Thinning Blue Jays bullpen requires rethinking before opening day

MLB insider Shi Davidi joins Arash Madani to discuss the extent of the elbow issues for both John Axford and Ryan Tepera, what opportunities these injuries may open up, and why Charlie Montoyo is raving about Brandon Drury's defence.

DUNEDIN, Fla. – The potential for final-week-of-spring roster drama emerged suddenly for the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday, as leverage relievers Ryan Tepera and John Axford were being evaluated after experiencing elbow discomfort.

Definitive word on their status is expected Thursday, although when you consider the proximity to opening day and where their pain is, the club will surely be erring on the side of caution with both men.

In doing so, they’ll quickly muddy a bullpen picture that seemed to have come into focus in recent weeks, with Tepera, Axford and Bud Norris, who has an opt-out clause in his minor-league deal Thursday, set to line up behind closer Ken Giles. Tim Mayza and Joe Biagini had both already been told they’re making the team, leaving the Blue Jays only with calls to make on teenaged Rule 5 pick Elvis Luciano, and Sam Gaviglio as the seventh or eighth reliever, depending on whether they carried the 19-year-old.

Now, though, there needs to be a wider rethinking of how to best shape a bullpen that’s perilously thin without Tepera and Axford. Further complicating matters is that Luciano again looked out of his depth in an 8-7 loss to the Atlanta Braves – surrendering an RBI single to Ronald Acuna Jr., before walking Brian McCann and Charlie Culberson on nine pitches – which isn’t surprising given that until this spring he hadn’t pitched above rookie ball.

So, there’s a very real path to the majors for non-roster invitees Javy Guerra, Justin Shafer and Danny Barnes, along with David Paulino. The most appealing option in camp is Trent Thornton, who has impressed all spring with his legit stuff, but for now general manager Ross Atkins is committed to continuing the right-hander’s development in the rotation at triple-A Buffalo.

“We feel like he has a chance to start,” said Atkins, “and we’ll exhaust that.”

Luciano, to a degree, is the linchpin in the upcoming machinations because if the Blue Jays do try to carry him through the big-league season – essentially using a loophole that made him Rule 5 eligible to steal a prospect from the Kansas City Royals – they’ll need to compose their bullpen accordingly.

Though his mid-90s stuff is impressive, he’s much more raw than Roberto Osuna and Miguel Castro were when they broke camp as teenagers in 2015, and can’t be counted on as a consistent source of innings. Consider that in 6.2 innings over eight spring outings, he’s allowed 11 earned runs on 12 hits and seven walks with eight strikeouts, and the competition is only going to get tougher.

Bringing him on with men on the corners and none out in the sixth Thursday after five strong frames from Matt Shoemaker offered an interesting measuring stick. Luciano fell behind Acuna before serving up a line-drive single, and then totally lost the zone versus McCann and Culberson.

One outing won’t be decisive, manager Charlie Montoyo insisted, but he did concede that “for the first time he looked nervous because he was not throwing strikes.” Sensibly, Montoyo related the process of assessing Luciano to “player development and being patient,” but accomplishing that while not overexposing him, and also being fair to the rest of the roster may simply be an impossible juggling act. Losing two reliable relievers expected to do a lot of heavy lifting only makes it harder to hide him, too.

“Any time you get a Rule 5 guy it’s a tough call, and even more a kid that (last) pitched in rookie ball but that’s a decision we have to make,” said Montoyo. “We’re just not going to make it by that outing right there.”

No matter what happens on that front, the protection Gaviglio’s ability to throw multiple innings offers seems all the more crucial now, especially while Clay Buchholz continues to play catch-up for a spot in the rotation.

Guerra, Shafer and Barnes have each had nice springs, but they’re one-inning guys, for the most part, and each will require a roster move to get them on the 40-man. The same goes for Norris and, once healthy, Axford, while additional space would need to be made for Eric Sogard should he beat out Richard Urena for the back-up infielder’s role.

The Blue Jays will be able to create a couple of spots by pushing Devon Travis onto the 60-day DL and parting ways with Dalton Pompey if he doesn’t make the team as a fifth outfielder, but at that point they’d have to start shedding assets.

Precisely what type of recovery both Axford and Tepera are facing – a week, a month, more? – will factor into the equation, too, which is why the assessments drawn from their evaluations have so much riding on them.

As Atkins so carefully put it, “we’ll see as we get more information what it means,” although that meaning is sure to generate plenty more questions that aren’t easily answered.

SHOEMAKER SHINES: Matt Shoemaker felt like “everything was really good” in throwing five strong innings against a good Braves lineup, allowing three runs on three hits and two walks with seven strikeouts.

“It’s definitely encouraging,” he said of the swing and miss he generated in his 79 pitches. “When you go out there and execute pitches and execute them well, you tend to get swing and misses so when it’s a strike-to-ball, or down in the zone or a good located inside/outside or up and it’s a swing and miss, it’s a well-executed pitch, usually.”

More importantly, Shoemaker said he continues to feel strong after having his past two seasons curtailed because of a forearm injury, and the given the Blue Jays’ issues in the bullpen, they’ll need him even more to help keep the rotation steady.

“If we’re going to compete, it’s all about pitching and the starting rotation has to pitch good for us to compete,” said Charlie Montoyo. “So far all five have done a good job, they’re pitching well.”

HERNANDEZ STAYS HOT: Teoscar Hernandez is up to .410/.489/.590 in his torrid spring after clubbing a long two-run homer and walking twice against the Braves.

“I’m going out there with a plan,” he said. “I’m going to try keep going into the season with same plan and just try to keep doing what I’m doing this spring, try to control myself to not get too anxious. When the season starts, keep working on the things that aren’t working here and try to keep doing, keep improving my skills.”

SHORT HOPS: Brandon Drury batted leadoff Wednesday and manager Charlie Montoyo said the third baseman is under consideration for the role along with Randal Grichuk. “We’ll see how that looks,” he said. … One thing Montoyo already likes the look off is the way Drury’s glove looks at third base. “The plays he’s made, he makes them look easy. I’m pretty impressed. He’s been really good. What I like about him is he plays off the line a lot. There are a lot of balls that should have been hits and he gets them right there, he’s in front of them. He’s done a great job, I really like him a lot. Having him and (Freddy) Galvis on that right side is going to help us a lot. Groundballs are outs.” … Matt Shoemaker’s outing included a pickoff of Pedro Florimon at first base with a very quick move. “That’s pretty good,” he said. “When you get guys over there, good footwork, you really need a good throw. It worked out.” … Ross Atkins on what he likes about Thornton as a starter: “Three pitches, durability, athleticism, he has the attributes to do it, he’s done it in the minor-leagues. We’ll continue to work through that. There are all kinds of scenarios and guys can transition (from the bullpen to the rotation) but as of today, we’re going to continue to stretch him out.” One way to get Thornton innings is by piggybacking him onto a specific starter and having him build consistent innings that way.


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