TORONTO – The first impression from the second round of Joe Biagini, starter, is that the Toronto Blue Jays right-hander looked an awful lot like he did the first time around. Pitching from a full windup was new, and he had stamina to burn after properly building up at triple-A Buffalo. But, as it often happened earlier this year, his fastball was up, he got too fine in spots, and had trouble putting hitters away.
Still, the 3.2 innings of five-run ball Biagini served up in Sunday’s 7-2 loss from the wild-card berth-holding Minnesota Twins will by no means define the second attempt at this bullpen-to-rotation conversion.
The 27-year-old has invested plenty to pursue the opportunity, sacrificing an estimated $60,000 in salary during a 23-day transition period in the minors that also pushed his free agency back by a year, should he ever accrue six years of big-league service time.
And he did so with the bigger picture in mind, cognizant the Blue Jays are in need of starters for 2018 to follow Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez and J.A. Happ, grateful for the chance to show between now and season’s end whether or not he can be a desirable option.
“I remember when they came to me and said ‘Are you, OK with this?’” Biagini said of being optioned to Buffalo on Aug. 4. “To even have that come from a GM, a manager and a pitching coach of a major-league organization is something that I appreciate. I don’t even know if (being optioned) is going to be a sacrifice yet. I hope it is, because that means I’ll be there to say it was a sacrifice. If I’m there looking back and saying it was a sacrifice, that means my career is going pretty well. So I hope it was a sacrifice. And if it isn’t then it’s not really going to matter.”
The incentive for the Blue Jays in giving Biagini a second shot at starting, this time under fairer circumstances, is that if he convinces them he should start next year, their off-season becomes far less complicated.
Also in an evaluation period over the coming weeks is righty Tom Koehler, whom they also want to see in a middle-inning relief role. He’s expected to shift into the bullpen Tuesday so the Blue Jays can take a look at Brett Anderson, who is likely to start in his place. The left-hander, recently signed to a minor-league deal, could perhaps be an option for next year, with the final weeks of the season serving as a trial run for both sides.
Most optimal, however, is if Biagini can stick, and club’s belief in him is why he accepted the trip to the minors in the first place.
“The fact that this organization feels that I am worth giving that opportunity to is not something that’s given to everybody,” he said. “This organization has been incredibly honest, treated me almost unfairly in a positive way ever since I’ve been here. I’ve had some struggles this year but they told me they see my potential. So they built up some goodwill equity with me (and) in turn my trust for them is there because they’ve kept their word and done everything for me. … I think this is the best way I can take advantage of that.”
Biagini is already a proven commodity as a solid leverage reliever, but his effectiveness last year made the possibility of him being stretched out a tantalizing one, especially since the Blue Jays were painfully thin behind their starting five in the rotation. That weakness was exposed when Sanchez and Happ hit the disabled list in April, and once the stopgap options proved faulty, Biagini was thrown into the rotation midstream and forced to build up on the fly.
He went 2-7 with a 5.60 ERA over 11 starts, returning to the bullpen once everyone was healthy. But the trade of Francisco Liriano and Sanchez’s ongoing absence left more voids, and with the Blue Jays on the periphery of post-season contention, he was sent down to prepare properly this time.
“Baseball’s not always fair, life’s not always fair, we didn’t feel that was ideal but it was what we thought was best for the organization and the best for Joe at the time, given all the pieces of the equation,” general manager Ross Atkins said of Biagini’s first stint as a starter. “This time, we felt like we wanted to do a better job of controlling what’s best for Joe to give him the best chance to be a starter not only for this month and September, but for his career.”
Biagini pitched out of the stretch during his last stint as a starter and Atkins’ belief was that using the full windup, in concert with an improved routine between starts, would help with his command and aggressiveness.
Both came and went against the Twins, who pecked at him for nine hits and three walks. Of his 85 pitches, only 39 were fastballs, and they were often left middle-up.
He threw 29 curveballs – one of them his last pitch of the day that turned into the first of Byron Buxton’s three homers – and 17 change-ups. He got two swinging strikes on each of his curve and change, versus three on his heater, the pitch most pivotal for him.
“It still comes back to him establishing that fastball, pitching down in the zone, being able to incorporate his secondary stuff and not become too much of a finesse pitcher,” said pitching coach Pete Walker. “He was so successful out of the bullpen with that mindset of being aggressive, coming at guys, really establishing that fastball and pounding it. We still want him to pitch that way as a starter.”
The Blue Jays also want to give him more time to become used to being a starter, particularly on the mound where he sometimes looks to tinker perhaps more than necessary.
“It’s still something we’ve got to continue to work on. He certainly is meticulous and can overthink, it’s a good and bad trait to have,” said Walker. “Sometimes it can work for you because you’re willing to make some adjustments and do some things, but other times it can clutter your mind. For him, it’s keeping things simple, try not to overthink and overanalyze and really just use his pitches to the best of his ability.”
Biagini has five more starts this year to keep doing that, with plenty riding on the results both for himself and the Blue Jays.