MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — Trade rumours aren’t anything new to Drew Storen. He remembers pitching for the Washington Nationals at the trade deadline and being so sure he was going to be moved that he questioned whether or not to even get dressed for that night’s game. He also remembers this past off-season when he thought there wasn’t a chance he’d be traded, only to check his phone one day and find he’d been sent to the Toronto Blue Jays.
So, when Storen’s name was cited in a Toronto Sun report as being made available in trade talks this weekend, the Blue Jays reliever shrugged his shoulders and got on with his day.
“I understand the process when it comes to rumours and stuff. People have fun with it. Everybody enjoys reading it. To me, it’s just whatever. It’s the nature of the business. It’s nothing new,” Storen said. “It takes a long process to go from rumours to something actually happening.”
On the surface, it seems puzzling that the Blue Jays could find a trading partner for Storen and what’s left of his $8.375 million salary in 2016, which would be somewhere in the area of $6 million. The right-hander has struggled mightily this season, posting a 7.80 ERA in 18 appearances, which has led to him being removed entirely from use in high-leverage situations.
Most troubling is that Storen’s pitch velocities are trending downwards across the board, especially his fastball, which is down from an average of 94 mph in 2015 to 92 mph this season. It’s hard to imagine a team taking on that much salary for a struggling pitcher and giving up something useful in return.
Still, Storen has a strong track record of late-inning success, including a 43-save season as the Nationals closer in 2011, the 1.12 ERA he posted in 65 excellent relief outings in 2014, and the 10.96 K/9 he threw in 58 appearances last season. At one point, there was a very good reliever here. And as he enters free agency for the first time in his career, Storen should be incentivized to pitch as well as he can.
“When it comes to bullpen guys, you never know — we get moved a lot. Especially when you look at the fact that I’m not under team control after this year,” Storen says. “It’s so unknown. It’s not my decision. It’s just the name of this game. But I’ve dealt with it before, and it’s not something that I’m going to let affect me because I’m only concerned about helping this team win.”
The Blue Jays coaching staff has been doing everything it can to help Storen return to being the shutdown reliever he once was. They’ve worked to help him stay on top of his sinker, focusing on creating depth with the pitch instead of letting it sit flat in the zone. They’ve also shortened his slider, with the hopes of generating some more command with the pitch and allowing Storen to use it more effectively. The idea is to allow Storen to rely more on movement to get hitters out while he works to re-find his lost velocity.
“He’s working. Every day he’s at it,” says Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker. “He’s got his program, his routine that he does, and he’s very conscientious. He’s a professional that has high expectations, and I think he’ll fight his way through it and find his way back into that set-up role.”
There are a number of Blue Jays relievers in the same boat, working to find consistency and turn around their bullpen’s poor results over the first quarter of the season. Going into this week’s series against the Yankees in New York, the Blue Jays bullpen is one of only four in the majors with more losses (13) than saves (12).
“At times, I think we’re settling in and starting to find some roles. And then we seem to take a step back,” Walker says. “It’s been frustrating. I know that there’s a few guys down there that are frustrated with the way things have gone and expect better of themselves. And I think they’re professionals and they’ll find a way to sort this out. But it’s been a rough start.”
The bullpen troubles have generally revolved around the seventh and eighth innings, especially when pitchers enter with runners on base. Blue Jays relievers have allowed a glaring 43 per cent of inherited runners to score, the second highest rate in the majors. They’ve also faced the sixth highest average leverage in MLB as calculated by Baseball Reference, a direct result of Toronto’s struggle to score runs and consistently good starting pitching.
“It seems like the clean innings have been a little easier for them. But in the situations where runners are on base in crucial situations, we haven’t performed up to our abilities,” Walker says. “I think that’s where the frustration is with those guys right now. Those relievers want to pick up the starters. And I’m sure they will — they have the ability to get a groundball or a strikeout when they need to.”
The one consistently reliable reliever the Blue Jays have featured this season has been closer Roberto Osuna. The trouble has been getting the ball to him. Presumptive set-up men Brett Cecil and Storen are both unavailable, Cecil due to a torn latissimus dorsi muscle that will sideline him for at least a month and Storen due to his current trip through the baseball wilderness. Jesse Chavez and Gavin Floyd have been great at times, but have also given up untimely home runs.
Truly, this bullpen has been a strange mix of relievers with long track records underperforming in high-leverage spots, and unexpected contributors with little major league experience stepping up to fill needs.
Right-hander Joe Biagini has been a revelation for the Blue Jays this season. (Frank Gunn/CP)
Take Joe Biagini, the eccentric 25-year-old right-hander who had never pitched above double-A before he was selected by the Blue Jays in the Rule 5 draft from the San Francisco Giants this off-season. He made the team out of spring training and after having success in lower-leverage situations, Biagini’s worked his way to being used in much more crucial moments, such as this past Thursday against the Minnesota Twins when he entered in the bottom of the 11th inning with a one-run lead and worked a 12-pitch save.
“He’s got tremendous tunnel vision. When he gets on the field he’s very focused on his task,” Walker says. “I think his stuff is exceptional. He’s got a mid-90s fastball with good sink on it. He stays down in the zone consistently. He pitches to his lanes. He doesn’t make a lot of mistakes over the middle part of the plate. He cuts the ball; he has a good curveball. He’s been a real pleasant surprise. He’s handling the situation tremendously well. Give him a lot of credit.”
Going forward, the Blue Jays will be turning more frequently to Biagini to protect leads late in games, whether it’s in the seventh inning ahead of Floyd or Chavez, or even the eighth when the club wants to get the lead to Osuna in the ninth.
It’s the only option the Blue Jays have other than asking their starters to go deeper into games and flirt with dangerously high pitch counts, or using Osuna for more than one inning, a tactic the club has utilized of late but would rather not do.
Otherwise, the Blue Jays coaching staff is looking for someone, anyone, to step up and show they can be counted on.
“We’re really kind of taking turns right now. We’ll go with the hot hand,” Walker says. “I’m completely confident in the guys we have and I still believe we can put this together and match up accordingly. We’ll find a way to put guys in the best situations to have success. We’re just trying to find that mix right now.”