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Blue Jays’ bullpen prepared to navigate late-game situations without Romano, Swanson

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Photo credit:Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Thomas Hall
17 days ago
There is never a good time for any team to lose their closer and No. 1 setup man to injury. Even so, the Toronto Blue Jays appear well-positioned to manage the absences of two key members from their bullpen with Opening Day just two sleeps away.
While nothing has been made official as of Tuesday, the expectation is both Jordan Romano (elbow) and Erik Swanson (forearm) will begin this season on the 15-day IL, creating a massive void at the back end of the ‘pen. However, both cases seem minor and shouldn’t keep either hurler sidelined long.
Another positive is the club can backdate each of their IL stints three days prior to Opening Day, setting their earliest return dates for April 9. But that means they’ll have to miss the first 11 games of the 2024 season before potentially returning for the second of three games versus the Seattle Mariners.
Piling up as many wins early on will be crucial for a Blue Jays team preparing to open the regular season on a 10-game road trip, seven of which will come versus AL East rivals – the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees. Hitting the road for three against the Houston Astros won’t be a cakewalk, either. And securing victories will be a much tougher challenge without Swanson and Romano in the eighth and ninth.
Surviving this 11-game stretch would’ve been next to impossible, say, three years ago when they were turning to arms like Rafael Dolis, Julian Merryweather, Tyler Chatwood and Anthony Castro in save situations along with Romano and Tim Mayza. That eventually included Adam Cimber, too.
But this bullpen is far more equipped to handle injuries in 2024. It’s a much, much deeper group than the one Toronto featured in ‘21, and it’s that depth they’ll be relying on to remain afloat during this brief period where someone other than Romano and Swanson must record the final three outs in the ninth.
The closer-by-committee strategy has become fairly common these days, and it’s a method the Blue Jays could utilize, considering multiple relievers in their bullpen feature prior closing experience. Still, it appears that Yimi García is poised to occupy most of the ninth-inning duties, a role he’s more than capable of handling in the short term.
Since joining Toronto as a free agent in 2022, the 33-year-old righty has been a versatile weapon for the coaching staff, which has had the luxury of deploying him in several different situations. But none have been more impactful than his work in high-leverage spots, where he’s converted four saves over the last two seasons.
García also spent time as the Miami Marlins’ closer in 2020-21, tallying 16 combined saves before being acquired by the Houston Astros midway through his final year in South Beach. Long before that, he emerged as an impact hurler in his rookie campaign with the Los Angeles Dodgers, during which he registered his first of 21 career saves.
The Blue Jays will be in good hands with García, whose three-year, $16-million contract has proven to be one of the better bargains for a free-agent reliever. He has been an integral piece of the puzzle since his arrival, as evidenced by his 20 per cent K-BB rate difference and 1.9 fWAR, and the hope is it’ll be more of the same in ‘24.
You can bet Mayza will heavily factor into late-game situations, too. And chances are he’ll have an opportunity to record at least one save, probably more, for a fourth consecutive season.
With García likely assuming Romano’s role, Mayza will probably do the same with Swanson’s, becoming the team’s primary setup man. It should be a seamless transition while adjusting to those increased responsibilities, considering he’s no stranger to operating in high-stress situations.
In particular, the 32-year-old lefty was summoned out of the bullpen countless times in tight jams last season, leading to the second-highest average leverage index (1.33) and the highest leverage index upon entering a game (1.45) of his career. And yet, he stranded roughly 75.5 per cent of his inherited runners.
Mayza was among the more underrated pitchers in baseball a season ago, posting career bests in innings pitched (53.1), ERA (1.52), FIP (2.60) and fWAR (1.3). Ideally, the Blue Jays target late-game spots for him against their opponent’s top left-handed batters. But since he also featured quality reverse splits, they’ll probably use him versus righties as well as lefties.
Matchups could play a massive factor in determining who takes the ball with a lead in the ninth inning.
If Toronto’s about to face the top of Tampa Bay’s order, a pocket with Yandy Díaz and Randy Arozarena, García – or even Chad Green, perhaps – should be your guy. There’ll also be pivotal situations for Mayza, who’ll be critical in neutralizing Houston’s Yordan Alvarez and New York’s Juan Soto – a pair of elite left-handed phenoms.
No matter how you slice it, this club should be able to effectively navigate medium-to-high leverage situations with a García-Mayza duo at the helm. After all, both hurlers were relatively impressive while working in those environments last season.
IPFIPOPP SLGOPP wOBAK-BB%HR/9
Yimi García40.22.86.359.29922%0.7
Tim Mayza26.13.52.340.3009.2%0.3
The losses of Romano and Swanson won’t only impact García and Mayza, though. Their absences will be felt throughout the entire staff and will require others such as Green, Génesis Cabrera and Trevor Richards to help fill the void in their place.
Green is, by far, the most qualified of that trio to step into late-game situations if needed, with his background as a former high-leverage reliever with the Yankees. That earned him 11 career saves across seven seasons, recording a 19.6 percent K-BB rate difference with his lethal fastball-curveball/slider combo in that role.
If nothing else, the 32-year-old’s impressive showing this spring – where he struck out 11 batters and only issued one walk over 7.2 innings – set the tone for what could be a tremendous second season back from Tommy John surgery.
Cabrera may also be in store for an increased role, at least early on, with Mayza being preserved for the later innings. As such, the former St. Louis Cardinal will likely emerge as a prominent lefty specialist, expanding upon last season’s usage, where he enjoyed renewed success post-trade.
There’ll be plenty of options Blue Jays skipper John Schneider can turn to while he pieces together the back end of his ‘pen without Romano and Swanson. That’s before mentioning someone like Nate Pearson, who displayed flashes of potential as a high-leverage reliever last season – when his command was consistent, that is.
Pearson will almost certainly appear on the club’s Opening Day roster, receiving an opportunity during his final option season to prove he can throw enough strikes at this level. They could turn to Yariel Rodriguez in a pinch, though that seems unlikely since he’s currently stretched out as a starter and is looking to prove his viability in that role this season.
The Cuban right-hander could, however, transition to the bullpen later in the year and become a valuable weapon down the stretch. He likely won’t be alone, with exciting relief pitchers like Hagen Danner, Connor Cooke, Brendon Little and Mason Fluharty also expected to push for big-league reps.
Most, if not all, of that talent won’t help the Blue Jays replace the innings that Romano and Swanson would’ve covered over these first 11 games. But there are more than enough talented arms already in the mix that can.
They’ve each shown their worth in the past. Now they’re being asked to do so again to ensure this team doesn’t throw away winnable games – a fate that proved costly three seasons ago for one of the most prolific offences the front office has ever created.

ARTICLE PRESENTED BY BETANO

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