As pitchers and catchers report to spring training for the Toronto Blue Jays on Tuesday, one of the biggest storylines is the fate of Joe Biagini.
Shi Davidi of Sportsnet.ca reported Monday night that the club will stretch out Biagini to see what he can do in a starting role. Given that the Blue Jays don’t have a firmly-entrenched sixth starter, it’s possible that the big right-hander starts the season at Triple-A as insurance for the team’s rotation of Aaron Sanchez, Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ, Marcus Stroman, and Francisco Liriano.
The idea intrigues because their other sixth starter options are relatively uninspiring veterans like Mike Bolsinger, Lucas Harrell, and Bret Oberholzer. Also, with Estrada and Liriano’s contracts expiring at the end of the season, the Blue Jays need to find some longer-term starting options.
That said, the Biagini-to-the-rotation idea falls flat because it’s based on two assumptions, both of which are truth-adjacent at best and alternative facts at worst:
Joe Biagini would make a good starter
Stretching Biagini out is a waste of time if he’s not going to be a serviceable starter at the major-league level.
It’s understandable why the belief that he would be exists. He’s been primarily a starter in the minor leagues and features a relatively diverse repertoire that should theoretically allow him to keep hitters off-balance on multiple turns through the order.
However, there’s a significant difference between being an experienced starter and having a track record of success in that role. The reason Biagini was available to the Blue Jays in the Rule V Draft in the first place is because he wasn’t a good starter at the minor-league level.
In 2015, Biagini spent the entire season in Double-A and although he posted a superficially strong 2.49 ERA in 22 starts, he also managed a meagre 5.80 K/9. He was a 25-year-old who couldn’t miss bats at a level two stops below the major leagues – the notion that suddenly he’s a major-league calibre starter seems pretty far-fetched at this point.
That’s not taking anything away from what he did last year with the Blue Jays. Biagini was undoubtedly a very strong presence in Toronto’s bullpen who added significant value in high-leverage spots.
Even so, pitching in relief is a different animal. In short stints, Biagini was able to increase his fastball velocity to 94 mph – giving him more of a power groundballer look. If he went back to starting, he’d likely be wielding an unremarkable 91-92 mph fastball. Biagini simply wouldn’t be the guy Blue Jays fans fell in love with last season.
That guy is someone the team desperately needs, which brings us to Assumption Two.
2. The Blue Jays bullpen can afford to spare Biagini
It didn’t take long for Biagini to become an essential cog in the Blue Jays’ relief corps last year. By the time the season was over, he was arguably the team’s most reliable option behind Roberto Osuna.
His 1.2 WAR ranked 33rd among relievers alongside far bigger names like Craig Kimbrel and Luke Gregorson, and thanks to his multi-inning ability he logged more innings than Cy Young candidate Zach Britton. His performance wasn’t elite-level, but it was comfortably second-tier.
Although the 6-foot-5 right-hander didn’t blow hitters away, he kept the ball on the ground and in the park, striking out his fair share of hitters with a heavy fastball, a nasty curveball and a workable slider.
The Blue Jays bullpen looks fairly solid with the additions of J.P. Howell and Joe Smith, but Biagini is high on the pecking order behind only Jason Grilli among right-handers. If Grilli falters or gets hurts – not a wildly unlikely scenario for a 40-year-old – he would be thrust into an absolutely essential role.
Right now, Toronto has two bullpen jobs up for grabs for its best spring training performers. If the Blue Jays convert Biagini, that takes that number to a fairly-dangerous three. This unit isn’t in danger of an utter collapse without Biagini, but his absence would create a fairly seriously destabilization.
In theory, there isn’t much harm in the Blue Jays trying to expand their pool of starting options this spring. The reality is that stretching out Biagini is an experiment that seems unlikely to bear fruit.
The sophomore pitcher is not some young gun begging to be shaped into the next Aaron Sanchez. He’s a relatively finished product at 26 years old, who hasn’t even shown much potential as a starter at Double-A when he was old for the level.
The Blue Jays’ current sixth starter candidates may not inspire the most confidence, but not many clubs – except the extravagantly wealthy Los Angeles Dodgers – can say theirs do. That’s not a good enough reason to tinker with something that works.