Ray returns, Roark heads to bullpen as Blue Jays shuffle rotation

Toronto Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo (25), first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr., left, and catcher Danny Jansen, right, meet on the mound as Montoyo pulls starter Tanner Roark during the first inning of a spring training baseball game against the New York Yankees Sunday, March 21, 2021, at TD Ballpark in Dunedin, Fla. (Steve Nesius/CP)

This being 2021, and these being the Toronto Blue Jays, not even a day without a game could pass without a generous helping of roster news.

Left-handed starter Robbie Ray, lost to an elbow contusion when he slipped on a flight of stairs late in spring training, will return from the injured list Monday to start against the New York Yankees. He’ll be followed by Hyun Jin Ryu on Tuesday and Ross Stripling on Wednesday. That means Tanner Roark, who was scheduled to start Sunday’s weather-postponed game against the Los Angeles Angels (it’ll be made up as part of a split doubleheader in Anaheim on August 10), is shifting to a long relief role in manager Charlie Montoyo’s bullpen.

“He was a pro. We told him and he was fine with it,” Montoyo said of Roark, who has made only four relief appearances in his 140 games since 2016. “It’s not indefinite. I’m not saying he won’t start again. This is the move we’re going to make for now and then we’ll go from there.”

The move is mostly about Ray, who was lights out during Grapefruit League play, pitching to a 1.98 ERA with 18 strikeouts and five walks over 13.2 innings, prior to his freak accident. The club wanted to get him back on track as soon as possible, which made Monday’s start appealing. It also produces the by-product of an extra day between starts for Ryu, who has benefitted from extended recovery time in the past, making half of his 80 starts from 2017 through 2020 on five days’ rest.

But it’s also about Roark. It said something about the club’s current confidence level in the 34-year-old that Montoyo repeatedly refused to officially name him as Sunday’s starter until after Saturday’s game, which ended at 1 a.m. Sunday, only 12 hours before he’d be taking the mound. And it says a lot that all it took was a rainout for Roark to be shifted to the bullpen, where he last saw consistent work in 2015. Evidently, the Blue Jays didn’t want him anywhere near New York’s thermonuclear lineup.

Remember, Roark is the second-highest paid pitcher — the fourth-highest paid player, period — on Toronto’s roster. He’s a veteran of eight MLB seasons and nearly 200 starts with a lifetime 3.86 ERA over more than 1,150 innings. Pitchers of his pedigree don’t often have to worry about their rotation spot one start into the season.

But that’s just how rough Roark’s first 2021 outing was. It wasn’t only the results, as he allowed five runs on six hits, three of them homers, in three innings against the Texas Rangers. It was the process, as Roark threw low-90’s fastballs and high-80’s cutters that came in flat and straight, either missing the plate uncompetitively or sitting up right over the heart of it.

And it was the opposition, as a Rangers club batting David Dahl — ZIPS-projected to be worth 0.1 fWAR with a below-league-average .315 wOBA in 2021 — in the two-hole teed off, putting eight balls in play off Roark at 95-m.p.h. or harder, and four into triple-digits. A third of Texas’ home runs through its first eight games of the season came off Roark in that outing.

It simply was not a performance standard that will be routinely successful at the major-league level. These hitters are too good. Leave slow, straight pitches up on the plate and they’ll get crushed.

Of course, plenty of pitchers get by in the majors with below-average stuff. Brett Anderson’s fastball is 91-m.p.h. on a good day. JA Happ’s is 91-92 and he throws it more than half the time. Jon Lester’s been sitting 89-90 for a couple years now and still gets guys out.

The difference is those three reliably locate their pitches where they want to. They pick corners, paint edges. They avoid the heart of the plate, moving their pitches just far enough off the bat’s barrel to generate weak contact. They couple that command to all quadrants with creative sequencing to keep hitters guessing, speeding bats up and slowing them down to further encourage soft balls in play.

The result isn’t 200-inning seasons with high strikeout totals, low ERA’s, and all-star game appearances. It’s more like 100-150 innings with moderate strikeout totals and somewhere-around-league-average ERA’s. The kind of ordinary, dependable innings-eating that every team needs in its rotation as it navigates a six-month slog. The kind of production the Blue Jays would love for Roark to provide.

That’s the thing — the Blue Jays aren’t asking Roark to be Gerrit Cole. They aren’t asking him to win a Cy Young award. They’d settle for merely replacement-level, MLB-average production, which these days translates to around a 4.50 ERA. If Roark were to make, say, 25 starts of five innings each, a 4.50 ERA would mean 2.5 runs per outing. The Blue Jays would probably even take a 5.00 ERA over those 125 innings, which would look like 2.75 runs per outing. It’s not exactly a high standard. Allow two or three runs over five innings each time out, and Roark’s perfectly serviceable.

And he’s done it before. Consistently. In 2017, he pitched to a 4.67 ERA over 32 outings. In 2018, it was 4.34 over 31. And in 2019, a nearly identical 4.35 over 31. Despite his struggles over the last couple seasons, Roark still holds a 3.90 ERA over 184 career starts. You can’t deny his track record.

But you can take issue with his most recent results. Roark’s 2020 season was a disaster and he didn’t finish 2019 particularly strong, either, allowing 17 runs and nine homers over his final four starts of the year with the Oakland A’s. Add those four outings to Roark’s dozen in 2020 and his first of 2021, and you have a 17-start sample in which he’s put up a 7.57 ERA over 69 innings with a remarkable 26 home runs allowed. That’s bad. And that’s why he’s moving to the bullpen.

His task now will be adapting to that new role, likely pitching long, low-leverage relief in his first outing, whenever that may be. And the task for the Blue Jays is determining whether Roark has the ability to rediscover his consistently league-average ways of 2017 through 2019 and re-enter the rotation later in the season. Or, as his more recent performance would suggest, if the 34-year-old is simply past it.

Which gets back to the process. For Roark to survive at baseball’s highest level, he must be throwing pitches that can get MLB hitters to swing-and-miss. And if he can’t, needing instead to rely on deception and guile to generate weak contact and retire batters with sub-standard velocity and movement, he must locate with precision. That’s how Tommy Milone’s still out here chewing innings from the Blue Jays bullpen with an 84-m.p.h. fastball and three secondary weapons in the low-to-mid 70’s. He puts his pitches where he intends to. And if he misses, he does so just off the plate rather than over the heart of it.

Time will tell. For now, Roark’s rotation job belongs to Ray, who will look to pick up where he left off in spring, when he was locating consistently in the zone, throwing harder than he has in recent seasons, and generally looking to have tapped into the frontline starter’s potential he’s long harboured but never realized.

Montoyo said Ray won’t be on a pitch limit during Monday’s outing, which seems like a stretch. The Blue Jays are typically cautious in these scenarios, endeavouring not to expose returning-from-injury pitchers to too much workload too soon. It’d be a surprise to see Ray up to 100 pitches, or even 90. But who knows?

“He’s looked great in the pens and everything. So, of course, we’re going to look with our eyes and see how he’s doing during the game and stuff. But there shouldn’t be any limitations. He should be fine,” Montoyo said. “That’s why we felt like it’s time for him to pitch in the big-leagues now. He’s ready to go.”

Ray’s return will necessitate a corresponding roster move; as would that of Lourdes Gurriel Jr., who’s been experiencing COVID-19 vaccination side effects but will likely be activated from the injured list on Monday. Joel Payamps and Santiago Espinal appear probable candidates to be optioned back to the club’s alternate site to make room. But, as with all things in 2021, and all things Blue Jays, we’ll have to wait and see what news a fresh day brings.

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