Blue Jays: Is Francisco Liriano in the rotation long term a sure thing?

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Francisco Liriano (45) throws a pitch during the second inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Francisco Liriano (45) throws a pitch during the second inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

The Toronto Blue Jays are getting healthier. Please pray I didn’t just jinx them. 2015 MVP Josh Donaldson and borderline Hall-of-Famer Troy Tulowitzki returned to the Blue Jays Friday night.

J.A. Happ is a potential candidate to start Tuesday against the Cincinnati Reds. Francisco Liriano is making a rehab start in Buffalo on Sunday. When Happ, Liriano, and eventually Aaron Sanchez return, it is possible Liriano’s spot in the rotation will not be a lock.

As thing currently stand, the rotation for the Blue Jays consists of Marco Estrada, Marcus Stroman, Mike Bolsinger, and Joe Biagini. The first to return to the rotation will slide into the vacant 5th spot or in place of a potential call-up for Tuesday, May 30th’s start. The second one to return bumps Mike Bolsinger to a DFA or a swingman role in the bullpen. Those questions will be easy to solve. It’s when Aaron Sanchez returns that the Blue Jays have a big decision to make which likely comes down to Joe Biagini and Francisco Liriano.

The question between Liriano and his spot in the bullpen is directly correlated to that of Joe Biagini but also J.P. Howell. In my mind, the decision to who stays or goes from the rotation does also include Howell. However, let’s start with Biagini.

Joe Biagini was one of 2016’s biggest surprises. We all know what he did in the regular season and into the post-season. He was simply dominant coming in out of the bullpen. That carried over into the beginning of the 2017 season before a plethora of injuries forced the Blue Jays hand to put Biagini into the bullpen.

The results for Biagini in the bullpen have been mixed. There have been some really good signs in terms of performance. In his first two starts, he didn’t allow a single earned run. His 3rd start in Atlanta against the Braves was not as good. He allowed 6 runs in the first inning but settled down nicely and did not allow a run in the following 3 innings. His last start against the Milwaukee Brewers, Biagini cruised into the 5th inning, where it then fell apart. In his defense, there were 3 singles in a row that barely missed gloves. He could have made it through with a bit better luck.

The bad signs are how easily Biagini tires. That, however, is not much of a surprise. Biagini is building himself up as he goes into each start. He did reach a career-high of 77 pitches in Milwaukee, but it was evident he was tiring in the 5th. Biagini’s next start comes Sunday, May 27th against the Rangers. Biagini will hopefully push past the 80 pitch threshold but he will be monitored closely.

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All in all, Biagini has made 4 starts and posted a 1-1 record with a 4.15 ERA. It hasn’t been horrible by any means. Remove those 6 runs from the Braves start, and things look great. There is concern about the physical shape of Biagini according to Jeff Blair of Sportsnet. Blair has stated that the Blue Jays have a concern about Biagini’s shape and whether or not he can withstand the rigors of starting for the rest of the season. Getting into better physical shape isn’t easy to do mid-season. This will undoubtedly play a part in the decision.

Let’s quickly touch on J.P. Howell and how I think he plays into this situation. Howell has been flat out terrible. It’s a very small sample size with just 4.2 innings pitched, but he has been terrible. I wrote about the struggles of Howell, so for further information, check it out here.

Howell was signed to be the high leverage left-hander out of the bullpen and it’s quite clear that will not be the case for the rest of the season barring a turnaround. He will need to pitch more to see if he can turn it around, but if he does not, he may find himself in DFA territory. This decision could directly relate to the role Liriano plays with a fully healthy rotation.

The final piece is obviously, Francisco Liriano himself. Liriano has had a few good starts before he landed on the disabled list, but for the most part, he hasn’t been very effective. Liriano has started 7 games and posted a 2-2 record with a 6.35 ERA. His K/9 is still a tidy 9.53 but his BB/9 is an extremely ugly 7.31.

It is entirely possible that Liriano was dealing with his shoulder inflammation for a few starts which would explain his 15.88 ERA in 5.2 innings in May compared to 3.97 in 22.2 April innings. With no high leverage left-hander in the bullpen, Liriano could be that answer. The Blue Jays will need a lefty to get big outs. We saw what the loss of Brett Cecil did to the Blue Jays bullpen in the 2015 post-season. Liriano has held left-handed batters to a .240/.269/.320 slash line. That could play nicely in the bullpen.

The decision of what to do with the rotation IF it gets fully healthy will be an interesting one. In my mind, the hierarchy of how they will make the decision goes as follows:

  1. Who’s pitching better between Francisco Liriano and Joe Biagini?
  2. The state of the bullpen and more specifically, the left-handers (Howell).
  3. How strong Joe Biagini looks.

Next: Blue Jays: What a healthy lineup might look like

However, the situation pans out, the rotation spot for Francisco Liriano is not a lock. There are 2/3 scenarios where I can see Liriano heading to the bullpen. Regardless, if he pitches well, he will stay in the rotation. It will be interesting to see how it all looks when the dust settles.