Player Profiles 2020: Toronto Blue Jays Bullpen
There isn’t much to see in the Toronto bullpen, but there are a few bright spots that should attract fantasy owners’ attention. The Blue Jays are one of the few teams with a dedicated closer and a manager who wants his closer to end games. Toronto also has playing-time openings for relievers who can prove they can be trusted to eat innings. With the team in the heart of a rebuild, the Blue Jays will look to build value and move pieces to cut salary and increase organizational depth (as they did with Daniel Hudson in 2019). When these trades inevitably happen, it is helpful to know who might take a step forward and be an option for saves and holds.
This piece was edited/updated on December 3, 2019 to reflect the non-tender of Derek Law and Jason Adam on December 2, 2019.
|Ken Giles||Anthony Bass||Jordan Romano||Thomas Pannone||Thomas Hatch||Sam Gaviglio/Ryan Borucki|
Closer – Ken Giles
Ken Giles is the no-doubt closer. As the standout arm in a weak bullpen, Giles has his manager’s trust, and he will be a target for saves in 2020 drafts. He won’t, however, command the same draft-cost as Aroldis Chapman, Roberto Osuna, Kenley Jansen, or Kirby Yates. There is value in Giles if you believe the Blue Jays will be an improved team in 2020 and will put him in a position for saves.
Giles only logged 23 saves in 2019, putting him tied for 18th in the category (with Hansel Robles and Shane Greene). Giles, however, only pitched 53 innings, which put him at the second-lowest total for pitchers with more than 20 saves (Carlos Martinez had 24 saves in 48 innings). Giles was effective, blowing just one save. He posted a 1.87 ERA, a 1.00 WHIP, with a K/9 of 14.05. He had excellent pitch results, posting a 40% strikeout rate, a 19% swinging-strike rate, with his slider as his best pitch, logging a 27% swinging-strike rate.
We remember Giles falling out of favor with A.J. Hinch in the 2017 postseason and punching himself in the face after a poor outing in 2018. These vivid images may color our perception of him, but as a Blue Jay he has 37 saves, a 2.48 ERA, a 1.03 WHIP, and a 13.00 K/9 with just one blown save. No one is nipping at his heels to take the closer’s job, so Giles’ will have a long leash and is the best pitcher in Toronto’s ‘pen.
Giles did miss time in 2019 due to injury. He had elbow inflammation just before the trade deadline, limiting any potential trade return. He’ll become a free agent at the end of 2020, and it is the surest of sure things that he will be traded at some point this season. This could hurt his opportunities for saves if he moves into a setup role, but while he is a Blue Jay, he will be the closer and should provide fantasy teams with as many saves as the team can muster. This trade uncertainty will depress his draft-day cost, but his skills in 2019 were elite.
Setup – Anthony Bass
Toronto claimed Anthony Bass from waivers on October 29, 2019, and he looks to be a candidate for a bullpen role if he impresses in spring training. Bass threw 44 innings with the Mariners, posting a 3.56 ERA (3.90 FIP) with a 0.98 WHIP and grabbing an 8.06 K/9. Those numbers look like a flicker of gold in the riverbed dredge that is the Blue Jays bullpen. Bass boosted his swinging-strike rate to 11.1% (from 7.8%), getting a 4.4-point increase in his O-Swing rate and a 4.6-point increase in his Z-Swing percentage. If that wasn’t impressive enough, he dropped his O-Contact 2.6 percentage points, his Z-Contact 5.6 points, and his contact percentage 6.9 points. To be fair, Bass’ 2018 numbers are a small sample, based on just 15.1 innings pitched, and he threw just 18 MLB innings from 2016 to 2018, pitching all of 2016 in Japan. His last significant MLB workload came in 2015 when he threw 64 innings to a 4.50 ERA and a 1.34 WHIP with the Texas Rangers. It appears as though the Blue Jays are looking to take a chance on an inexpensive pitcher with some MLB experience who can provide some veteran stability. The hope, of course, is to build Bass into a trade piece.
Setup – Jordan Romano
At 26 years old, Jordan Romano made his MLB in June and moved freely between the Blue Jays and the Buffalo Bisons throughout the year. With just a fastball and a slider, Romano has little chance of moving out of the bullpen. His fastball touches 96 mph but resides mostly around 93 mph, with his slider sitting at 85 mph, and he is able to induce swing-and-miss, posting a 12.33 K/9. Unfortunately, Romano has been unable to control his pitches, putting up a 5.28 BB/9 and allowing a 2.35 HR/9—a bad concoction for a low ERA. He was limited to 15.1 innings of MLB work in 17 appearances in 2019, putting up an ERA of 7.63 and a 1.70 WHIP. Expect Romano to continue to act as a Triple-A bullpen reinforcement unless he is able to control his pitches to reduce his walks. His stuff can effectively grab strikeouts, but he won’t be trusted for more innings unless he can control where his pitches are going.
Middle – Thomas Pannone
Thomas Pannone went 0-5 with an 11.51 ERA in his seven starts in 2019, but as a reliever, he went 3-1 with a 3.54 ERA. That’s significant enough to assume Pannone will work as a reliever and may be an option for holds in deep leagues.
Pannone came from Cleveland in 2017 in the Joe Smith trade, and there was hope he could become an end-of-the-rotation option. In March 2018, Pannone was suspended for 80 games for a PED violation and would make his first appearance of 2018 in August, and he put up a 4.19 ERA on the season in his 12 games (6 starts).
Last year, Pannone bounced back and forth between Toronto and Triple-A, doing whatever his manager asked him to do—whether it was making seven starts, pitching bulk innings from the bullpen, or operating as a false starter or in short relief outings. In his 73 innings with the Jays, he posted a 6.16 ERA (5.77 FIP) with most of the damage to his stats coming from his starts. It might be that his starting days are over, but he could be used with an opener in a pinch. Pannone should remain undrafted in fantasy.
Middle – Thomas Hatch
Thomas Hatch was traded from the Chicago Cubs for reliever David Phelps in July 2019. In Double-A New Hampshire, Hatch had a 2.80 ERA in six starts grabbing an 8.66 K/9 and a paltry 0.51 BB/9 in his 35.1 innings with the Fisher Cats. This small sample saw Hatch boost his GB% by 15.9 points (while dropping his FB% by 17.2) and his LOB% by 14.2 from his first 100 innings with the Cubs’ Tennessee Smokies. His final game in New Hampshire was a seven-inning gem in which he became the first 2019 Fisher Cat to strike out 11 batters in a game. The effort was enough for the Blue Jays to add him to the 40-man roster before the Rule 5 draft deadline. Hatch turns 26 in 2020 and could be an option in the Blue Jays’ bullpen with the possibility of long relief or spot starts.
Hatch put up a stellar 26.6 K% and a 1.6 BB% for New Hampshire, but his combined Double-A stats (from 2018 and 2019) are good but aren’t quite as rosy: 21.0 K% and 8.6 BB%. Still, the Blue Jays believed in Hatch enough to protect him from the Rule 5 draft while pushing away relievers Ryan Tepera, Justin Shafer, Derek Law, and Jason Adam. This may be as good an indication as any that Hatch will have a chance to earn a spot in the Jays’ bullpen this March and could win one of the available openings. The Blue Jays’ decision to cut older, experienced relievers may have been a financial one, but Hatch’s 2019 trajectory within the Blue Jays’ system (acquired via trade, pitched well in AA, added to the 40-man roster with a chance to earn an MLB spot) couldn’t be going much better.
Long Relief/Spot Starter – Sam Gaviglio
Sam Gaviglio made 24 starts in 2018, but zero starts in 2019 despite numerous openings in the rotation throughout the season. It would seem, then, that the Blue Jays see him as a multi-inning reliever and will trust starts to younger, less experienced arms. Gaviglio threw 95.2 innings in 2019 with a 4.61 ERA. He continues to struggle with walks (2.07 BB/9) but does have decent, though not elite, strikeouts (8.28 K/9). He massively increased his slider usage in 2019 from 28.8% to 43.7%, which seems like a smart move considering that his slider has a 7.6 pVAL; this explains his increase in his K/9 from 7.64 to 8.28. Because of the increased use of his slider, he has increased his O-swing by 2.8% and dropped his O-contact by 9.1% and overall has increased his SwStr% from 8.7 to 11.6.
Gaviglio isn’t a LIMA (Low Investment Mound Aces) candidate, or a saves option, but he will accumulate innings and might become a streamable option if he becomes a starter or is paired with an opener. The Blue Jays often used an opener in 2019, so Gaviglio could be a target for cheap wins if he comes in as a false starter. In a fantasy league that has a games-started limit, Gaviglio could be a late-round target if the Blue Jays commit to using an opener with him.
Long Relief/Spot Starter – Ryan Borucki
2019 was a lost season for Ryan Borucki. He impressed as a rookie in 2018, putting up a 3.87 ERA, a 1.32 WHIP in 97.2 innings. There was a lot of hope that Borucki would be a key piece in Toronto’s bullpen in 2019. He wouldn’t be a strikeout leader with just a 6.17 K/9, but he induced ground balls (46.8%) and limited home runs (6.7 HR/FB). That’s a nice combination for home run-friendly Rogers Centre.
Borucki started the year on the IL after developing elbow soreness in spring training. He struggled with pain and numerous setbacks until he made his debut on July 22, getting the start and allowing two runs in 4.2 innings. He made his next scheduled start five days later but was bombed by Tampa Bay, giving up six earned runs in two innings. He returned to the IL with elbow inflammation, and his season ended when surgery was required to remove loose bodies from his elbow.
Borucki isn’t draftable but has shown potential as an innings-eater and can get ground-ball outs. He might be an option as a starter or in long relief, but the hope is that injury troubles are behind him and he can return to a versatile role in the bullpen. Spring training will show his health and his role with the club.
Openers – Wilmer Font
Wilmer Font played for the Rays, Mets, and the Blue Jays in 2019, with his most successful performance coming as Toronto’s opener. On the season, his stat line shows a 4.48 ERA, a 1.27 WHIP, and a 10.14 K/9 in 84.1 innings. With Toronto, his line looks much more interesting: 3.66 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, and 12.33 K/9.
Font started three games as a New York Met but pitched 10.1 innings in those four starts, acting more as a starter than an opener, and gave up nine earned runs. In Toronto, he made 14 starts, never pitching more than 2.1 innings per start. As an opener, Font had 24.1 innings pitched, allowing 10 earned runs for a 3.73 ERA. Incidentally, of the games where the Blue Jays deployed Font as an opener, the team went 9-5, which might indicate they may look to use the strategy again in 2020. Font looks to be a pitcher who can succeed as an opener and, if he is deployed that way, he won’t get key fantasy counting stat categories, but if he continues with his success in the role, he could provide decent ratios and a handful of strikeouts. That might help in deep leagues, but if he can’t grab wins, saves, or holds, his value will be limited.
A.J. Cole pitched in Cleveland’s bullpen in 2019 to a 3.81 ERA in 26 innings. Cole was a part of top-prospect lists before he made his MLB debut in 2015 and there was hope that he could become a viable MLB starter. In his Washington tenure, he made 19 starts in his 26 appearances, but was transitioned into the ‘pen after leaving the Nationals in 2018. Cole pitched in 25 games from Cleveland’s ‘pen last season and was a perfectly acceptable relief option with a 25.4 K% and a 10.38 K/9. He features a mid-90s fastball and mid-80s slider that he combines to throw almost 90% of the time.
His 2019 season was derailed in early August by a right shoulder impingement, but the Blue Jays signed Cole as a free-agent with an invitation to Spring Training. Look for Cole to compete for a job in Florida and, if he proves that he is healthy, he could land a regular bullpen job. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he, like most of Toronto’s relief arms, builds value into a potential deadline deal or moves into save opportunities when Giles is traded. If Cole’s shoulder isn’t ready in March, his minor-league contract will allow him to stay in the Blue Jays’ system until he can prove that he can contribute.
Blue Jays management spent much of 2019 scouring the waiver wire for whatever talent they could find. Their hope was that regular playing time would polish another teams’ garbage into something of value. The Dodgers drafted Brock Stewart 189th overall in the 2014 draft, but, after poor outings in his limited opportunities with L.A., they cut ties with him after he put up a 7.34 ERA in Oklahoma City. The hopes of his becoming and end-of-the-rotation arm had disappeared and the Dodgers had seen enough.
The Blue Jays claimed Stewart just before the trade deadline, and he put in a lot of miles while traveling the Queen Elizabeth Way from Toronto to Buffalo. The Blue Jays deployed him exclusively as a reliever, but he began in long relief and often combined with an opener, but he slowly shifted into short relief, moving to mid-to-late-relief roles and shorter appearances. In his 21.2 innings with the Blue Jays, Stewart had an 8.31 ERA, a 1.57 WHIP, and a 16:6 K:BB. These were all big improvements from the four innings he had with Los Angeles but are not the numbers a team would want to see from a guy looking for a job in a major league bullpen. Stewart, like many of the bullpen arms, will need to show something in the spring if he hopes to crack the roster (and organization) in 2020.
On February 15, Elvis Luciano turned 19 years old. Two months earlier, he was selected by Toronto (from Kansas City) in the Rule 5 draft. As a result, Luciano had to be on the 25-man roster for the entire season and be active for 90 days or he would be returned to the Royals. This put the Blue Jays in a tough spot, with Luciano never pitching above Single-A. Despite their tied hands, the Blue Jays did make yeoman’s efforts to retain Luciano. He pitched in 33.2 innings to a 5.35 ERA with 27 strikeouts, featuring a mid-90s fastball, a low-80s slider, and a high-80s curveball. Midseason, he missed some time on the IL with an elbow sprain but was active for the final 18 days of the season to meet the 90-game minimum and satisfy Rule 5 requirements.
When glancing at the Blue Jays’ depth chart this offseason, it’s clear Luciano will stand out as a 19-year-old on a roster of young players. His numbers were decent considering the situation, but don’t expect Luciano to be a part of the roster next season. Now that he is a Blue Jay, he will likely return to the minors to hone his craft, knowing that he is valued by the organization and can have success against MLB hitters. He might be a sneaky add in deep dynasty leagues, but don’t be surprised if he doesn’t pitch for Toronto in 2020.
Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)