Toronto Blue Jays: Bullpen Depth a Concern Entering 2021
By Charles Kime
The Toronto Blue Jays looked to have solved their bullpen depth issues this past offseason, signing free agents Kirby Yates, Tyler Chatwood and David Phelps, selecting Anthony Castro and Joel Payamps off waivers, trading for Travis Bergen, and offering MiLB deals to A.J. Cole, Francisco Liriano and Tommy Milone. However, season ending Tommy John surgery for Yates and the unconditional release of Liriano have clouded the picture, making bullpen depth once again a concern just a few days ahead of Opening Day 2021.
MLB.com recently recently ranked the ten best MLB bullpens entering 2021 here. AL East rivals Tampa Bay and New York feature on the list, as do the White Sox after signing Liam Hendriks, and the Twins after signing Alex Colomé. The Blue Jays ‘pen did not make the list, despite moves to replace Ken Giles, Anthony Bass, Shun Yamaguchi and Wilmer Font from a 2020 bullpen that ranked 24th in MLB with a 4.71 ERA and 28th in terms of Ks/9. Gone also are Chase Anderson, Sean Reid-Foley, Hector Perez, Josh Winckowski and Yennsy Diaz.
My analysis of 2020 stats using Baseball Reference shows the Blue Jays relied on their bullpen for over 53% of innings pitched in the 2020 regular season, compared to less than 51% for the Tampa Bay Rays, and less than 49% for the New York Yankees. The World Series Champion LA Dodgers only relied on their bullpen for 47% of their innings pitched in 2020.
Given the lack of innings pitched in 2020 by their projected 2021 starters after ace Hyun Jin Ryu, its likely reasonable to assume that the Jays ‘pen will be heavily relied upon again in 2021. Ryu managed 67 innings pitched last year, followed by Robbie Ray’s combined 51.2 innings between Arizona and Toronto. But the remaining projected starters, including Steven Matz, Ross Stripling, Tanner Roark, Nate Pearson, Tom Hatch, T.J. Zeuch and Trent Thornton combined for a mere 153 innings pitched in total in 2020.
As MLBTR noted in a recent poll on the Blue Jays bullpen,
"Arguably, however, the bullpen poses a greater threat to the Jays as they attempt to unseat the Rays and Yankees atop the American League East… If [Yates] doesn’t return to [his 2018-19] form, the bottom could fall out for this group; a rudderless unit is prone to spiral."
In fact, only 10% of respondents in that MLBTR poll gave the Jays bullpen an “A” grade. 53% graded it “B”, with 33% voting “C”.
With Yates done for the year, holding leads in high leverage situations now falls heavily on the Closer-by-committee arms of Jordan Romano, Rafael Dolis, Tyler Chatwood and David Phelps. And despite Romano and Dolis having sub-2.00 ERAs with over 30% strikeout rates in 2020, MLBTR notes that:
"both had FIPs roughly a run and a half higher than their ERAs, however, and could be in line for at least a touch of regression in 2021. Newcomers Chatwood and Phelps are pro arms, but they lack the pedigree of high-leverage, first-division bullpen stalwarts."
According to Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic, the Yates injury concerns had been well flagged this past offseason, with the Atlanta Braves walking away from a one year, $9 million guaranteed offer after reviewing his medical reports. Toronto’s front office was aware that Atlanta had pulled their offer, but still gambled with a one year, $5.5 million guarantee.
Which begs the question, why wasn’t the Blue Jays front office more aggressive in pursuing healthier free agent bullpen options like Liam Hendriks, who signed a four year/$54 million contract to become the ChiSox closer, or Brad Hand, who signed a one year, $10.5 million deal with the Nationals? Or in swinging a trade for former Reds closer Raisel Iglesias, who the L.A. Angels acquired for since released righty Noe Ramirez and 23 year old High-A infielder Leo Rivas, the Angels’ 25th-best prospect according to MLB.com?
More from Jays Journal
- Matt Chapman has been exactly what the Blue Jays needed
- Blue Jays: The goalposts are moving in the right direction
- Single-A Dunedin Blue Jays advance to the Championship Series
- Blue Jays: Comparisons for Alek Manoah’s Second Season
- Blue Jays: Adam Cimber, the unlikely decision King
Other available high leverage arms included Trevor May (2 year/$15.5 million deal with the Mets), Archie Bradley (one year/$6 million deal with the Phillies), Trevor Rosenthal (one year/$11 million pact with Oakland), Alex Colomé (one year/$6.25 million guaranteed deal with the Twins), and Antony Bass (2 year/$5 million guaranteed contract with the Marlins).
Some might argue that the Blue Jays front office has had success in their past signing reclamation projects like Yates and Tyler Chatwood. One can point to relievers like Daniel Hudson, David Phelps, Dominic Leone, Joe Smith and Seunghwan Oh, who were all used in trades to acquire players.
But with the departure of elite closer Ken Giles, who left as an injured free agent, and who’d arrived in a trade for previous closer Roberto Osuna, why didn’t the front office go for the sure thing and look to acquire a proven closer without such obvious injury concerns as with Yates? They’ve spent $268.5 million on free agents including Ryu, George Springer and Marcus Semien over the past two offseasons, and the competitive window is wide open following a playoff appearance in 2020.
So why couldn’t they take out a better insurance policy on holding late game leads in 2021?