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Where does Marco Estrada fit in 2015?

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When the Toronto Blue Jays traded Adam Lind to the Milwaukee Brewers on November 1st, the term “roster flexibility” was often thrown around as a driving force, not to mention the money saved by moving Lind’s $7.5 million salary.  While this was largely interpreted as flexibility in the batting order due to the removal of the perennially one-dimensional Lind, this move could offer the greatest deal of flexibility to the pitching staff.

Trading a left-handed bat for a swingman with no dominant trait or pitching role underwhelmed me initially, but Estrada’s presence could have a quiet and powerful value to the 2015 Blue Jays.  Estrada’s most likely role appears to be as a long-man out of the bullpen, but he remains involved in the race for the fifth starter’s job with Aaron Sanchez, Daniel Norris and, eventually, Johan Santana.

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In this race, Estrada offers the Blue Jays an arm that is a known and versatile commodity.  This brings a level of comfort to the decision making process in Toronto by adding a manageable floor to the fifth spot in the rotation.  Should Sanchez and Norris either not prove their readiness or begin the season in the bullpen, Estrada is next up.  Similarly, if one of the young arms begins the season as the fifth man and can’t cut it, there is backup already in the fold.

Estrada comes to Toronto with one ugly, glaring statistic from 2014, which is home runs.  Estrada allowed a whopping 29 long balls, and will receive little relief from the Rogers Centre.  A closer look at his 2014 splits, however, suggest that Estrada managed this issue much better out of the bullpen, and that is why I see him contributing most to the Blue Jays as a reliever.

As a starter in 2014, Estrada allowed opponents to post a slash line of .249 / .311 / .498, while allowing 2.94 BB/9 and 2.27 HR/9.  None of these numbers are reason for great optimism.  In a relief role, however, Estrada’s opposing line lowered to .221 / .261 / .350 while allowing just 1.85 BB/9 and 0.42 HR/9.  That’s more like it.

Jul 1, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Milwaukee Brewers starting pitcher

Marco Estrada

throws against the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports

The sample sizes here are far too small, but I choose to give 2014 a greater weight than I normally would because Estrada made a notable change last season.  According to Fangraphs, Estrada threw his changeup 30.0% of the time in 2014, which was a career high.  This pitch will be his ticket to success, as he is able to drop it down to 77-79 MPH from his fastball, which sits around 88-91 MPH.

If Estrada can gain a level of confidence in this changeup, especially in high leverage situations or in hitter’s counts, he will fool batters who are expecting the powerful fastball-slider combination seen from many relievers.

Estrada’s role within the group of seven relievers will impact this, as well.  A Major League bullpen is a living, breathing thing that requires balance.  Todd Redmond already offers the Blue Jays somewhat of a long-man, so Redmond’s best shot at sticking with the Jays long-term could be Chad Jenkins‘ ability to earn appearances in the 7th inning and beyond.

The roster flexibility that Estrada has the potential to allow should make him a more valuable player than meets the eye.  A dominant force he is not, but if his changeup clicks and he keeps the odd ball inside the park, Estrada could become a steady presence in the middle innings for the Toronto Blue Jays.

Next: Four spring training battles to keep an eye on

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