Blue Jays: Undermanned Bullpen Going in to Key Ten Game Stretch
By Charles Kime
The Blue Jays enter a crucial ten-game stretch Tuesday against the AL Central-leading Chicago White Sox, followed by series against key AL East rivals Boston and New York. But they do so with a depleted and undermanned bullpen.
The next three opponents have a combined .581 W-L percentage through Monday. The seven games head-to-head with AL rivals matter in terms of the playoff race. Not to mention, this is even tougher than the .524 winning percentage of Jays’ opponents season-to-date, the highest in the majors.
However, the failure of the front office to effectively replace closer Kirby Yates and setup man David Phelps – both out for the season – as well as injured pitchers Thomas Hatch, Julian Merryweather, A.J. Cole, and Ryan Borucki in the bullpen with actual MLB talent, has increased the difficulty level of the next ten-game stretch.
Blue Jays General Manager Ross Atkins has relied so far on waiver wire journeymen like Carl Edwards Jr. and under the radar free agents Tyler Chatwood (5.23 ERA) and Rafael Dolis (4.74 ERA), who has blown 25% of his major league save opportunities, as well as unproven pitchers like Tim Mayza (6.48 ERA coming off a horrific injury and subsequent Tommy John surgery in September 2019), Travis Bergen and rookies Joel Payamps, Anthony Castro, and Jeremy Beasley (6.75 ERA).
Surely this patchwork bullpen will make the challenge of staying above .500 through this next 10 game stretch that much more difficult? Especially for a vagabond team that has scrapped its way to a 30-27 record, only six games back in the AL East and two games back in the Wild Card race?
Unlike division-leading Tampa, which traded SS Willy Adames for J.P. Feyereisen (2-0, 3 saves, 1.08 ERA with 9Ks in 8.1 innings as a Ray), the Blue Jays have relied on waiver wire pickups and rookies to fill the gaping hole left in their bullpen plans by the extended injuries to Yates, Phelps, Merryweather, Borucki, Cole, Romano, Dolis and Hatch.
Already there are signs this bullpen is ineffective: since May, the relief corps has blown six saves and lost seven games. Their 4.44 ERA over that stretch ranks them 17th in MLB and 10th in the AL, behind Tampa and their next three opponents in the ChiSox, Red Sox, and Yankees.
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There aren’t any high leverage relief prospects in the Jays farm system who appear MLB ready and the trade market will only get more expensive from here. Surely playoff contenders like the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants, with 14 and 13 blown saves respectively, will be aggressive in the coming trade market for high leverage relievers, only driving up the price for bullpen help?
The best-case scenario over this tough stretch has the starters going deep into games, but that depends on what have been inconsistent arms like Steven Matz, and the only just reinvented Ross Stripling, plus a rookie with only 35 innings in MiLB in Alek Manoah. Perhaps it’s unfair of the Jays front office to put so much pressure on someone with only two major league starts?
Since Ross Stripling turned around his season with seven shutout innings in bulk relief on May 24, Blue Jays starters have averaged just a little over 5+ innings per start.
Assuming the rotation is built up by now and can average 6+ innings a start over the next ten games, that would only leave late innings to a combination of so far reliable relievers like Payamps, Castro, Trent Thornton, and apparent closer Jordan Romano (1.83 ERA), who assuredly walks out of the bullpen at home games in Buffalo to the song ‘War Pigs’ by Black Sabbath. Hopefully, Hatch, Borucki, and Merryweather will all be closer to returning soon as well.
Ross Atkins also clearly believes this team deserves the chance to compete for a playoff spot, saying Sunday morning that “They’ve really earned it”.
But as Arden Zwelling noted,
"“The Blue Jays must out-perform the 86-87 win pace they’ve hovered around over the first-third of the season if they’re going to make a realistic playoff push in the hyper-competitive American League East. And to do that, they’ll need help.”"
From that perspective, it’s disappointing that Ross Atkins hasn’t dealt from a position of prospect depth, like middle infielders and back of the rotation depth starters, to bring in major league reinforcements for the bullpen.
It would also be a shame to waste Vladimir Guerrero Jr.‘s, MVP campaign all because of an undermanned bullpen at such a crucial stretch of the season. MVP seasons are never a guarantee, as evidenced by the fact that the Jays have only ever had two regular-season MVPs in their 44-year existence: LF George Bell in 1987 and 3B Josh Donaldson in 2015.
Recall that “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).”
If the bullpen blows another four or five games over the next ten, it could be demoralizing for such a young roster still missing their key veteran leader in George Springer.
All of this was predictable last month when Atkins looked forward to the mid-June schedule. The fact that he has only added Carl Edwards Jr., via the waiver wire, and called up rookie Jeremy Beasley since that disastrous late May stretch to supplement returning injured relievers Dolis and Romano in the bullpen. will fully be on him should the Blue Jays stumble over the next ten games.
Tampa’s general manager Erik Neander didn’t gamble like that on securing better playoff odds via a stronger MLB bullpen. Despite not having any MVP candidates, the Rays playoff odds currently stand at 71.7% versus the Jays at 46.4%. The difference is better major league-level talent and roster management.
As Yankees starter Jameson Taillon said of Tampa after absorbing the loss against the Rays on Memorial Day,
"“They play a good, hard, team game. They do a lot of things really well throughout the lineup. They got a mix of speed, a good mix of right-hand and left-hand hitters, a mix of power, a mix of contact, a mix of patience with some aggressive guys. So they throw a bunch of different looks at you. … It’s a grind. They’re a tough lineup.”"
As the Blue Jays enter the toughest stretch of their 2021 season with an undermanned bullpen, can we say the same about their current lineup?