It’s been a tough week for Blue Jays fans. From a high of playing the Red Sox for a chance to take the lead in the competitive AL East last Wednesday, the Jays tumbled to .500 after an 0-6 swoon. In the words of the r/Wallstreetbets community on Reddit, GUH! The news of David Phelps being out for the remainder of the season only adds salt to the wound.
Suffice to say that the bullpen, which had been an early strength of this team, has hit the proverbial wall. In six games from May 19th~24th, the bullpen went 0-5 with three blown saves. Over that span, they allowed 26 runs, 23 of them earned, in 30.2 innings (6.46 ERA). Of the 26 hits given up, five were home runs. They also walked 19 batters, hit two, and threw three wild pitches. Put another way, they were the worst bullpen in baseball with an fWAR of -0.9 in those six games.
Frustrations have boiled over, with pitching coach Pete Walker ejected in the first inning on Monday after arguing balls and strikes with HP umpire Junior Valentine, and Tyler Chatwood expressing his displeasure after getting yanked by manager Charlie Montoyo with two outs in the ninth inning last Sunday.
However, in an attempt to learn from your enemies, Blue Jays nemesis Tampa Bay just recently offered a template on bullpen relief:
"In a rare May swap of significance, the Rays have traded shortstop Willy Adames and righty Trevor Richards to the Brewers in exchange for right-handed relievers J.P. Feyereisen and Drew Rasmussen."
On the surface that seems like a pretty shocking move. Adames only turns 26 in September, isn’t arbitration eligible until next year, and won’t be a free agent until 2025. He’d given the Rays a bWAR of 6.7 since 2019, played in 26 playoff games with 93 plate attempts, and had a dWAR this season of 0.6 at the time of the trade, with 3 defensive runs saved according to FanGraphs.
Of course the Rays need to clear a path for 20 year old uber prospect Wander Franco, the top rated prospect in all of baseball just like Vladimir Guerrero Jr., was in 2019.
However, as an organization, Tampa also has limited resources and only an $83 million competitive balance payroll. While they do boast the top ranked farm system according to Baseball America, their bullpen has been a key source of their competitiveness, going 19-9 with a 3.60 ERA, a 1.3 fWAR and 15 saves season to date.
Through Monday, the Rays bullpen had logged 215 innings in 2021, more than any other team in Major League Baseball. Of course, their innovative use of an Opener and a bulk innings pitcher explains some of this, but with eight pitchers currently on the 60-day injury list, including Closer Nick Anderson, something had to give.
Trading Willy Adames for pitching wasn’t an easy decision. According to MLBTR:
"Manager Kevin Cash told Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times and others that the trade will be felt in the clubhouse, where Adames was beloved and had emerged as a leader. The GM called it a “tear-jerking” move to make, but with the looming presence of Franco, shortstop prospect Taylor Walls and top middle-infield prospect Vidal Brujan, an eventual trade involving Adames has felt nearly inevitable."
But as MLBTR put it, “two contending clubs are dealing big leaguers from positions of depth to help the other address an immediate, pressing need.” The Rays were able to add two intriguing arms with upside to help with their bullpen depth. J.P. Feyereisen is having a good rookie season at age 28, and earned the save Sunday against the Jays. His opponent’s contact rate of 60.5% is the third lowest in MLB after his former Brewers teammate Josh Hader and Pirates setup man Sam Howard. The other pitcher, Drew Rasmussen, 25, was sent down to Triple-A Durham.
The fact that Feyereisen has two minor league options left, and Rasmussen has all three, only helps give the Rays more flexibility and depth as relievers like Nick Anderson, Oliver Drake and Luis Patino return from the IL later this summer.
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Turning back to the Jays, they’ve also suffered a raft of injured pitchers, with Closer Kirby Yates undergoing season ending Tommy John surgery and David Phelps now out for the season as well after undergoing surgery on his right lat on Monday; Julian Merryweather, Rafael Dolis and Jordan Romano, who were supposed to replace Yates as a ‘closer by committee’ have all spent time on the IL, along with other key bullpen arms like Ryan Borucki and Thomas Hatch.
As a group they’ve also pitched a ton of relief innings this year at 195.2 through Monday’s games, the fourth most in baseball. Poor starting pitching after the top three of Hyun Jin Ryu, Robbie Ray and Steven Matz certainly explains some of this, as does the use of bullpen days.
The Jays clearly have more resources than Tampa, with an estimated $158 million competitive balance payroll, and publicly listed corporation Rogers Communications – with billions of dollars in annual net profits – as their owner. Their farm system is ranked third overall by Baseball America.
So how could the Tampa trade with Milwaukee for bullpen relief be used as a template for General Manager Ross Atkins? How about dealing from positions of depth to address an immediate, pressing need in the Jays bullpen?
Certainly the Jays have enviable middle infield depth, with Bo Bichette, Marcus Semien and Cavan Biggio on the MLB roster along with Santiago Espinal and Joe Panik, plus top 100 prospects Austin Martin, Jordan Groshans and Orelvis Martinez. Miguel Hiraldo, Kevin Smith, Otto Lopez, Leo Jimenez, Estiven Machado and Manuel Beltre are all top 30 Jays prospects as well.
Catching is another area of depth, with four players currently rostered on the 40-man pending Alejandro Kirk’s return from the 60-day IL after he is eligible to return July 1st. Double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cat Gabriel Moreno has certainly thrust himself in to the conversation as the Jays catcher of the future, bursting in to BA’s top 100 prospect list this month and crushing baseballs in the minor leagues.
What could the Jays deal for bullpen depth? A very comparable trade would be for the above mentioned Sam Howard from Pittsburgh. He’s 28 years old, won’t be a free agent until 2026, and has been dealing this year, with 25 K’s in 15.1 innings while pitching to an MLB leading opponent contact rate of only 57.1%. Perhaps the Jays could build a deal around Cavan Biggio (similar to Adames at 26 years of age, 4.9 bWAR since 2019 and a free agent in 2026) for Howard and lefty starter Tyler Anderson, who has 91 starts and 508 innings of big league experience, and will be a free agent after this season? The Pirates certainly aren’t making the playoffs and should be sellers soon.
Other short term rentals that might not be as costly include Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel, 32. who has been outstanding this year with nine saves and 32 K’s in 19 innings. He has a $16 million vesting option for 2022 if he finishes 55 games this season (15 so far). Hitters only make contact 62.4% of the time against him. Unfortunately the Cubs are still in the thick of the NL Central race with Kris Bryant putting up MVP numbers, so this may be a stretch.
Looking at other teams fading from the playoff picture, Raisel Iglesias of the Angels (free agent after this season, 62.3% contact rate) and Tanner Scott of the Orioles (arbitration eligible next year, free agent in 2025, 64.9% contact rate) are other ‘swing-and-miss’ type bullpen arms on teams with losing records and fast fading playoff hopes.
Surely a discussion could be had around Blue Jays prospects like catcher Riley Adams and infielders Jordan Groshans and Miguel Hiraldo, without mortgaging the Jays future given eight prospects on BA’s top 100 list? Using the Willy Adames trade as a template, the Jays need to deal from positions of strength to address their immediate, pressing need for MLB bullpen relief. Season ending surgery for David Phelps only accentuates the problem.