For the second consecutive post-season, relievers are stealing the spotlight. And again, it’s changing our perception of the role of the bullpen and how teams should be constructed and managed next season.
The usage and performance of Andrew Miller over the past month has raised the hopes of some baseball fans who would like to see teams manage more to win the game, and less to address the save statistic. Having the best reliever in baseball enter the game in the fifth inning in a close game is nothing short of revolutionary, and stands in stark contrast to the mentality that left Baltimore closer Zach Britton standing helplessly idle in the Orioles bullpen on the night of the wild-card game.
There are obviously some questions on the extent to which this hell-for-leather usage of a few relievers for multiple innings in consecutive games could translate into the regular season. Expectations for seeing such a plan unroll in the middle of the season have been tempered by Cleveland manager Terry Francona himself, while injuries to two of Cleveland’s best starting pitchers is clearly a mitigating factor contributing to this unorthodox game plan.
At the same time, there is a greater awareness of the lack of effectiveness for many starters in their third turn through a lineup. This, combined with the evidence seen this post-season, could lead to an approach to the bullpen that is less focused on which pitcher’s role falls into which inning, and more focused on the lineup in the coming innings.
As the season waned, these two young pitchers were increasingly the Blue Jays’ most reliable options, as fatigue and freak injuries robbed the team of the services of some veteran relievers. As Ross Atkins’ front office game plans for next season, reconstituting a bullpen staff needs to be balanced against the long-term needs of the franchise.
The simple answer is to plug both players back into their previous roles as relievers, with Osuna serving as a ninth-inning save accumulator and Biagini potentially slotting into a set-up role in the eighth inning.
But looking ahead to 2018, the Blue Jays will need to ensure they have additional starting pitchers, as the contracts for Marco Estrada and Francisco Liriano conclude after the coming season. Moreover, the only guarantee when it comes to the health of pitchers is that eventually, it will be an issue.
Atkins recently declared that Osuna would return to the bullpen, with the intention that it will become his role in perpetuity. The question of Biagini’s role seems somewhat in flux, although Atkins admitted to Jeff Blair and Stephen Brunt on Sportsnet 590 The Fan last week that he knows innings counts could again become an issue.
On some level, this feels as though the Blue Jays are on the cusp of repeating the errors they made with Kelvim Escobar in his time with the team. The right-hander came up to some fanfare, but given Toronto’s immediate needs for relief help, he was repeatedly shuffled back into the bullpen to fill a roster need rather than maximizing his value. It was only after Escobar left the Blue Jays that he posted his best WAR numbers as a dedicated rotation member.
Given what we’ve just come through in the protracted discussion around Aaron Sanchez’s workload this past season, one wonders if settling on the simple solution of making these two pitchers essentially one-inning pitchers who set up and close ballgames doesn’t set us up to repeat 2016’s great angst. Beyond that, it may well leave them two players from whom they are choosing to potentially receive lesser value.
If there is any notion that either of these two pitchers could be needed as starting pitchers in the future, then adapting their roles for the coming season beyond the orthodoxy of relief usage could serve the Blue Jays’ best interests both in the present and down the road. Pushing the workloads of both pitchers close to or above 100 innings helps to solve the problem of stretching the players out if they are needed as starters, and could also help the Blue Jays lock down games in the early or middle innings of games in 2017.
While this might sound outrageous on its face to some, the innings jump is essentially just over one more per week over the course of a season. Maybe that means an extra inning here, or some spot starts in the second half of the season.
If this post-season changes the perspective on reliever usage more broadly, it could help the Blue Jays get the most out of their young emerging arms.