Is Joe Biagini a starter, or is he reliever? In the two years since selecting him in the Rule 5 Draft from the San Francisco Giants, the Toronto Blue Jays organization still hasn’t come up with a definitive answer.
In 2016, the Blue Jays stashed him in the bullpen in an attempt to keep him on the roster the entire season and avoid giving him back to the Giants. Lo and behold, not only did that strategy work, but Biagini was one of the team’s unsung heroes of the 2016 season.
Coming off a season when he was the Blue Jays’ second-best reliever, the club opted to leave Biagini in the bullpen to start the 2017 campaign. Plans quickly changed and by mid-May, he was inserted into the starting rotation. Then by early July, he was back in the bullpen. Due to a desperate need for starters in late August, Biagini shifted back into the starting rotation.
The sequence for Biagini in 2017: reliever, starter, reliever, starter. Rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat.
After much back-and-forth movement, the Blue Jays committed to see it through to give Biagini every chance to prove he’s a Major League starting pitcher in 2018. He started in Spring Training, he started in Triple-A and he’s made three spot starts for the Blue Jays thus far.
Throughout all of it, Biagini hasn’t demonstrated big league calibre starting pitching potential. In 2016, he was a really good reliever. In 2017, he was a so-so reliever and a below average starting pitcher. This year, he’s back to being a below average starter.
The Blue Jays yanked Biagini around from the bullpen to the rotation plenty of times, but they’ve given him plenty of rope this year as a starter. He just hasn’t shown much promise in the rotation. Which begs the question; when do the Blue Jays finally shelve the idea of Biagini as a starter and convert him into a full-time reliever?
It’s understandable why the Blue Jays would want to exhaust every possibility to have him start games. The organization maximizes his value in the starting rotation rather than having him pitch 60-70 innings out of the bullpen. The upside with Biagini is to have him remain as a starter. However, when the quality of innings out of the rotation subverts the quality of innings he could provide as a reliever – and has provided in the past – that’s when the Jays have to be honest with themselves about Biagini’s role with this team.
Defining a pitcher as reliever-from-now-on is a scary proposition because teams don’t want to close the book on a potential future ace. Just think back to Aaron Sanchez; he was someone who struggled as a starter but flashed brilliance as a reliever in 2014 and 2015. The safe choice would’ve been to keep him in the bullpen following the 2015 season. Had that happened, Sanchez would’ve never had the opportunity to win an ERA title in 2016.
The Sanchez/Biagini scenarios are somewhat similar, but Sanchez was entering his age 23 season when the Blue Jays committed to him as a full-time starting pitcher. Biagini will soon be 28-years-old.
If Biagini was destined to be a full-time starting pitcher, he probably would’ve done so by now. Having drafted and developed him in the minors for four years as a starter, the Giants probably wouldn’t have left Biagini unprotected at the end of 2015.
Further complicating the matters for the Blue Jays is the unknown status of Roberto Osuna. With his innings subtracted from the bullpen and up in limbo, the club seems better off to backfill the bullpen by slotting in Biagini as a reliever.
With the Blue Jays starters failing to pitch deep into ball games, the bullpen needs a reliable multi-inning reliever. Sam Gaviglio did yeoman’s work by picking up three innings in the Blue Jays’ 5-3 win over the Red Sox last Friday, but few are expecting him to stick around in the 25-man roster.
During his breakout 2016 campaign, Biagini was tasked with going more than one inning in 22 of his 60 appearances out of the bullpen. More than one-third of the time, John Gibbons asked Biagini to get more than three outs. Why not go back to the role which he excelled at less than two years ago?
If the starter-versus-reliever results were a wash, it would make more sense to keep Biagini in the rotation. But his ERA out of the bullpen is 2.61 runs better than it is as a starting pitcher. That’s a stark enough difference to justify keeping the lumbering righty as a multi-inning weapon out of the bullpen.
The Blue Jays attempted numerous times to give Biagini a fair chance to earn his keep as a starting pitcher. The quirky right-hander had five decent starts of the 18 he made last year. So far this year, Biagini has one quality start in seven games split between the Bisons and Blue Jays.
It seems unfair to completely write off his ability to start games, but the Blue Jays need to be realistic about what they have with Biagini. Sanchez proved he could shoulder the workload of a full season as a starting pitcher at the big league level. Biagini turns 28 in a few weeks and he has yet to demonstrate he’s a full-time Major League starter, let alone a decent starter.
The time is now to cancel the “Biagini as a starter” project.