Bullpens are volatile by their very nature, but the cast of characters assembled at Blue Jays spring training might be the most volatile motley crew in recent memory.
Shi Davidi of Sportsnet mentioned this last week during his appearance on Sportsnet 590 The Fan’s “Writer’s Bloc”, but the bridge from the starter to Ken Giles is uncertain for Blue Jays. “I don’t know how they’re going to get the ball on a consistent basis protecting a lead from the starter to Ken Giles at this point,” Davidi said.
Yesterday’s signing of Marc Rzepczynski underscores how the Blue Jays’ bullpen is anything but a finished product.
Other than the aforementioned Giles and Anthony Bass, there are zero relievers who have pitched the last two seasons exclusively out of the bullpen. Sam Gaviglio, Wilmer Font, Thomas Pannone and A.J. Cole were all starters during the 2018 season and some of them picked up starts in 2019.
We’re not talking bona fide shutdown relievers, the Blue Jays have a lot of reclamation projects and recently converted starters-to-relievers on their bullpen depth chart. There are no shortage of relief options for Charlie Montoyo to deploy, but which pitchers will emerge in which roles by Opening Day?
It’s less than one week into spring training and plenty can change before the team flies north for their March 26th home opener, but here’s how Toronto’s bullpen might shake down by Opening Day.
Barring an injury, Ken Giles’ spot in the Blue Jays bullpen is secure on Opening Day 2020. In fact, of the dozen-or-so pitchers battling for a roster spot, he’s the only sure thing among Toronto’s relief corps. The only question surrounding the fireballer closer is whether the Blue Jays will move him at the trade deadline, or attempt to keep him in the fold for the foreseeable future.
Anthony Bass is a ground ball machine, which is a tad problematic for someone who’s slotted to pitch high leverage innings for the Blue Jays. Managers need relievers to miss bats late in the game, which Bass does not do. His 54.7% ground ball rate is a little scary for an infield full of sophomore fielders.
However, Bass still brings the gas with this fastball as his heater ranked in the 82nd percentile, averaging 95.23 MPH on his fastball, slightly lower than Giles 95.46 average MPH on his heater. If he can keep the ball off the ground, Bass might slide up a few spots on the depth chart between now and Opening Day.
Dolis spent the last four seasons abroad pitching in Japan and could return to an MLB roster for the first time since 2013 with the Chicago Cubs.
The Blue Jays see something in Dolis, enough to sign him to a $1 million guaranteed deal with an option for the 2020 season. Dolis wasn’t injured last year, but this deal seems like the equivalent of the $2.5 million deal they signed David Phelps to last year.
One strength of this Blue Jays front office has been their ability to find diamonds in the rough when it comes to relievers. Joe Smith, Seung-hwan Oh, John Axford, Tyler Clippard, Daniel Hudson, David Phelps; the Blue Jays either parlayed these pitchers into prospects at the trade deadline, or these pitchers contributed significant innings out of the bullpen.
If Shun Yamaguchi doesn’t crack the Opening Day starting rotation, he’s ticketed for the bullpen and he might be the biggest unknown among the pitchers in spring training camp. By all indications, he’s an unorthodox pitcher for a bullpen (who boasts multiple pitches and uses them in any count).
Next to Sam Gaviglio, Yamaguchi profiles best as a multi-inning reliever. He could pick up most of his innings in middle relief, as it’s difficult to see Montoyo trusting a wild card like Yamaguchi in high leverage situations straight out of the gate.
According to Gregor Chisholm’s piece in the Toronto Star, Charlie Montoyo doesn’s plan on deploying “the opener” this season. That could spell a much different role for the Blue Jays’ de facto opener from last year: Wilmer Font.
The Blue Jays maximized the contributions out of that waiver claim, but as one of the longest-tenured relievers among the bunch, he has the inside track against a few pitchers on minor league deals looking to crack the roster.
Gaviglio was the yeoman of the Blue Jays bullpen in 2019, logging the most innings and appearances of any Toronto reliever, pitching in 52 games and amassing 95.2 innings pitched. While he kept hitters off-balance during the first month of 2019, Gaviglio came back down to earth and pitched as expected for the rest of the season.
Gaviglio figures to be one of the Blue Jays prime candidates as “bulk pitcher”, logging multiple innings when needed. The Blue Jays tasked him with pitching one inning-plus in 35 of 52 appearances and multiple innings in 25 of 52 appearances. It wouldn’t be surprising if Gaviglio became Montoyo’s go-to mop-up man this season.
A.J. Cole missed significant time in 2019 due to injuries, but he could become Daniel Hudson 2.0 for the Blue Jays. Cole arrived to camp on a minor league deal, and although he only pitched in 25 games for the Indians last year, he struck out 30 batters and only walked 8.
The velocity on Cole’s fastball has increased since 2015 and averaged 94.7 MPH last season in Cleveland. Plus, at 6-foot-5, he’d be one of the tallest pitchers in the bullpen.
According to the Blue Jays skipper, the ship has sailed on Thomas Pannone’s time as a starting pitcher, but that’s not a bad thing for a bullpen that needs a lefty like Pannone. Scott Mitchell of TSN reports that Pannone’s velocity is up a few ticks, which is promising news for someone whose fastball barely broke 90 MPH last season.