The Toronto Blue Jays gave some clarity to the immediate future of their starting rotation on Friday, announcing that Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ will follow Marcus Stroman against the Tampa Bay Rays.
Aaron Sanchez and R.A. Dickey then align for the opening games of the New York Yankees series, but the most prominent takeaway is that Francisco Liriano is available for bullpen work. For now, at least.
Liriano debuted in this role last night, making his first relief appearance since 2012, and the first look didn’t go as planned. He allowed a home run and a triple, failing to record an out, but this brief experiment does need some time to work itself out.
Toronto will need to shorten their rotation full-time to five pitchers, and eventually four if they’re able to reach the divisional round of the American League playoffs. Dickey currently seems like the odd man out and is facing an uphill battle for a 25-man roster spot (along with Josh Thole), but due to the nature of his pitching, he doesn’t provide bullpen upside.
Liriano is a different case. A spike in hard contact and his walk rate have led to some inflated numbers this season, but he’s still sporting a nice ground ball percentage and has the raw velocity on his primary pitches to succeed in bursts.
The veteran left-hander has the ability to sit at 93-94 when he’s at his best, and his slider can work very well against lefties.
In left-on-left situations this season Liriano hasn’t been very strong, still allowing a .732 OPS (albeit nearly .100 lower than his numbers versus right-handers). He was very strong in 2015, though, holding lefties to a .599 OPS and just a .209 average. If he can recreate 2015 more often than 2016, the door is wide open for him
Brett Cecil — who has been inconsistent himself — is currently the closest left-handed reliever to a “sure thing” that the Blue Jays have. As situational matchups are magnified in the playoff run and playoffs, a second left-handed option holds significant value if one can be found.
As Gibbons said, Liriano is still expected to bounce back into the starting rotation before the end of the regular season. This is clearly a situation that’s going to remain very fluid, which should be seen as an advantage for the Blue Jays, but opening Liriano up to a bullpen role is necessary.