Joe Biagini made 60 relief appearances for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2016 as a rookie with a 3.06 ERA
The Toronto Blue Jays’ bullpen remains a just-opened box of IKEA furniture. There are lots of pieces — and one or two missing — with plenty of assembly still required.
Along with an impact left-hander (or two) and another high-leverage arm to pair with Jason Grilli in the seventh and eighth innings, the Blue Jays’ long relief role is undetermined. That job was rarely called upon in 2016 as Toronto’s healthy rotation proved to be a model of consistency, but expecting the same in 2017 would be tempting fate.
Joe Biagini is expected to be stretched out as a starter this spring if the roster depth allows for it, which would temporarily move the 26-year-old from his late-inning role of late-2016. He could quickly return to that spot if the need is pressing, but Toronto also needs to keep next off-season in mind, when both Francisco Liriano and Marco Estrada are due to become free agents.
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Many will hope that one of Sean Reid-Foley, Conner Greene, or Jon Harris might be ready for a major-league shot by that point, but speaking with certainty about pitching prospects is a dangerous game.
In a perfect world, the Blue Jays find a wealth of bullpen talent that allows Biagini to hone his craft in triple-A Buffalo. This is a risky proposition, however, and Biagini’s velocity can’t be expected to transfer directly to 110+ innings of starting.
Can the big right-hander continue to miss bats the second and third time through the order, something he struggled with in the lower-minors?
Biagini’s fate could be tied to that of Mike Bolsinger, and vice-versa. Bolsinger was acquired last season for Jesse Chavez in a deal that quietly brings a good deal of value to the organization.
Still just 28, Bolsinger has plenty of team control remaining (Chavez was on an expiring contract). The 2016 season was rough on the right-hander over six games at the MLB level, but in 2015, he made 21 starts for the Dodgers with a very respectable 3.62 ERA. He may not have the arm talent of Biagini, but as a sixth or seventh starter providing upper-minors depth, the Blue Jays could do much worse.
Does Bolsinger have enough value to stick in the bullpen, though? This would allow the Jays to handle Biagini with fewer external factors, hence the relationship between the two when it comes to roster construction.
Eating innings would not be an issue for Bolsinger, nor would making spot-starts should they be needed. His pitching arsenal, however, could need some adjustment. Bolsinger’s cutter, curveball, and slider are too similar, and with a variance of just ~9.0 MPH between his hardest pitch and slowest pitch, there isn’t much guessing required for the hitters.
Can one of these pitches be maximized? His curveball might just be his best weapon when placed and sequenced properly, and that pitch could also benefit from the bullpen role adding 1-2 MPH to his heater. This involves a heavy dose of “if”, but there is at least a conceivable road to Bolsinger experiencing a slight uptick that allows him to stick as the pen’s long man.
Of course, if MLB rosters expand to 26 players, it opens up a wider range of possibilities. One of those possibilities would be stretching out Joe Biagini with a heavy dose of multi-inning relief appearances, something that would put him closer to being ready for 2018.