Relievers Wil Browning and Murphy Smith are coming off big years in the upper-minors for the Toronto Blue Jays
Depth is a touchy subject in the off-season.
In an ideal world, the Toronto Blue Jays — and every other team — would make it through 162 games using 25 players. In reality, that’s never the case.
As the Blue Jays’ organizational depth currently stands, Wil Browning and Murphy Smith are among the candidates to fill out the top end of Toronto’s bullpen depth in triple-A Buffalo.
Are the unlikely right-handers, ages 28 and 29 respectively, likely to crack an opening day ‘pen or significantly impact the 2017 roster? Surely not. Will the Blue Jays send 20+ relievers to the mound in 2017? Bet on it. (And hey, Buffalo’s bullpen matters in a standalone sense, too).
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Browning, who came out of the University of Louisiana as a non-drafted free agent in 2012, has rounded into a very valuable piece over the past two seasons and spent nearly all of 2016 with double-A New Hampshire. At that level, Browning posted a 1.94 ERA over 51.0 innings while striking out 10.8 batter per nine innings and maintaining strong control.
Throwing from a sidearm angle, Browning has been absolutely dominant against right-handed hitters. It really can’t be understated.
In 2016, righties hit just .156 with a .436 OPS and some hefty strikeout totals against Browning. Furthermore, he held right-handers to a .121 average and .290 OPS over 139 plate appearances the year prior in 2015.
Browning has been facing younger competition, of course, and late-blooming bullpen pieces from the double-A level don’t grab headlines, but the numbers are there to generate some real optimism. Especially if he can be lined up with strings of right-handed hitters in opposing lineups.
Murphy Smith, on the other hand, has travelled a different road as a converted starter who only saw full-time bullpen reps for the first time last season.
Toronto picked up Smith in April of 2015 after he was cut loose from the Oakland Athletics organization. Whether it be a change in approach or a simple change of scenery, something has clicked.
After recording a 3.51 ERA over 92.1 innings in 2015, Smith really stepped forward with a 1.48 ERA as a reliever last season. He still still offers the ability to pitch multiple innings, of course, and often did, but another year of relief duties could show whether Smith’s bullpen success is a blip on the radar or the sign of something more long-term.
Danny Barnes is an excellent comparable for this situation from 2016. After taking the long road through the minors, he finally got his first look this past summer and is already a favourite for a middle-relief role.
Both of these pitchers will see veteran relievers signed above them. When the 25-man roster shakes out this coming spring, a combination of Toronto’s already-signed minor-league arms will drop down to triple-A (where both are currently listed) and steal more important innings. If Toronto’s bullpen is going to rely on competition and a strength-in-numbers approach, though… numbers are needed.