Forecasting the battle for Blue Jays' bullpen spots ahead of spring training

Yahoo Sports Canada

Pitchers and catchers report to spring training for the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday, bringing with them the first signs of warm weather on the horizon and renewed hope that comes with a fresh start to a season.

There will be a number of new faces among those pitchers reporting mid-week, and the Blue Jays come in to the 2020 season with plenty of spots on the pitching staff up for grabs.

Hyun-Jin Ryu, Tanner Roark, and Chase Anderson are additions to the roster that figure to be relative locks to make the starting rotation, with veteran returnee Matt Shoemaker, and sophomore Trent Thornton also figuring to make cases to start games out of the gate. Those last two options are debatable and far from rotation locks, but there are additional openings in the bullpen that provide places for any number of arms that may make up the opening day roster on March 26.

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By the unscientific method of searching the 40-man roster, unofficial signings, and non-roster invitees, there are 20-plus potential pitchers that could factor in as part of the bullpen to start the season.

Here’s an all-too-early ranking of their likelihood to earn a spot to start the year, without having seen a single pitch thrown in 2020.

Ken Giles definitely has a place in the Toronto Blue Jays bullpen in 2020. After that? Nothing is certain. (Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Ken Giles definitely has a place in the Toronto Blue Jays bullpen in 2020. After that? Nothing is certain. (Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

Locks

Ken Giles - RHP

2019 - 1.87 ERA, 1.000 WHIP, 83 K, 53.0 innings

Barring a flare up of the injury that plagued him down the stretch last season or a last-minute change of heart from the front office to trade him, Giles enters 2020 as the head-and-shoulders best reliever on the roster. He was beyond lights-out for large stretches last season, boasting a 14.1 K/9 mark that was among the best in baseball for pitchers with at least 50 innings.

Likely

Wilmer Font - RHP

3.66 ERA, 1.144 WHIP, 52 K, 39.1 innings with Blue Jays

Font was purchased in mid-July off the wire, and turned into the team’s de facto opener in the final two months of the season. He ended up finishing fourth on the team with 14 starts, but that strategy was a result of the instability of the rotation. The additions made since should keep them from using him in that role in 2020, but his performance there has earned him first dibs on being a part of the bullpen.

Anthony Bass - RHP

3.56 ERA, 0.979 WHIP, 43 K, 48.0 innings with Mariners

Bass enjoyed his best sustained run of success in the majors last year with the Mariners after bouncing around six franchises since 2011. The 32-year-old was an October waiver claim by the Blue Jays, and the team seems likely to give him every chance to stick in the bullpen to start the year.

Sam Gaviglio - RHP

4.61 ERA, 1.118 WHIP, 88 K, 95.2 innings

Gaviglio’s season goes a long way in describing the Blue Jays pitching situation in 2019. He finished fourth on the team in innings despite not making a single start all year. Gaviglio found his niche as the long man out of the pen, coming in to pick up the pieces in the many situations where the starter failed to work deep into the game. He should have the inside track on reprising his role in 2020, but he could just as easily be beat out for the spot by one of the many tweener-type pitchers on this list.

Shun Yamaguchi - RHP

3.08 ERA, 1.171 WHIP, 194 K, 181.0 innings with Yomiuri (NPB)

Yamaguchi transitioned to starter midway through his career in Japan, and has talked the talk that he wants to use his spring training stint to earn a spot in the rotation. He certainly has a chance to prove himself for that fifth slot by beating out Thornton, Ryan Borucki, and the other options the team has for the rotation, but it seems just as likely that he finds his place as a reliever that can provide multiple innings and spot-start in the interim. His contract will keep him in the majors no matter what this season, so it seems safe to have him as a member of the bullpen at minimum.

Rafael Dolis - RHP

2.98 ERA, 0.872 WHIP, 52 K, 57.1 innings with Hanshin (NPB)

A rumoured signing that hasn’t quite been made official in public, Dolis is another arm coming over from extended time in Japan looking to establish himself in the majors. His ERA was sub-2.50 in four seasons in Japan while racking up 96 saves. The Blue Jays are betting that his talent will translate back to North American competition, and he has as much chance as anyone to be a part of things to start the year.

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 24: Thomas Pannone (45) may reprise his role as the lone lefty for the Blue Jays out of the pen this season. (Photo by Gerry Angus/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 24: Thomas Pannone (45) may reprise his role as the lone lefty for the Blue Jays out of the pen this season. (Photo by Gerry Angus/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Longshots

Thomas Pannone - LHP

6.16 ERA, 1.425 WHIP, 69 K, 73.0 innings

The six pitchers above are all right-handed, leaving at least one spot for a left-handed pitcher to figure in somewhere in the mix. Pannone technically fit that bill last season, bouncing up and down from being the bullpen’s lone lefty to making seven appearances as a spot starter. It wasn’t a great year by any stretch, but the 25-year-old could have his ticket to the big leagues punched as a matter of being the only southpaw to call on.

Jordan Romano - RHP

7.63 ERA, 1.696 WHIP, 21 K, 15.1 innings

The Blue Jays lost Romano to the Rule 5 draft last year, and was returned to the team in March after the Texas Rangers couldn’t find a spot for him. Toronto spoke highly of his ability on the hill, but it didn’t translate to much success in 2019. He’ll have a fighting chance to make good on his potential and make the roster, but there are plenty of names to pass on the depth chart to get there.

Hector Perez - RHP

4.60 ERA, 1.624 WHIP, 117 K, 121.1 innings with New Hampshire (AA)

Yennsy Diaz - RHP

4.43 ERA, 1.233 WHIP, 116 K, 144.1 innings with New Hampshire (AA)

Elvis Luciano - RHP

5.35 ERA, 1.782 WHIP, 27 K, 33.2 innings

Diaz and Perez worked as starters in Double-A last season, a role both 23-year-olds should be expected to reprise in 2020. They’re both on the 40-man roster so the time may come for them to be called on to provide innings this season, but it seems unlikely they will be marked in with major league roles to start the year.

As for Luciano, his 33 innings and entire season spent at the major league level were a tool to keep the Rule 5 pick as Blue Jays property for the future. He looked pretty far away from being ready for the highest level last season and should move back down the chain to a minor league role for the entirety of 2020.

Long Men

Sean Reid-Foley - RHP

4.26 ERA, 1.705 WHIP, 28 K, 31.2 innings

Julian Merryweather - RHP

9.00 ERA, 1.833 WHIP, 7 K, 6 innings in minors

Jacob Waguespack - RHP

4.38 ERA, 1.333 WHIP, 63 K, 78 innings

These three pitchers have all worked as starters coming up through the minor league system, but it may serve them all best to start the transition to the bullpen to find a place in the major leagues.

Reid-Foley posted a better strikeout rate working as a reliever last season, and his trouble with an inflated number of walks stems from an inability to find the zone with his off-speed pitches. If he can find his form as a fastball-slider mix guy that misses bats, a spot as a relief pitcher makes a lot of sense with his profile.

Merryweather is 28-years-old and has only made 16 starts above the Double-A level, and his history of injuries may be the tipping point to move him into a bullpen role. He reportedly reached triple-digits with his fastball in sessions last summer, which means he could be a surprise fireballer out of the pen at some point this year.

As for Waguespack, he was good enough to make 13 starts last season, but not so great that his spot back in the rotation is to be assumed. His decent showing at the major league level could earn him Gavilgio’s role as the go-to long man on bad days, but it seems just as likely he returns to Triple-A Buffalo as part of the rotation.

CLEVELAND, OH - AUGUST 01: A.J. Cole leads the list of non-roster invitees that could work their way into the Blue Jays bullpen. (Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - AUGUST 01: A.J. Cole leads the list of non-roster invitees that could work their way into the Blue Jays bullpen. (Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images)

Non-Roster Invitees

A.J. Cole - RHP

3.81 ERA, 1.500 WHIP, 30 K, 26 innings with Cleveland

Ryan Dull - RHP

12.79 ERA, 2.526 WHIP, 15 K, 12.2 innings with 3 teams

Brian Moran - LHP

4.26 ERA, 1.263 WHIP, 10 K, 6.1 innings with Marlins

Travis Bergen - LHP

5.49 ERA, 1.373 WHIP, 18 K, 19.2 innings with Giants

Jake Petricka - RHP

3.38 ERA, 1.500 WHIP, 3 K, 8 innings with Brewers

Justin Miller - RHP

4.02 ERA, 1.277 WHIP, 11 K, 15.2 innings with Nationals

Philippe Aumont - RHP

2.65 ERA, 1.112 WHIP, 145 K, 118.2 innings with Ottawa (Indy)

Take your pick. Any of these pitchers has a chance to earn a spot with the club by outperforming someone above them on the list, a collection of right handers over age-30 with varying levels of major league experience.

Cole could be considered the early favourite to impress, coming off a pretty good 2019 season where he posted good strikeout-to-walk numbers at both the major league and Triple-A level.

Dull blew up in 2019, kicking around three clubs without posting success at any stop. He was very good in 2016 where he posted a 2.42 ERA but that is coming up on half a decade ago. Similarly, Petricka returns for a second stint with the team. He has posted pedestrian numbers since being quite good for the White Sox (2.96 ERA) as a 26-year-old in 2014.

Moran and Bergen may also have a slight advantage from this group, as the team still lacks a lefty option outside of Pannone. Moran was a great story as a 30-year-old rookie that struck out his brother, Colin, in his debut, while Bergen is a returning Rule 5 pick that was absolutely lights out (0.95 ERA in 56.2 innings) at Triple-A in 2018.

Aumont is a fun name to see, a Canadian returning from a stint in independent ball that conjures memories of a spectacular performance at the World Baseball Classic.

Any of these options with designs on making the team will not only take up one of the 26 spots on the major league roster, but will also force someone to come off the 40-man to make room. The Blue Jays will have to weigh the impact of that decision when the time comes, but having too many usable bullpen options would be a good problem to have for a change.

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