The Toronto Blue Jays are still searching for answers in one specific corner of their bullpen. Beyond Brett Cecil, no left-hander has stepped forward to claim a long-term spot on the 25-man roster. Cecil hasn’t been dominant himself, but at the very least, his playoff spot is secure.
On Saturday, I wrote that Francisco Liriano could be the Blue Jays solution to the problem, even despite his rocky bullpen debut last night in Tampa Bay. The two-pitch combination and raw velocity are there for Liriano to excel in short bursts, which he certainly can do, but his inconsistency makes it a risky play.
Beyond Liriano, the Blue Jays could also end the season the same way they opened it: by calling a right-hander their second left-hander.
Danny Barnes is back up with the Blue Jays after a three-game stint in early August. The 26-year-old reliever allowed two runs in four innings, striking out five, but has deserved a longer look for months given his fantastic minor league numbers.
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After posting a 1.01 ERA in 24 appearances with the double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats, Barnes made the jump to triple-A and was nearly untouchable. With Buffalo, Barnes dominated with a 0.35 ERA over 25.2 innings pitched.
What’s even more important, though, is his success against left-handed hitters this year. This is something that’s closely linked to his excellent changeup, which disturbs the timing of all hitters.
In 40 at-bats versus left-handed hitters in 2016 at the triple-A level, Barnes allowed just one hit. Furthermore, he struck out 20 of them. Between both levels this season (112 plate appearances), Barnes held left-handed batters to a slash line of .093 / .125 / .157 (.282 OPS).
These numbers don’t align with Barnes’ career numbers, though. In 2015 he had nearly even splits and in 2014 lefties hit him very well, so is this breakout 2016 a sign of things to come or an outlier that is due for regression?
Frankly, with no more than two months remaining in the season, that answer doesn’t matter for the Blue Jays’ purposes. Toronto needs to find one burst of strong pitching against left-handed batters, even if that comes from a right-hander.
This idea shows itself in Brett Cecil, too. At this point in the season, his excellent track record and the reasons to be optimistic for a turnaround matter very little. Small sample sizes are allowed some room in the conversation this late in the season, because that’s what the Blue Jays need: a small sample size of good relief pitching.
If that can be Barnes, and the former 35th-round pick can be the unexpected plug in the long-present hole, then that’s one less weakness in the Blue Jays’ armour. Barnes and Liriano could co-exist in the playoff bullpen, too, with Liriano having the ability to piggyback a struggling starter for several innings.