When teams have little chance of contending, like the 2019 Toronto Blue Jays do, they rarely invest much in the bullpen.
Though the interchangeability of relievers can often be overstated, when you’re trying to put together a winning core you generally focus on position players, then starters, then relievers. Good bullpen arms aren’t easy to come by, but they aren’t as rare as good starters and they can always be found midseason if you’re making a run.
As a result, it probably should come as no surprise that the Blue Jays’ bullpen is neither expensive nor star-studded — and although the club would never say this publicly, almost every reliever they’ve assembled is far more valuable to them as a trade chip than a player in his own right.
However, even if your ultimate goal is to flip your relievers, you still need to carry the best ones you’ve got and put them in positions to succeed so they’ve got the best chance of being valuable to contenders come deadline time. That means the Blue Jays have the same bullpen construction incentives as teams like the Yankees and Red Sox.
Although Toronto doesn’t have too many dynamic arms, they have interesting choices to make. Projecting exactly who they carry is very difficult at the moment because a few major questions remain:
1. How healthy is David Phelps?
Because Phelps pitched a lot as a starter with the Yankees, his career numbers don’t do him justice as a reliever. Transitioning to the bullpen full time helped him bring his fastball velocity from around 90 into the mid-90s, emphasize his cutter, and drop his ineffective changeup. Long story short, he’s good now. Really good.
His last two active seasons he managed 142.1 innings of 2.72 ERA ball supported by a 11.13 K/9. The catch is “his last two active seasons” were 2016 and 2017 and he’s coming off Tommy John surgery. The 32-year-old has pitched live batting practice, but it’s hard to know exactly where he’s at. Even if he’s healthy there’s a decent chance he struggles.
Phelps could easily be a dominant or dominant-adjacent setup man/bullpen staple with an extremely cheap option for 2020 or a guy who takes a while to get started and never seems up to speed making his option a real decision. Or the boring answer: somewhere in between.
2. What’s up with Elvis Luciano?
It seems fair to say that Luciano is not ready to be a reliable major-league contributor. He’s 19, he’s never pitched above rookie ball and his work in Grapefruit League action thus far has not inspired. The Blue Jays are enamoured with his talent, though, and if they want to keep the Rule 5 pick he has to stay on the active roster.
Does that mean he stays and it’s an eight-man bullpen where he barely pitches? Could he survive as part of seven-man group with a few more multi-inning types? Is there a way to avoid all the trouble by working out a trade with the Royals?
Considering the club is low on high-ceiling starting prospects, the appeal of getting Luciano into the system isn’t hard to see, but if that means keeping him around all year, that’s a move that will make life more complicated for the Blue Jays in 2019. The competitive disadvantage of keeping Luciano is something the club can weather, the opportunity cost and general headache might not be.
3. Is Clayton Richard joining the party?
The Blue Jays have five rotation spots and six clear candidates to earn them: Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Matt Shoemaker, Clay Buchholz, Clayton Richard, and Ryan Borucki. You can pencil in Stroman, Sanchez, Shoemaker, and Buchholz presuming everyone is healthy and Buchholz is up to speed.
If Richard gets the final spot that means Borucki is heading back to Buffalo, even after a very strong rookie showing. The more logical option seems to be to send the affordable Richard to the bullpen and give Borucki a spot from Day 1, even if the younger southpaw hasn’t been particularly strong this spring. Richard could eat innings in relief and provide another left-handed option besides Tim Mayza. His inclusion could also give the club less incentive to carry another multi-inning guy like Joe Biagini, though the two are far from mutually exclusive.
As it stands, Ken Giles, Ryan Tepera, and Tim Mayza are locks. Bud Norris seems like a hell of a safe bet. Beyond that, the questions above needed to be answered before anything gets written in ink.
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