With a clear need in the bullpen for the Blue Jays, the team signed a pair of pitchers over the weekend. What can we glean from the latest roster moves?
In order to answer that question, let’s start by telling you about the two newest Blue Jays pitchers. To start with, news broke on Sunday evening that current broadcaster and former MLB reliever John Axford had signed a minor league contract pending a physical.
The 38 year old last pitched in the big leagues in 2018 in a season he split between the Jays and the L.A. Dodgers. That year the Canuck right-hander had been excellent pitching for the only Canadian MLB franchise, and was good enough to catch a contender’s eye in Los Angeles. For his career Axford has a 3.87 ERA and 144 saves across 543 appearances, and while it’s been a few years since he threw in a MLB game, he reportedly was still hitting 95-98 miles per hour on the radar gun while working with Baseball Canada toward an Olympic qualifier.
The other signing over the weekend was a lesser known name in Andrew Bash, a former draft pick of the Angels. Bash pitched in the Independent League in 2021 and was quite successful, posting a league-low 1.80 ERA as a starting pitcher. He’ll have a much greater challenge in the minor league system compared to Independent baseball, but he was successful enough to warrant bringing him in to have a closer look.
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While it’s fun to think about the idea of getting the “Ax-man” back in the Blue Jays bullpen, neither of this weekend’s moves represented the kind of needle-moving additions fans were hoping for. That said, they probably tell us a fair bit about the market at the moment.
After Sunday’s game Blue Jays General Manager Ross Atkins addressed the media for the first time in a while, and admitted that the bullpen is an obvious area of the team that needs reinforcements. That said, he can’t generate a market just because of the need, and it can be tough to pull off impact trades as early as mid-June. It can obviously be done as we saw with the Rays making a significant trade in May, but opposing GM’s are more willing to pull the trigger on a swap once the schedule has reached the All-Star break.
I’m confident the Blue Jays’ front office has been actively seeking improvements for the leaky bullpen, but I also wonder how far they’re willing to go to address the weakness in 2021. At 35-35 they’re not where they had hoped to be, or even should be after 70 games, but there are plenty of reasons to believe they’ll be in the playoff race down the stretch. For now, I’m not surprised that Atkins might be reluctant to overpay for bullpen help, and that brings us back to Axford and Bash.
On minor league deals the Blue Jays don’t have to commit to either pitcher, so it amounts to a low-cost roll of the dice in hopes of finding some badly needed depth. Some fans rolled their eyes at the idea of bringing back a guy like Axford who has been out of the big leagues for 2.5 seasons, but at this point I think it’s a more than worthwhile option to explore. Even if the veteran makes a handful of appearances this year, helping pick up an extra win or two could turn out to be huge. And if he’s not able to reach that kind of level, then there’s literally no harm done in seeing what he’s got.
Until the bullpen market truly develops, we may see a few more minor league signings like we did on the weekend. The Blue Jays front office has been successful finding low-cost arms in the past, and it’s certainly worth a shot to see if they can find some help that way again, especially as they wait for a healthy return from some of their injured relievers, and for the trade market in general to start picking up.