that they want to see what they have in Biagini as a starter, and to give him the chance to establish himself as a key layer of depth. He had pitched almost exclusively as a starter prior to joining the Jays’ organization last winter, and was fairly successful in Double-A in 2015.

So… sure. Why not at least give it a try?

And that’s all that I think this is about.

Biagini struck out 84 in 130 innings in his successful 2016 season in Double-A, seeming to live in part off a BABIP of .264. The scouting reports on him as a starter put his his fastball at 87-92, whereas this year he threw almost none below 90, with his hardest almost touching 97, and sitting on average at 94.3. If he could hold that velocity for the length of a start then maybe the Jays really have something here. It’s certainly worth looking into. But I wonder how much of that was his being able to throw harder, with more effort, in short bursts out of the bullpen, and what it will mean for the fastball if he’s not throwing it quite so hard.

To be honest, as exciting as it would be to get 200 innings of the 2015 version of Biagini, I’m not holding out a lot of hope.

And that’s fine!

Atkins added that the club will certainly be on the lookout for relief help, and would be willing to go three or more years on a contract for the right reliever. The idea is a bit scary, but necessary if the Jays want to avoid the build-a-bullpen-on-the-fly schemes that have characterized recent seasons. And since Osuna and Grilli will already be there, and I strongly suspect Biagini will be too, you’ve got the makings of a pretty good bullpen, I think.

Maybe not the best one in the league, but add a solid lefty or two and actually do go out and get a legit back-end piece? That will do just fine.

Of course, that’s easier said than done — especially since there are other spots on the roster where we’d sure like to see them sign some guys, too. Or, more precisely, re-sign.