What are Blue Jays plans for Liam Hendriks in 2016?


The Blue Jays came out looking like geniuses when they transitioned right-hander Liam Hendriks into a bullpen role this past spring. Whether intentionally or not, the club tapped into an entirely different pitcher that has excelled in short bursts, and given the potential turnover in the Blue Jays 2016 bullpen, Hendriks could be set to battle for a late-inning role.

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This is a role that he already deserves, quite frankly, but Toronto’s transformation into one of the MLB’s top bullpens has kept The Crocodile grounded in middle-to-long relief for the majority of his appearances. In the process, however, Hendriks has continued to grow into a dominant power pitcher whose game profiles well in the Rogers Centre.

According to FanGraphs, Hendriks has improved his ground ball percentage to 45.8 this season while bringing his HR/FB down to 5.7%, well below his career average. With just 0.4 HR/9 and a hard contact percentage of 28.6, Hendriks can stay safe in any launching pad and avoid the fatal, late-game blow.

Again, this is all linked to Hendriks becoming a new man on the mound in terms of velocity. His excellent fastball has jumped more than 3MPH from 2014, now sitting at an average of 94.5, while his slider has jumped over 2.5MPH to 86.9. That slider, which Hendriks throws nearly a quarter of the time, has plus potential when used correctly in the count.

Hopefully these numbers put to rest any of the suppressed hopes you might have about returning Hendriks to a starting role. He’s an average sixth starter, competent at best, but in the bullpen he has proven to be a top-end option for John Gibbons. He also comes at a fraction of the salary that an equal reliever would cost on the open market, and is under team control until 2020 (arbitration eligible in 2017).

So when we look to 2016 (which, yes, we’re allowed to do as long as it’s not forecasting doomsday scenarios), Hendriks should have a clear path to a 7th inning role. Mark Lowe will be hitting free agency and looking to cash in on his career year with a small payday. LaTroy Hawkins is headed for retirement and Aaron Sanchez could potentially be moved back into the starting rotation, so some chairs will be left empty.

Slotting Hendriks into an 8th inning role is getting a bit carried away, but I see no reason why he shouldn’t be given an opportunity to play a leading role in the 6th and 7th when the game is close, and act as a second option to Brett Cecil in later situations. This would be a step or two up the ladder for Hendriks, and should he falter, the Jays still have a high-quality long reliever in him. But he’s earned the shot.

It will be interesting to see how Anthopoulos addresses the bullpen this offseason, and whether he takes 2015 as a lesson learned. The Jays have turned it around, but that took some midseason additions, the surprising Hendriks and a very recent teenager in the closer’s role. Regardless of the plan, though, Hendriks will stand in the centre.

Next: Why R.A. Dickey should start game two of the ALDS

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