Addressing the Blue Jays' bullpen struggles

Seattle Mariners v Toronto Blue Jays
Seattle Mariners v Toronto Blue Jays / Kevin Sousa/GettyImages

Following a fourth straight series loss, this time at the hands of the rebuilding Washington Nationals, the Toronto Blue Jays sit three games below .500 at 16-19. Much of the blame for their struggles has gone to the offence, and rightfully so. Their 3.66 runs per game rank 24th in baseball, behind the likes of the Miami Marlins and barely ahead of the Oakland A's. However, these offensive deficiencies have somewhat masked what may be an even larger problem, their bullpen.

As of writing this, the Blue Jays' bullpen ranks dead last in MLB with a 5.31 ERA, and are right at the bottom of the barrel for a number of other stats, like walk, strikeout, and home run rates. This is coming off of a 2023 season where the pen ranked top 10 in most statistical categories and was one of the more reliable units in baseball. This begs a couple of questions; why is this happening, and where does the team go from here?

Let's start with the why. Why has the Blue Jays' bullpen been so bad? One easy answer is health. Jordan Romano and Erik Swanson, the team's closer and top setup man both opened the season on the IL and since returning have yet to look like themselves. Romano currently sports a 4.05 ERA over 6.2 innings, which certainly isn't terrible, but is a far cry from what has come to be expected from him. His advanced metrics suggest that he's actually lucky his numbers are worse, as almost all of his expected and rates states, like expected ERA, expected batting average, barrel rate, and hard hit rate are all right near the bottom of the league.

Swanson's advanced stats have been equally as concerning, but he hasn't quite had the luck Romano has, having allowed 11 earned runs in just six innings of work this year, leading to questions about his usage. To put that in perspective, he allowed just three earned runs through his first 20.1 innings last season. Both men are clearly not themselves and have yet to look like the pitchers they were in years past, but the injury problems go beyond just them. Yimi García, who was off to an unbelievable start to the season, has been dealing with back issues, which haven't put him on the IL, but have limited his availability recently. On top of that, Chad Green, who allowed just two runs over 7.2 innings of work to open the year is currently on the shelf. 

Injury has been far from the only problem, with most of the teams healthy relievers struggling immensely. Nate Pearson opened the season allowing just two runs over his first 10 innings pitched, but has allowed five over his last 2.1. Lefties Tim Mayza and Génesis Cabrera have also had rocky starts, with both southpaws sporting an ERA north of 6.00. None of these pitchers have any underlying number that suggest they're getting unlucky either, so it's entirely possible they continue to struggle.

So where do the Blue Jays go from here? Health is obviously a huge factor here since you'd have to hope that as pitchers get healthier, they'll pitch better. That's far from a given though. While it's likely that at least one of Romano and Swanson get back to normal as the season goes on, it's entirely possible they continue to struggle. These injuries have also exposed the depth of the Jays' bullpen since no one has really stepped up in their place. The front office seems to recognize this problem, having signed multiple arms down in Triple-A recently, perhaps as insurance should these struggles continue. 

It's tempting to say that it's barely over a month into the year and not to overreact, but as the losses continue to pile up, the bullpen will need to step up sooner or later. Whether that happens or not is yet to be seen, but one thing that is certain is that things can't get much worse.