When the Toronto Blue Jays traded their ace Roy Halladay to the Philadelphia Phillies in late 2009, pitching prospect Kyle Drabek was supposed to be the jewel of their return package. Ranked by Baseball America as the #25 prospect in Major League Baseball following 2009, and the Blue Jays #1 prospect following 2010, Drabek represented a passing of the torch: another Doc. Injuries and performance issues have derailed Drabek’s potential, however, and the 27-year old is running out of opportunities to save his career as a member of the Blue Jays’ bullpen.
Two Tommy John surgeries have robbed Drabek of the high-90s velocity that once electrified the Minor Leagues, but he is still able to reach 92-93 with his fastball quite comfortably. Drabek has always possessed a quality curveball, as well, but his inability to consistently pound the strike zone has held him back from reaching whatever ceiling still remains for him in the MLB. Across three seasons at the AAA level, Drabek has posted 6.0 K/9 with 3.5 BB/9. These numbers make it difficult to find success as a starter, and suggest that he may not be dominant enough to work as a shut-down relief arm for the Blue Jays.
The 2014 season brought a glimmer of hope for the Blue Jays and Kyle Drabek when he began to show signs of turning the corner as a reliever. In 31.1 relief innings with the AAA Buffalo Bisons, Drabek recorded a 3.16 ERA. Numbers for opposing hitters also took a dive, as his opposing slash line as a starter (.297 / .349 / .491) dropped considerably in a relief role (.272 / .324 / .368).
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Working most in Drabek’s favor may be the level of opportunity now present within the Toronto Blue Jays. If you are looking to fight for a Major League bullpen spot, Toronto is the place to be, and Drabek could very well be given an opportunity to make the big club out of Spring Training. Drabek will not be alone, with Steve Delabar hoping to re-capture his All-Star form and arms such as Ryan Tepera sure to make a push, but the time may never be better than now.
The idea of Drabek developing into a back-end arm has been floated, but until he drastically improves his control I struggle to trust him in high-leverage situations, especially with runners in scoring position. As a long-man out of the bullpen, though, there may be potential for him to carve out a role. Standing in his way may be the Blue Jays’ log-jam of right-handed long arms, including Todd Redmond, Marco Estrada and Chad Jenkins.
Spring Training is still a world away, and the Blue Jays may awake from their slumber in the coming weeks to add two or more arms to the bullpen. Barring great change, however, Kyle Drabek has a real chance at an MLB roster spot next season, and a competition for bullpen spots could help to bring out the best in several Blue Jays’ pitchers. At 27, it’s a bit harsh to label this as a “now or never” season for the former top prospect, but to a fan base that is all too familiar with the fall of Ricky Romero, it’s about time that Kyle Drabek grabbed his career by the horns.