TORONTO — With 38 games to play in a season that will not be remembered for on-field success, the Toronto Blue Jays are holding open auditions. Opportunity and playing time abound for young athletes who want to prove they can play a strong part in the next competitive Blue Jays season, which optimists will argue could occur as soon as 2020, and realists will contend isn’t a likely scenario until 2021.
Wednesday, Toronto fielded a starting nine with an average age of 24, in which Randal Grichuk, having turned 28 a day prior, was the elder statesman. Teoscar Hernandez and Brandon Drury, both 26, were the next oldest. It wasn’t long ago that Toronto’s front office was being criticized for stating it wanted to get “younger and more athletic” while continuing to field veterans around the diamond. Now, the Blue Jays are rostering only one position player — Justin Smoak — north of 30.
But the most intrigue when it comes to the talent sifting process the Blue Jays are currently undergoing is undoubtedly in the rotation, as the club continues to try to identify quality pitching options within, which will determine to what extent it must add externally to build around a promising young position player core in the coming seasons.
Every outing for Thomas Pannone, Jacob Waguespack, Trent Thornton, and Wednesday’s starter Sean Reid-Foley carries weight. They’re pitching for jobs in next year’s rotation. Some are pitching to prove they can remain starters at all. And after Wednesday’s inefficient outing, which saw him last only 3.1 innings in a 7-3 Blue Jays loss to the Texas Rangers, Reid-Foley’s trending more towards the latter category than the former.
Wednesday was Reid-Foley’s 13th major-league start over the last two seasons. And it was the seventh time he’s failed to complete five innings. While MLB teams are relying on their bullpens more than ever, seldom letting a starter go through a lineup three full times, it remains a near necessity that a starting pitcher get at least 15 outs before the end of their outing. And over his brief big-league sample, Reid-Foley’s been unable to do it more often than not.
“Didn’t get through five,” Reid-Foley said after the outing. “It kind of sucks ringing out the bullpen. It’s a pretty brutal feeling. But you come out, only give up three runs, and you go three and a third — it could’ve been a lot worse. It could’ve snowballed on me.”
Reid-Foley certainly limited what could have been a lot of damage, allowing only the three runs and stranding five baserunners. And to his credit, the 23-year-old was living around the plate Wednesday, throwing 64 per cent of his pitches for strikes and working with much better command than he has in prior outings:
But while Reid-Foley’s pitches were accurate, they weren’t featuring swing-and-miss action, which allowed Texas hitters to battle deep into counts. Reid-Foley’s pitch count surpassed 50 with two out in the second inning, as the Rangers persistently fought off pitches around the edges of the strike zone until they got something over the heart of the plate.
“Whenever I was ahead of guys, I couldn’t throw anything in the dirt,” Reid-Foley said. “And then whenever we’d try to elevate on a fastball it’d just seem like it’d be right at the belt.”
The Rangers fouled off 25 of Reid-Foley’s pitches in all and ended up with hits on four of the seven balls they put in play over the first two innings. That led to a run scoring in the second inning which ended with Reid-Foley skating out of a bases-loaded jam.
The third was much smoother, as Reid-Foley retired the side on 16 pitches. But the fourth began with a 10-pitch battle with Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who worked a walk and seemingly forced the Blue Jays starter to empty his gas tank. Reid-Foley walked the next hitter as well on only five pitches and was out of the game a batter later, having missed the zone with 10 of his final 14 pitches.
“He threw more strikes today, he just couldn’t put people away,” said Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo. “They kept fouling balls off and that got his pitch count high. [Pitching coach] Pete [Walker] and [bullpen coach] Matt Buchmann have been working on that.”
So, how does a pitcher practice putting batters away?
“It’s just something you work on in sides. Try to throw breaking balls in the dirt, change-ups in the dirt, and throw heaters up,” Reid-Foley said. “It’s almost like, it’s kind of basic things. Get ahead and put them away type of thing. And now you’ve just got to harp it in the bullpen and we’ll go from there.”
What’s worse is Reid-Foley’s velocity dropped markedly in the fourth, as the fastball that was sitting at 92-93-m.p.h. in the first couple innings was suddenly coming out of his hand at 89-90:
To be an effective MLB starter, one needs to get outs, be efficient with their pitch count, turn a lineup over at least twice, and maintain both velocity and stuff from inning to inning. Reid-Foley hasn’t consistently been able to do any of those things, which is why some ponder whether his future ultimately lies in the bullpen.
Working in shorter, higher-intensity bursts could allow Reid-Foley to rediscover the click he’s lost off his fastball — his heater has gone from averaging 94.2-m.p.h. in 2018 to 93.1-m.p.h. this season — with the possibility of it even playing harder if he’s throwing with maximum effort. It could potentially also help him regain some bite and miss more bats with his slider, which is generating a 13.4 per cent whiff rate this season, down considerably from the 17.3 per cent mark he posted in 2018.
Of course, that option will always be there. The Blue Jays ought to exhaust the possibility of Reid-Foley as a starter before changing his role, in case he experiences a breakthrough and suddenly puts it all together. The Blue Jays have nothing but opportunities to give over the next six weeks, and Reid-Foley will get his. But that won’t stop the clock from ticking.
Soon there will be September call-ups, as minor-league seasons conclude, MLB rosters expand, and the Blue Jays clubhouse becomes more crowded. Expect to see familiar faces such as Jonathan Davis, Anthony Alford, Richard Urena, and Jordan Romano (the hard-throwing Romano will likely be in Toronto much sooner after he was reinstated from the injured list Tuesday) re-enter the fold along with potential major-league debuts for starters like TJ Zeuch, Patrick Murphy, and possibly even Anthony Kay if he continues to build off a terrific, one-hit outing his last time out with the triple-A Buffalo Bisons.
The “waves of pitching” Blue Jays brass talks so much about are slowly making their way to the majors. And every time Reid-Foley starts, he’s trying to make his case that he should stay ahead of them. But if he doesn’t pitch more efficiently, and more effectively, Blue Jays decision makers will be forced to look at other options, either internal or external.
“At the end of the day, it’s up to the kid,” Montoyo said. “It was a better outing today because he threw more strikes. But he just couldn’t put people away. Which took way too many pitches. The good thing about it, when he left we were still in the game. So, that’s one good thing that he does. He minimizes damage. He did today, anyway.”