Pannone excels, but Blue Jays’ pitching staff will still need work

Thomas Pannone shows off some great defensive play while striking out five batters over six and two thirds. The Toronto Blue Jays beat the Tampa Bay Rays 5-2.

TORONTO – As the Toronto Blue Jays have showcased their next wave of young players throughout September, the 2019 edition of this team has become easier to envision.

The likes of Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Danny Jansen and Billy McKinney appear to be here to stay. By next summer, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio could join them. When it comes to position players, the Blue Jays are sorting through plenty of intriguing options, including Rowdy Tellez, who homered, doubled and singled on Saturday.

“But you’ve still got to pitch,” manager John Gibbons said. “And you’ve got to have a bullpen.”

On Saturday, the Blue Jays pitched well thanks in large part to Thomas Pannone. The rookie left-hander held the Rays to two runs over 6.2 innings as the Blue Jays won 5-2 on a cool afternoon at Rogers Centre. He left to a loud ovation from the crowd of 27,648.

“That’s probably the coolest feeling ever when everyone’s standing up like that and cheering,” Pannone said. “It’s overwhelming in that moment. You look up and you’re like ‘wow, all these people are cheering for me right now.’”

Those cheers were well-earned after a third consecutive quality start. Still, the Blue Jays are most vulnerable on the pitching side right now, and the need for arms may well drive much of the team’s off-season activity. For a few reasons, the bullpen looks like an area worthy of particular focus.

First of all, the Blue Jays’ rotation will include its share of youth next year, with Pannone, Ryan Borucki and Sean Reid-Foley all expected to contribute. Beyond that you have Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez, both of whom have missed extended stretches with finger injuries.

The front office will surely look to add to the rotation this winter, but even once they do, this starting staff will still include plenty of uncertainty. As Reid-Foley showed with a four-inning start Friday, there will be growing pains, and those short outings stress the bullpen even with 12 relievers available.

“Believe it or not, we’re a little beat up down there,” Gibbons said before Saturday’s game.

For most of next season, the Blue Jays will have just seven or eight relievers, putting even more pressure on the bullpen. At this point the Blue Jays have plenty of relief options but not all that many sure things.

Ken Giles and Ryan Tepera project as key members of the 2019 bullpen, and it’s with next year in mind that Gibbons has attempted to keep them fresh in September. Both pitched well Saturday in relief of Pannone, whose season ERA dropped to 3.58.

“I’ve been very impressed,” Gibbons said of Pannone. “As everybody else has.”

Looking ahead in the bullpen, though, there are more questions than answers beyond Giles and Tepera. Tim Mayza has impressed the Blue Jays with a strong finish, and looks like a potential impact lefty. But Danny Barnes and Joe Biagini have both struggled this season and Tyler Clippard, the team leader in appearances, will hit free agency after the season.

The Blue Jays will need to replace Clippard and create competition for controllable arms like Barnes and Biagini. Some of that shopping can happen in free agency, where the Blue Jays found Clippard, John Axford and Seung-hwan Oh, but optionable relievers can be even more valuable in today’s game. That means the trade market will be just as important, especially at a time that relievers are recording more outs than ever.

While the Rays’ bold ‘opener’ strategy stands out most of all, even old-school managers like Gibbons are relying more on their bullpens with each passing year. In 1977, the Blue Jays’ first year of existence, starters recorded 73 per cent of the team’s outs. Entering play Saturday, Blue Jays starters had recorded just 58 per cent of Toronto’s outs.

Plus, if the Blue Jays build a strong bullpen they’ll be able to capitalize in trades next summer assuming they’re no longer in contention. Giles would have a year and a half of team control remaining at that point, and could be a particularly appealing trade chip. Adding more impact relievers before opening day would allow the front office to acquire talent next summer when contenders will need reinforcements.

On Saturday, everything went according to plan for the Blue Jays’ pitching staff, as Pannone made sure the bullpen didn’t have to do too much. But there will be days and even weeks where the Blue Jays lean more heavily on their relievers, setting up a potentially busy few months of additions.

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