Three ways Blue Jays could get creative with expanded pitching staff in 2021

Toronto Blue Jays' Hyun-Jin Ryu pitches to the Tampa Bay Rays during the first inning of Game 2 of an American League wild-card baseball series. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

With spring training games just days away it seems likely the Toronto Blue Jays plan to enter the 2021 season with essentially the group they have at camp.

While there may be some minor additions — they signed Clay Buchholz, Bud Norris, and Daniel Hudson during Grapefruit League action in 2019 as an example — the shape of this club is essentially crystallized. It’s an unusual shape too, as the Blue Jays decided to dedicate their resources this off-season to improving their greatest strength (their lineup) as opposed to shoring up their biggest weakness (their rotation).

It’s not an inherently poor strategy as there can be a compounding effect to stacking a lineup full of strong hitters, and acquisitions like George Springer and Marcus Semien should help with run prevention thanks to strong defence. These moves have also resulted in a roster with enviable position flexibility.

Because the Blue Jays have so many ways to get their best nine bats into the lineup, they’ve put themselves in a position where they don’t require a long bench. That, combined with a rotation that needs all the support it can get, means a 14-man pitching staff — a total impossibility prior to 26-man rosters — is in play. Not only is it something the Blue Jays could do, FanGraphs’ Roster Resource page predicts that’s exactly how Toronto will allocate their roster space in 2021.

If the Blue Jays go with a staff with two more members than a traditional group, it stands to reason that they can do something creative with their additional arms. Here are three ways the club could deploy an overstuffed bullpen:

1) Designated Piggybackers

MLB starters (5): Hyun-Jin Ryu, Nate Pearson, Robbie Ray, Tanner Roark, Steven Matz

Piggybackers (2): Julian Merryweather (for Roark) Thomas Hatch (for Matz)

‘Normal bullpen’ (7): Kirby Yates, Jordan Romano, Rafael Dolis, Ryan Borucki, David Phelps, Tyler Chatwood, Ross Stripling

Triple-A Starters: Trent Thornton, Anthony Kay, Jacob Waguespack, T.J. Zeuch, Patrick Murphy

Why it works: The benefit of this strategy is that it allows the Blue Jays to minimize the innings thrown by the back end of the rotation — arguably the club’s biggest weakness — while maintaining a conventional bullpen equipped with high-leverage one-inning pitches, plus a traditional long man in Stripling.

This arrangement could be the best of both worlds for Merryweather, as he won’t have the unpredictable schedule of normal bullpen work or the heavy workload of a starter. He fits behind Roark for the simple reason that his elite velocity will be a very different look after Roark throws 89-92 for three or four innings. Roark is a tough pitcher to contrast beyond velocity because he throws five different pitches without a dominant secondary pitch.

Hatch works behind Matz because he’s a high-spin fastball pitcher who looks to attack the top of the zone while the southpaw works the bottom with his sinker. If someone else won the fifth starter spot, like Thornton, you could find a different stylistic contrast like Kay.

Possible downsides: This deployment could thin out the Triple-A rotation a touch depending on exactly who you use, but there would still be enough depth there (plus Stripling). If you’re particularly high on Hatch you might argue that he should be developing as a pure starter at Triple-A. There’s an argument for that, but there’s not much evidence in the right-hander’s track record to suggest he’d be an excellent starter at the MLB level, the Blue Jays need wins in 2021, and Hatch was effective in multi-inning stints last year.

A minor drawback is that these nine pitchers would exclude Francisco Liriano and Tim Mayza from roster spots, leaving Borucki as the lone southpaw.

2) Openers

MLB starters without openers (2): Ryu, Pearson

MLB starters with openers (3): Ray, Roark, Matz

Openers (3): Phelps, Chatwood, Liriano

Rest of the bullpen (6): Yates, Romano, Dolis, Borucki, Stripling, Merryweather

Triple-A Starters: Thornton, Hatch, Kay, Waguespack, Zeuch

Why it works: With these openers the Blue Jays get to use pitchers who are effective as one-inning pitchers, but not at the top of the late-inning food chain. Although Liriano and Chatwood have traditionally been starters, the former was a one-inning reliever when he last appeared in the majors in 2019, and the latter has been making noise about pitching shorter stints at camp.

The rest of the bullpen is slightly thinner, but the openers can get into the mix once in a while in other games — especially Liriano, who would only be called upon to open against teams with at least two lefties at the top of their lineup. This configuration also allows for one of Merryweather or Hatch to provide starting depth at Triple-A.

Possible downsides: None of the Blue Jays potential openers inspire complete confidence, and if you were to pluck someone from the back of the bullpen like Dolis, it would weaken the high-leverage brigade. Despite talk of Chatwood’s stuff playing up in short outings, it would be nice to have the flexibility to utilize his ability to provide length as well.

3) Bullpen Days

MLB starters (3): Ryu, Pearson, Ray

Back of the bullpen (5): Yates, Romano, Dolis, Borucki, Phelps

Nebulous bulk guys (6): Matz, Roark, Stripling, Chatwood, Merryweather, Kay

Triple-A Starters: Thornton, Hatch, Waguespack, Zeuch, Murphy

Why it works: This setup creates the greatest level of flexibility for the Blue Jays. By carrying a squad of multi-inning pitchers they could mix and match based on matchups when one of their top three starters isn’t going. The idea of pitching two bullpen days every five games might seem daunting, but when you’ve got 11 relief pitchers — more than half of whom are specifically geared for multi-inning outings — it could work.

Because Matz and Roark get converted to bulk pitchers, the Triple-A depth remains intact. That said, there would be some decisions to be made if one of the traditional starters went down whether someone else would fill that role straight from Triple-A or a bulk pitcher would be elevated and built up. Another plus is the improved lefty/righty balance this group gets thanks to Matz and Kay’s presence.

Possible downsides: As mentioned above, an injury to Ryu, Pearson, or Ray would have the potential to cause a serious short-term disruption. This deployment would also lead to a serious lack of defined roles, which is something that a number of pitchers seem to struggle with.

Phelps is in a weird no-man’s land where he’s probably not good enough to be worth a spot at the back of the bullpen, but he doesn’t provide length at this point in his career. With this strategy, you’d like to see every pitcher in the bullpen either eat innings or shut down hitters in high-leverage spots.

If Ray can’t bounce back from his disastrous 2020, or Pearson goes through significant growing pains, you’re not far from a nearly starter-less staff — which may be the norm someday, but is thoroughly untested.

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