TORONTO – Who says there are no defined roles in the Toronto Blue Jays bullpen?
Roberto Osuna knows what his is. He also knows who’s the goofiest member of the relief corps – “that’s [Joe] Biagini for sure,” he said, referring to the eccentric Rule 5 pick.
Truth is, precious little is settled after that, despite an improved run of performance this week as the Blue Jays took three of four games from the Texas Rangers.
As the Los Angeles Dodgers come to the Rogers Centre Friday for the first of three games, manager John Gibbons’ bullpen bridge to Osuna is based a little bit on matchups, a little bit on trust and, yes, still a little bit based on hope.
If you’re looking for a positive out of it all, it’s not just Osuna’s statistical performance, it’s that throughout the middle relief uncertainty – which saw Osuna used in the eighth inning of a game that was eventually won in 10 – Gibbons has become more convinced than ever that Osuna is this team’s closer for the short, medium and long-term future.
He has, Gibbons admitted, had to get Osuna up on a couple of occasions only to have him sit down again – something that he’s loathe to do and something that his relievers consider an important part of career maintenance.
“The thing with Roberto is he’s not one of those guys who needs to really heat up in the bullpen, to get a big sweat worked up before he gets into the game,” said Gibbons. “He’s figured out how to get ready in different circumstances. He’s serious about his job, man. He wants to be a closer. He knows it’s a role where you can make a lot of money.”
The Blue Jays are 15-15 with a lineup that has yet to fully hit its stride – it’s one Troy Tulowitzki three-hit game away from doing so – and with a bullpen that is very much a work in progress. There’s a lot of ‘new’ here: Drew Storen, Jesse Chavez, Gavin Floyd and Biagini are in their first year with the team. Aaron Sanchez has been moved to the starting rotation, while Brett Cecil is, for now, a pseudo-lefty specialist.
The roles may be unclear, but what is clear is that Gibbons has varying degrees of faith in his relievers – Chavez and Floyd have been effective (“there’s a lot that comes out of that skinny body,” Gibbons said of Chavez. “Two homers both on back-door cutters that stayed in”) and Biagini’s stuff has been eye opening. As for Storen and Cecil? They have some work to do with economic ramifications: Cecil is a free agent at a time when middle relievers are hitting it rich. So, too, is Storen – who also has a contract that rewards him for games finished.
“Nobody has roles right now but me, and it’s kind of tough because, obviously, you don’t know when to pitch,” said Osuna. “It’s hard for those guys to be stretching every inning, it’s hard when you don’t always know what’s going on – you don’t know if you should get up – but it will be OK. They’re working on it. It will take a little time, that’s all.”
Every bullpen develops what might be called its own culture. Relievers have a great deal of downtime, and in addition to on-field roles, a kind of political hierarchy develops. B.J. Ryan was the marshal when he was here, later, Casey Janssen assumed the role and last season LaTroy Hawkins wrote his presence large on the group after he was acquired at the trade deadline.
Osuna shrugged when he was asked whether he knew, yet, who was going to fill that role.
“Right now, nobody,” he said matter-of-factly. “But we still work together. We have good communication and I think a good level of confidence.”
If anybody has seen their stock rise during this period of uncertainty it’s Chavez, who was acquired in a trade with the Oakland Athletics for Liam Hendriks. This is his second stint with the Blue Jays, and he has assumed a highly responsible role while Cecil and Storen find their sea legs.
Unsaid, at this point, is the further shock to the system that is sure to come when Sanchez is moved back into the bullpen later in the season because of an innings limit. Does that mean Floyd or Chavez, who have experience starting, will go into the rotation? Will Drew Hutchison be called up from Triple-A Buffalo or will the organization make a trade for an established starting pitcher for the stretch drive? The Blue Jays are still a couple of months from dealing with that scenario.
“We’re still kind of feeling each other out as a group, because a lot of us are new to this bullpen,” Chavez said. “It’s pretty obvious that the only thing set right now is that Roberto is the closer. But, you know, we’ve already seen that any inning can be one that requires a stopper. Like the other night, when Osuna pitched the eighth, that was basically a closing situation right there and it’s one of those things where you get through that, get to the ninth inning … and just kind of go from there.
“What that says is that even when you think you have a role, you can always be called on earlier than you think. In a lot of ways, you are your own best coach.”