TORONTO – Tom Koehler’s transition to a relief role is one of the many information-gathering exercises looming for the Toronto Blue Jays in the final weeks of the season, and they’re not the only ones intrigued by the idea of seeing the right-hander work out of the bullpen.
“I’m probably as interested and intrigued as they are,” Koehler said Tuesday, a day after throwing a scoreless, 13-pitch eighth inning against the Boston Red Sox. “It’s something I always thought that I could possibly do. I love starting. I love what it takes, the preparation, the routine behind everything. But I’m sure in time (relieving) is something I can learn to do.
“The hardest thing for me is knowing when to do things, when I do a certain lift, or what time I stretch to get ready. There are a lot of unknowns with that. But as far as when you get into the game, the only difference I felt is that the mound wasn’t freshly manicured by the time I got out there.”
Koehler, acquired Aug. 19 from the Miami Marlins for minor-leaguer Osman Gutierrez, broke into the big-leagues with eight relief appearances in 2012 and only transitioned into the rotation a month and a half into the 2013 season. Up until this season he’d been a steady and reliable innings eater for the Marlins, logging 698.1 innings with a 4.14 ERA over the previous four years.
This year he struggled with delivery issues and posted a 7.92 ERA in 55.2 innings over 12 starts, getting sent down to triple-A New Orleans. He made one start with the Blue Jays, holding the Tampa Bay Rays to one run over five innings with seven strikeouts last week, before the team put him in the bullpen with an eye on evaluating him in a middle-inning or leverage relief role.
He allowed a hit and struck out one against Boston on Monday, with manager John Gibbons saying, “I think he could be very good at (a relief role).”
“He looked good as a starter, too, I thought,” added Gibbons. “The first thing is he’s got the stuff and I think for the most part he’d be a strike-thrower. That’s a key. The big part will be his curveball, if he gets that over when he has to get it over and then can use it for a strikeout. Like anybody else his stuff should tick up, too. He’s a big, strong dude. Looks durable. We shall see.”
Koehler features a curveball, a slider and a changeup to complement his fastball and learning how to best employ his mix as a reliever is among his challenges. Against the Red Sox, he found himself attacking differently, throwing seven fastballs, five curveballs and one slider.
“The mentality is more you’re trying to get guys out as fast as possible,” he said. “I’m not thinking about maybe now showing a pitch to a guy in case I see him in a big situation two innings later. In that sense, there’s really no wrong pitch as long as you execute, so I do feel like it was more attacking with what I felt was working best at that time, without the thought of what I need to do later in the day.”
Koehler, earning $5.75 million this season, has one year of arbitration eligibility remaining before hitting free agency. A shift in roles carries wider implications for his career, but he understands that “from the Blue Jays’ point of view, there’s enough of a track record for them to know what I am as a starter.”
“Why not take a chance to see about going from a four in the rotation to a really quality bullpen arm?” he said. “I’m looking to do anything that extends my career and allows me to keep pitching.
“Physically I feel good and this year has been rough, but it hasn’t been rough because my stuff has disappeared. It’s been my delivery and things never got to where I wanted them to be at the beginning of the season and I’m slowly starting to feel back to myself right now. Ultimately I want to play for a winner and if a winning team feels that I best can benefit them by throwing one or two innings here and there in tight spots, than who am I to say no to that opportunity?”
AFL ASSIGNMENTS: Infielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr., catcher Max Pentecost and right-hander T.J. Zeuch headline the list of Blue Jays prospects named to the Arizona Fall League.
Gurriel missed a good chunk of the season with a hamstring injury, Zeuch missed some action due to back problems and Pentecost, still playing catchup after losing a season and a half to shoulder troubles, also had some back issues this year.
While each has developmental goals for the AFL, as well, they’ll get a chance to make up for lost time.
“These are three guys who have missed a great deal of baseball opportunity, have performed well to different degrees when they’ve been on the field, and it’s a good opportunity for guys at that point of their career to play against some of the best young players in the game,” said general manager Ross Atkins. “It’s a great developmental league, as well. These guys are in good position for it.”
Canadian Andrew Case and fellow right-handers Jackson McClelland and Danny Young, catcher Javier Hernandez and outfielder J.D. Davis will also play for the Peoria Javelinas. Single-A Dunedin hitting coach Corey Hart will help coach the club.
SHORT HOPS: Blue Jays prospect Ryan Borucki earned his second promotion of the season and the left-hander will make his debut for triple-A Buffalo on Thursday against Pawtucket. In 26 games, all but one a start, at single-A Dunedin and double-A New Hampshire, the 23-year-old has posted a 3.06 ERA in 144.1 innings with a WHIP of 1.115 and 151 strikeouts. … Outfielder Nori Aoki was given his unconditional release and is now free to sign with any club for a pro-rated portion of the major-league minimum. … Left-hander T.J. House cleared outright waivers and accepted an assignment back to Buffalo.