BOSTON – The raw ability of Miguel Castro and Roberto Osuna is so enticing, you can see why the Toronto Blue Jays would suspend disbelief and think that their electric 20-year-olds could jump from A-ball directly into high-leverage relief spots in the majors.
During spring training they made it look easy, real easy, and while it was just spring training, only those with their heads buried in the ground would have ignored what the kids did.
They were deserving winners of their jobs with the Blue Jays, and really, it wasn’t even close.
Still, reality is starting to hit now, and the conflict manager John Gibbons feels about how much is being asked of the two youngsters is obvious.
His bullpen is a mess, having blown two eighth inning leads in the past three contests, Castro surrendering the winning hit both times. It’s costing the rest of the group, and there are no obvious internal options to ease the load upon them, which very well might be the right thing to do.
"I love both of them, I think they’re both going to be great pitchers when it’s all said and done but we’re asking a lot out of them and I’m not sure how fair that is," Gibbons said after Monday’s 6-5, walk-off loss to the Boston Red Sox.
Later he added: "To succeed you have to have a chance to fail, that’s part of it, too. Instead of looking over your shoulder, who’s behind you, are you going to yank me? Those things make you tougher but it is a lot to ask from the kids. Ideally, we’ll get some defined roles, right now it’s really just kind of a crapshoot, but we need to settle in and run with it and live with the results, is really the way we need to start approaching it."
This bind is not of Gibbons’ making. General manager Alex Anthopoulos said upgrading the bullpen was a top priority at the end of last season, made a series of strong moves in the winter but left the bullpen essentially untouched, preferring instead to seek options from within.
That was a mistake, and each blown victory only turns up the internal debate over whether to move Aaron Sanchez back to the bullpen to help stabilize things. If there was an enticing option to step into the rotation, it may have already happened, but with Marco Estrada, Jeff Francis, Scott Copeland and Randy Wolf right now among the top candidates to step in as starters, it’s no lock that the team would be better off as a whole.
Brett Cecil could take over the ninth again, with Aaron Loup setting him up in the eighth, but that would leave voids earlier in the game. Liam Hendriks has made gains but probably isn’t ready to be a set-up righty either, with Francis and Estrada serving as middle innings/mop-up men.
That leaves Castro and Osuna, owners of the best pure ability, for some of the highest-leverage spots.
"It's that thing you battle, these guys, inexperienced and youngest guys on the team but they have the best stuff, that’s the problem that you battle," said Gibbons. "When they're on they can dominate you.
"I think they’re both good enough, and that’s big-league baseball. It’s a tough racket down in the bullpen."
No doubt, and it’s showed of late.
In a 4-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays on Saturday, Gibbons pulled Osuna after a two-out bloop hit by Evan Longoria, brought in Brett Cecil to face David DeJesus, who singled, then turned to Castro, who gave up the tying hit to James Loney and winning hit to Tim Beckham.
On Monday, up 5-4 in the eighth, he rode out Osuna after Mookie Betts and Dustin Pedroia opened the inning with singles and David Ortiz up, a seemingly perfect spot for Cecil. A wild pitch advanced the runners, Ortiz was walked intentionally, and Hanley Ramirez lined a ball to left that Dalton Pompey made a diving catch on to score the tying run.
Osuna limited the damage there by striking out Allen Craig and getting Daniel Nava on a soft liner to third, but the relief was short-lived.
"Look at what he’s done this year, he has been unbelievable," Gibbons said of Osuna. "The fact I said about guys are going to get a chance to fail, go for it. I yanked him the other day, that backfired, so here it is. Go get it kid. That’s what kind of makes guys and it really sets them off. He gave up the run but, you know what, he was in a big time-jam and he showed us what he’s all about. It's not easy."
Gibbons warmed both Cecil and Castro for the ninth, opting to go back to Castro in a 5-5 game. One-out singles by Xander Bogaerts and Ryan Hanigan and a wild pitch that moved each up a bag set the stage for Betts, who shot a ball through a drawn-in infield for the win.
It’s the fourth time in five outings Castro, who’s appeared in 11 of the team’s 20 games, has allowed a run, and given his age, role and the recent results, you have to wonder how it’s impacting him.
"I hope he understands the reason I’m putting him in there is because I have confidence in the kid," said Gibbons. "I also understand how tough it is in the big-leagues and you take your lumps. He's a tough kid, he really is. He’s going to be a hell of a pitcher."
Osuna, who was pitching in Mexico’s pro league at 16, surrendered just his second run of the season in 11.1 innings, so too much shouldn’t be made of this blip.
As he said afterwards: "What happened today was going to happen one day. We’ve just got to keep working and try to make those adjustments, that’s it. We can pitch in these situations, and we are going to make those adjustments, and we will."
The Blue Jays better hope so, but they can’t afford very many more growing pains with so much at stake this season, and it may not be fair to the kids with their feet in the fire, and the rest of the group watching wins waste away.