Potential breakout relief candidates from the Blue Jays bullpen

Watch as Sportsnet's Martine Gaillard is joined by Ben Wagner for another installment of Blue Jays Takeaways, they discuss the injury struggles that have affected the team, the fantastic play of pitcher Steven Matz and more.

Heading into their Monday off day at 7-9, the Toronto Blue Jays are faced with a number of issues ranging from a largely underperforming lineup to a rotation that’s tough to trust beyond Hyun-Jin Ryu and Steven Matz.

Their most acute concern, however, has to be a flurry of bullpen injuries that turned one of the club’s greatest strengths into an exploitable weakness. That was apparent over the weekend when they lost two games late with pitchers like Joel Payamps and T.J. Zeuch surrendering the back-breaking runs in high-leverage situations. Sunday’s loss was particularly emblematic of their bullpen issues as they were forced to turn to their two most ineffective starters (Zeuch and Tanner Roark) in the same inning with the game on the line.

Although it appears that reinforcements are on the way with the injury prognosis on both Tyler Chatwood and Jordan Romano looking encouraging, if the Blue Jays are going to survive the next stretch of their schedule — and Julian Merryweather’s longer absence — they’re going to need some unexpected contributors to step up.

That’s not necessarily unrealistic. Relievers often emerge from obscurity and have significant positive and negative swings in performance. While it’s unrealistic to hope that you can pluck a star shortstop from the scrap heap, it’s fairly common to find yourself a trustworthy reliever.

In recent years, the Blue Jays have seen guys with modest expectations like Steve Delabar, Liam Hendriks and Joe Biagini become bullpen stalwarts, and gotten better-than-expected performances from modestly-priced veterans like Seunghwan Oh, Tyler Clippard, A.J. Cole and Anthony Bass. Whether they have someone else who can elevate their game is up for debate, but they have a few viable candidates:

The Converted Starters

Trent Thornton

2021 stats: 7.04 K/9, 3.52 BB/9, 0.00 HR/9 with a 2.35 ERA and 2.77 FIP in 7.1 innings

Expected 2021 role: Low-leverage middle reliever/long man

How he could step up: There’s always been an expectation with Thornton that if he dedicated himself to relief, he could be a difference maker in the bullpen with his high-spin fastball and breaking ball. The 27-year-old was a shutdown reliever early in his college career, and again in the Arizona Fall League just before the Blue Jays acquired him in November 2018.

While the results, in a very limited sample, seem promising so far, it would be hard to call what Thornton has done in 2021 impressive. Instead of seeing his stuff play up in short stints, the right-hander is throwing his fastball precisely as hard (92.9 m.p.h. on average) as he did as a rookie starter in 2019, and hasn’t missed many bats.

As a pure flyball pitcher, he’s bound to have the ball leave the yard on him eventually — that will drag his numbers down which makes his xERA of 3.75 more reflective of what to expect than the 2.35 we’ve seen so far.

Thornton has a place in this bullpen, but with middling velocity and a reliance on creating soft contact, something we don’t know he can do with consistency yet, he doesn’t look like the Blue Jays’ next unexpected relief star — even if he does have a very pretty breaking ball.

Tommy Milone

2021 stats: 12.96 K/9, 2.16 BB/9, 1.08 HR/9 with a 3.24 ERA and 2.56 FIP in 8.1 innings

Expected 2021 role: Break-glass-in-case-of-emergency depth starter

How he could step up: As unlikely candidates to pitch important innings go, Milone is among the unlikeliest you can imagine. Not many managers are in a hurry to turn over high-leverage frames to a guy with an 84 m.p.h. fastball, and Milone has only been used in longer outings to soak up innings so far.

While that’s understandable, it is worth noting that Milone has been stellar when he’s taken the mound this season:

2021 MLB Percentile Rankings

The argument against Milone is that his fastball travels as fast as George R.R. Martin writes, neither of his breaking balls move much and he’s only effective as long as opponents are guessing wrong. The moment they guess right, the ball is over the fence.

It’s hard to poke holes in that argument, but if you were going to make the case for Milone getting work in bigger spots, it would go something like this:

1) Milone’s K/9 of 9.23 last season was the best mark of his career by 1.37, suggesting he found something when it comes to missing bats, and that’s continued this year — which makes for an awfully dramatic graph:

Tommy Milone's season strikeouts per nine innings over his career

2) Milone has never really gotten much run as a reliever in his career, so he might have an unexpected ceiling in that role. He hasn’t pitched more than 17 games in relief in a single season, and while we’re on the topic of strikeouts, he’s had far more success with them the first time he faces batters — hardly a surprise considering his reliance on pitch-sequencing based deception. That suggests he might perform at his best in short stints.

Tommy Milone's K/9 numbers in comparison to his role as a starting pitcher and a reliever

3) Certain alternatives, like Zeuch and Roark, are almost certainly less palatable.

The Waiver Claims

Joel Payamps

2021 stats: 5.40 K/9, 1.35 BB/9, 1.35 HR/9 with a 1.35 ERA and 4.36 FIP in 6.2 innings

Expected 2021 role: Bullpen depth

How he could step up: Although Payamps gave up the winning home run on Saturday, he’s looked solid in his brief Blue Jays’ tenure. The right-hander doesn’t have much of a track record in the bullpen (just 26 of his 145 appearances in the minors came in relief) and he pitches like a starter with a four-pitch repertoire.

Payamps’ stuff isn’t the most exciting you’ll see, but his fastball velocity is respectable (93.7 m.p.h.) and every single one of his pitches has about average horizontal run. The most interesting pitch in his arsenal is his slider, which he seems to be making a concerted effort to throw slower this season to maximize its movement.

Joel Payamps' numbers for his slider in comparison from 2020 and 2021

The result is a pitch that has plenty of action on it:

That adjustment bears watching and the diversity of his repertoire is handy. Maybe Payamps can find more success in the bullpen than he did as a starter, but right now he looks more intriguing than exciting. With a whiff rate in the 20th percentile in 2021 and a career K/9 of 7.8 in the minors, Payamps will need to start missing bats more consistently to rise about depth arm status.

Anthony Castro

2021 stats: 5.40 K/9, 0.00 BB/9, 0.00 HR/9 with a 0.00 ERA and 1.98 FIP in 8.1 innings

Expected 2021 role: Bullpen depth

How he could step up: Castro is similar to Payamps in that he spent his minor-league career as a starter (108 of his 123 appearances), and the Blue Jays are hoping his stuff translates to relief.

Unlike his compatriot, he isn’t bringing a starter’s repertoire to the bullpen, throwing just two pitches: a fastball, and curveball with slurve-y characteristics. The pitch, which he throws 58.1 per cent of the time, has less drop than your average curve (minus-13 per cent), but way more horizontal break (plus-67 per cent).

It looks like this:

That pitch alone makes Castro unusual, due to its movement and extremely high usage — although we’ll need to see more of him to see if it holds up. If it does, he’d be the most curveball-heavy pitcher in the majors.

Beyond the breaking ball, the 26-year-old has a heater that’s well below-average movement wise, but averages 94.7 m.p.h. (2.5 m.p.h. faster than what he showed in his MLB debut in 2020). Castro’s inclination to heavily feature his curve makes sense, but he’s got enough juice to blow the ball past hitters who are sitting on that breaking ball.

All-in-all Castro is probably the favourite to be the Blue Jays’ best out-of-nowhere reliever of 2021. He has some prospect pedigree (in 2019 he ranked 20th on the Tigers’ MLB Pipeline prospect list and 19th according to FanGraphs), his velocity has bumped up significantly this season, and he’s coming off a very strong spring with 15 K’s and a 1.93 ERA in 9.2 innings. Throw in a funky breaking ball he seems willing to use at an extremely high rate, and the Blue Jays might be onto something.

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