ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Faced with two injured starting pitchers and underwhelming results from their triple-A replacements, the Toronto Blue Jays are now turning to a new source for rotation help: the bullpen.
Joe Biagini will make his first major-league start Sunday, taking the place of Mat Latos, who was designated for assignment after posting a 6.60 ERA in three outings. The decision to replace Latos within Biagini was the biggest change announced Friday, but far from the only one on a constantly-evolving Blue Jays pitching staff.
One day after claiming Neil Ramirez from the Giants, the Blue Jays activated the right-hander in the hopes that he can rebound from his early-season struggles. The addition of Ramirez gives the Blue Jays nine relievers—ten if you count Biagini—but that didn’t stop them from claiming yet another bullpen arm, right-hander Cesar Valdez, and optioning him to triple-A.
Most importantly, though, the Blue Jays will ask Biagini to start a professional game for the first time since he toed the rubber for the Richmond Flying Squirrels on September 5, 2015 as a minor leaguer in the San Francisco Giants’ system. On that day, he pitched six innings, but his manager won’t be asking him for that kind of length on Sunday against the Rays.
“I’d be more than pleased if he gave us four,” John Gibbons said.
Considering that Biagini threw a season-high 41 pitches in a relief appearance against the Yankees Wednesday, four innings would be plenty. Biagini said he’s expecting to throw 50-60 pitches in Sunday’s series finale.
“The mindset change is important, and it’s subtle,” Biagini said. “I think you need to figure out what you change and what you don’t.”
For example? Game-planning for hitters who will see his pitches multiple times, ensuring he gets enough rest in the days ahead, and pacing himself in anticipation of an extended outing.
The Blue Jays arrived in spring training intent on stretching Biagini out, but decided to leave him in the bullpen soon after signing Latos to a minor-league deal. Gibbons hasn’t determined how long he’ll need to keep Biagini in the rotation this time around, but with two rotation spots open in the absence of Aaron Sanchez and J.A. Happ, there’s no shortage of opportunity.
“There’s a chance we could build him up, if we keep him in that role,” Gibbons said. “He’s got a chance to be a pretty good one. Deep down I think that’s his desire. I think everyone wants to be a major-league starter.”
The Giants envisioned Biagini as a starter when they drafted him in 2011, and he spent the first four years of his professional career in minor-league rotations.
“I’ve always thought of myself as a starter,” Biagini said. “I’ve always had the mindset of a starter: try to keep things level and even-keeled, get into a rhythm and try to control a game.”
The Blue Jays are hopeful that Sanchez can return to action next weekend against the Mariners, but there’s no timeline for Happ’s return to action, as the left-hander hasn’t thrown off of a mound recently. Marcus Stroman, meanwhile, will start Monday, as scheduled, and a spot starter from triple-A will follow on Tuesday.
By adding Biagini to that starting mix, the Blue Jays created a hole in their bullpen. Gibbons said the likes of Ryan Tepera and Danny Barnes are capable of filling in during the middle innings, before the Blue Jays turn to more trusted late-inning arms such as Joe Smith and Roberto Osuna.
For now, Jason Grilli will be pitching in lower-leverage spots. While the right-hander continues to throw hard, he has made mistakes with pitches over the plate, and his slider hasn’t been effective. Despite those struggles, the Blue Jays expect him to pitch high-leverage innings again this year.
“Eventually hopefully he gets back in that spot,” Gibbons said. “We can’t have him to sit out there and rot. But he’s too valuable to us. If we’re going to make a comeback, we need him to be good.”
Long before the Blue Jays started the season 9-19, they determined that Biagini was too valuable to remove from the bullpen. Two months later, circumstances have changed for the Toronto pitching staff, and he’s now needed in a rotation that’s already been tested extensively.