The Toronto Blue Jays are thin on MLB-ready bullpen arms with free agency ready to ramp up, and a quick glance at the 40-man roster shows it’s not bubbling over with options. A name to keep in mind, however, even regardless of the additions that may come, is right-handed reliever Ben Rowen.
Rowen was claimed off waivers from the Chicago Cubs in early August, and rounded out a very effective 2015 campaign by throwing 18.0 innings over 14 appearances for the Buffalo Bisons. After being selected in the 22nd round of the 2010 MLB Amateur Draft in 2010 by the Texas Rangers, for whom he’d briefly make his big league debut in 2014, Rowen has bounced around the bottom of 40-man rosters between the Los Angeles Dodgers, Baltimore Orioles and Chicago.
This hasn’t been for a lack of success, though, and if Rowen survives the winter with Toronto, the Blue Jays could represent a perfect marriage of opportunity and environment. The 27-year old posted a cumulative 2015 line across AA and three AAA stops of 64.2 innings pitched with a 1.95 ERA. The 2014 campaign was not as kind to Rowen in AAA Round Rock (3.45 ERA), but in the season prior, he posted a 0.69 ERA over 65.2 inning split almost evenly between AA and AAA. Numbers have not been an issue.
What makes Rowan unique is his pitching mechanics: he throws submarine-style. He’ll lean most heavily on a sinking fastball that rests around 80 MPH with a lesser-used slider that works in the low-70s.
You’ll notice a general lack of urgency with his delivery in the video above, which might keep hitters off-balance itself, but you should also take note of the types of outs he produces. Ground balls. Rowen has allowed just seven home runs in his professional career, good for a HR/9 mark of 0.2. That’s Rogers Centre baseball.
Across his Minor League career, Rowen owns a GO/AO (ground out to air out ratio) of 2.72. In the 2015 MLB picture, among all starters and relievers with a minimum of 30.o innings pitched, that ratio would rank him 25th league-wide and just behind Aaron Sanchez with 2.81. How sustainable that number would be in an MLB role is uncertain, but given his style and pitch movement, Rowen is a reliever with the potential to produce ground balls at a 60% rate.
Assuming the only major bullpen changes in Toronto are 1-to-2 veteran additions, Rowen would still enter spring training with an opportunity to emerge from a clouded group including the likes of Bo Schultz, Ryan Tepera, Chad Jenkins and other arms of a similar calibre. Realistically, most names in that group will see some level of action over the course of the MLB season, but the door should remain open for a full-time gig.
With the home-run tendencies of the ‘Dome, the generous nuances of the shag carpet surface and a quality defensive infield, Rowen is the type of pitcher that could quietly surprise. His lack of velocity robs him of any “wow” factor, but I’ll happily be lulled to sleep by the repetitive thump of balls being driven into the dirt.
The first trick here, of course, is making it through the coming wave of transactions with a roster spot, but I’m of the opinion that his unique offering should be of benefit to him. A frequent qualm with arms like Tepera is that, if necessary, an equal player can be found quite easily. Rowen possesses something a little more rare, though. Whether he can turn that into something at the MLB level is entirely up for debate, though I’d suggest he can, and should be given a shot at doing do this coming March.