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Bullpen flexibility in short supply for Blue Jays following Yariel Rodríguez signing

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Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Thomas Hall
2 months ago
Signing Cuban righty Yariel Rodríguez, who’s reportedly agreed to a four-year, $32-million contract, is a deal that makes the Toronto Blue Jays pitching staff deeper on multiple levels. But determining how all the pieces will fit together now becomes the larger question.
The current plan seems to have Rodríguez stretched out as a starter this spring, a commitment that proved crucial in the 26-year-old’s decision to choose the Blue Jays in free agency, per multiple reports. There’s no harm in taking this approach, especially considering the club’s limited starting pitching depth beyond the major leagues.
As of now, however, the former Nippon Professional Baseball hurler – who played three seasons in Japan with the Chunichi Dragons from 2020-22 – will enter camp as Toronto’s No. 6 starter, meaning he’ll have to compete for a back-end rotation spot alongside Yusei Kikuchi and Alek Manoah.
While he’ll likely have every opportunity to do so, the hard-throwing right-hander must overcome several hurdles to avoid ending up in the bullpen, which is where many believe his profile is best suited.
Besides throwing for interested suitors during showcases, Rodríguez has been away from live-game settings since representing Team Cuba during the 2023 World Baseball Classic, as he opted to sit out last season rather than return to Japan. So, getting him up to speed may take a bit of time, particularly if his Visa situation continues to drag on without a resolution.
 
There are also concerns about his legitimacy as a starter, given his prior struggles in that role with the Dragons before shifting to the ‘pen allowed his impressive fastball-slider combo to fan 60 hitters across 54.2 innings in 2022, leading to a career-best 1.15 ERA. Plus, it’s almost been three years since he endured a starter’s workload, and his repertoire is unlikely to fare much better unless it welcomes a reliable third weapon.
Given this uncertainty, it’s unlikely management would explore trade scenarios involving Kikuchi or Manoah even if Rodríguez outperforms one or both this spring. Instead, the losing half of that pair would probably occupy a multi-inning relief role. In Manoah’s case, though, chances are he’d open the season at Triple-A Buffalo, staying ready in case an injury arises.
Conversely, if Rodríguez’s the one who places behind that duo, the Blue Jays would have two options with the 6-foot-1 hurler: move him to the bullpen and have him provide multiple innings of relief, the likelier scenario, or keep him stretched out as a starter with the Bisons.
The only issue with the latter of those outcomes is we still don’t know whether his contract will include any provisions regarding his minor-league options, and, in all likelihood, those details won’t be revealed until his deal is finalized. Even so, it’d be shocking if there wasn’t language written about the circumstances in which he can be assigned to the minors.
Above all else, Rodríguez’s situation will likely have significant ramifications for Toronto’s bullpen flexibility, which is already thin on arms that can be sent to Triple-A without first having to clear waivers. From last season’s group, there are four relievers with at least one MiLB option remaining: Jordan Romano (two), Tim Mayza (two), Erik Swanson (one) and Génesis Cabrera (one) – and three of those four aren’t going anywhere.
Since Yimi García, Chad Green, and Trevor Richards are out of options, they’d each be subject to waivers before gaining minor-league eligibility – although another organization would surely claim any of those three before they made it that far.
Not only does that create challenges when a fresh arm is needed or if someone underperforms, but it also blocks the path to the majors for someone like Nate Pearson, whose only chance of breaking camp with the Blue Jays is if he outperforms Cabrera or someone else suffers an injury.
That’s less than ideal for a former top prospect slated to utilize his final option in 2024 and, separately, for an under-the-radar acquisition who proved valuable as a second lefty in the ‘pen next to Mayza last season.
In addition to Pearson, there’s also little room for advancement when it comes to other arms on the 40-man roster, including Bowden Francis, Hagen Danner, Zach Pop, Yosver Zulueta, Wes Parsons, Brendon Little (acquired via trade from the Cubs earlier this off-season) and Mitch White, who’s out of options.
Despite a resurgent finish, which led to his return to the 40-man after wrapping the 2023 campaign with a 1.89 ERA and 43 strikeouts over his final 33.1 innings with Buffalo, White currently figures to be designated for assignment by Opening Day with no immediate pathway to earning a big-league opportunity in the starting rotation or bullpen.
The odds of this Blue Jays pitching staff staying among the healthiest in the sport for a second straight season is very unlikely, though not impossible. But waiting for an injury to solve your roster logjam isn’t recommended, either.
One option that could, however, might be subtracting a reliever via trade.
Since the Blue Jays exercised Green’s two-year, $21-million option a few months ago, we can probably assume the 32-year-old is safe from the trade block. While Pearson could be moved, with just one option remaining, he may not command sufficient value in return. So they’re likely better off holding on to him, at least for now.
Two names that should be near the top of Toronto’s trade-bait list are García and Richards, as both are free agents after next season and cost-effective arms at $6.3 million and $2.15 million, respectively.
García, worth a career-best 1.0 fWAR in 2023, is certainly the more valuable reliever of the two, making him the least desirable one to part with. But for a team with other needs to address, particularly on the offensive front, he’s likely among their best chips to appease rival clubs that prefer big-league player swaps rather than prospects.
In Year 2 with Toronto, the 33-year-old righty shined again, limiting hard contact and walks while placing near the top quarter or better with his swing-and-miss and ground-ball output over 73 relief appearances, the highest single-season mark of his career.
Results aside, García’s performance could’ve reached even greater heights had he commanded his four-seamer – which increased in velocity, improving from a 94.9 m.p.h. average in 2022 to 96.0 in ’23 – more effectively, as missing over the heart of the plate a few too many times saw it surrender four of his eight home runs allowed.
But, considering his heater produced a career-high plus-18 run value during his inaugural campaign with the Blue Jays, one summer of poor location probably doesn’t warrant much concern.
In his own right, Richards enjoyed a very successful 2023 season, surpassing his previous career highs in strikeout (33.3 per cent), whiff (36.8 per cent) and chase rates (37.5 per cent) in 56 games (three starts). Unlike García, though, the 30-year-old’s value is solely based on generating elite swing-and-miss, a trait highly coveted in today’s era – except when your arsenal only includes two pitches, with one greatly superseding the other.
Source: Baseball Savant
If the opportunity presented itself, you have to think the Blue Jays would gladly keep García over Richards, who could add plenty of strikeout potential to a franchise in need at a team-friendly cost. But he almost certainly wouldn’t net a meaningful return, or at least, he wouldn’t by himself.
It’s no secret the front office is actively exploring infielder Santiago Espinal’s trade market and, according to multiple sources, has increased those efforts since acquiring Isiah Kiner-Falefa via free agency last month. As such, it’s possible future discussions could centre around a Richards/García-Espinal package, accompanied by a Triple-A prospect – like Otto Lopez, Addison Barger, Spencer Horwitz, Leo Jimenez or Damiano Palmegiani – in exchange for a bat-first infielder or outfielder.
Those who’d likely be of interest to Toronto could be Minnesota’s Jorge Polanco (2025 club option at $12 million) or San Francisco’s Austin Slater, a pair of right-handers eligible for free agency after next season. Or, for someone with a bit more club control, perhaps Washington’s Lane Thomas, who’s a free agent beyond the 2025 campaign.
Each listed above would be a short-term solution, which would continue this franchise’s off-season theme by adding one of the three. However, it’d act as killing two birds with one stone, creating necessary roster flexibility – both in the bullpen and involving the 40-man roster, which is currently full – while supplying another hitter to platoon versus left-handed pitching.
It wouldn’t be the most appealing trade the front office has ever made, probably not even close to it. But it’d further raise the ceiling of a team determined to maximize this two-year window with Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. still under club control.

ARTICLE PRESENTED BY BETANO

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