As the Toronto Blue Jays’ rotation has struggled in recent weeks the team’s bullpen has been tested — and found wanting.
Over the last 14 days Blue Jays relievers have combined for an ugly 6.08 ERA, with an unimpressive 4.88 FIP and -0.2 WAR.
While it’s easy to overreact to a limited sample, this bullpen was expected to be a middle-of-the-pack outfit coming into the season, and its recent play hints at a ceiling that may be lower than that.
Jordan Romano is a good foundational piece, and the trio of Adam Cimber, Tim Mayza and Yimi García has been more reliable than not, but this group lacks depth, top-end velocity, and the ability to miss bats.
Some of that is due to internal underperformance from the likes of Julian Merryweather and Trevor Richards (as well as Nate Pearson’s inability to get healthy), but this was always a unit that was going to need mid-season reinforcements. With the relievers on the roster flailing, and the trade deadline slowly approaching that need is becoming more acute.
When the Blue Jays looking for bullpen help, their checklist will look something like this:
• Strikeout ability
• Solid 2022 performance
• High-leverage experience
• Above-average velocity
• Playoff experience
Checks every box: Daniel Bard, Colorado Rockies
Fastball velocity: 97.9 m.p.h.
2022 stats: 11.52 K/9, 4.28 BB/9, 0.66 HR/9 with a 1.98 ERA, 1.96 xERA and 3.16 FIP in 27.1 IP.
Team control: 2022
It’s pretty difficult to poke any holes in Bard’s candidacy as a potential bullpen upgrade for the Blue Jays. He throws harder (97.9 m.p.h.), misses more bats (11.52 K/9) and has a better ERA (1.98) than anyone in their bullpen. The 36-year-old even has a little multi-inning versatility with six two-inning outings in the past two seasons.
You could nitpick Bard’s spotty history of durability, but since his remarkable career renaissance with the Colorado Rockies began, availability hasn’t been an issue. His walk rate (4.28 BB/9) is a touch higher than you’d like to see for a high-leverage arm as well, but he’s been dominant enough to stay out of trouble — and his sinker-first repertoire helps erase base runners via the double play.
The price tag would be significant, and there will be other suitors circling the right-hander, but considering his status as a rental he’s acquirable without moving a true blue chipper.
Everything but the heat: David Robertson, Chicago Cubs
Fastball velocity: 93.1 m.p.h.
2022 stats: 12.27 K/9, 4.56 BB/9, 0.70 HR/9 with a 1.75 ERA, 2.45 xERA and 3.05 FIP in 25.2 IP.
Team control: 2022
Robertson’s 2022 numbers are remarkably similar to Bard’s, down to a matching groundball rate (55.6%) to the Rockies closer (53.3%) that helps compensate for his tendency to put men on base.
If you put a strong emphasis on experience — especially in the playoffs — the right-hander is also more accomplished with 145 career saves to his name, as well as 37.2 post-season innings, an All-Star Game appearance, and even a couple of MVP votes back in 2011.
Robertson has seen and done it all, but he doesn’t bring the change of pace Bard would to this bullpen. Because his primary fastball is a cutter, raw heat isn’t as important for him, but he would be yet another Blue Jays reliever who doesn’t exactly blow hitters away. Considering his excellent strikeout rate that’s less of a concern, but it means he’s not a perfect deadline addition.
The converted starter: Matt Moore, Texas Rangers
Fastball velocity: 94.3 m.p.h.
2022 stats: 11.08 K/9, 5.40 BB/9, 0.00 HR/9 with a 2.27 ERA, 2.58 xERA and 2.47 FIP in 31.2 IP.
Team control: 2022
For the first time in Moore’s 11-year MLB career, he’s been deployed exclusively out of the bullpen and the results have been outstanding.
As a reliever he’s completely transformed his pitch mix, throwing curveballs at a far higher rate (44.7%) than his previous career high (23.1%).
That makes sense when your hook drops 3.4 more inches than average, generates a solid 29.3-per-cent whiff rate, and can make hitters look this silly:
Moore’s velocity is more solid than spectacular, but it’s more than enough from the left side. He also has strong multi-inning utility as 10 of his 22 outings this season have lasted two innings.
The primary drawback with the southpaw is his walk rate, but that has been better of late. After giving out nine free passes in his first six appearances, his BB/9 is a more respectable 4.22 since, and he’s posted a K/BB ratio of 16/4 in his last 11.1 innings.
The diamond in the rough: Joe Jiménez, Detroit Tigers
Fastball velocity: 95.6 m.p.h.
2022 stats: 12.15 K/9, 2.36 BB/9, 1.01 HR/9 with a 3.71 ERA, 2.89 xERA and 2.68 FIP in 26.2 IP.
Team control: 2022-2023 (Salary arbitration in ‘23)
Jiménez lacks name recognition value, or a sparkling ERA, but his underlying numbers tell the story of a reliever capable of blowing hitters away.
The right-hander is throwing harder than ever this season, and his 95.7 m.p.h. heat plays up thanks to elite spin rate (94th percentile) and outstanding vertical movement (17 per cent above average). Jiménez is capable of throwing balls past hitters at the top of the zone, which explains why he’s posted a K/9 over 11 four times in his career.
His overall results haven’t always impressed due to difficulties with contact management, but he’s improved in that area in recent years. Last season he posted an xBA of .168 but saw his season derailed due to his inability to find the strike zone (6.95 BB/9).
His control is back, and this year he’s been strong across the board despite giving up a few more Barrels than he’d like:
Jimenez probably doesn’t work as a singular addition to the Blue Jays ‘pen, but he’s the type of arm who would provide quality depth and multiple years of control at a palatable prospect price.
An old friend: Ken Giles, Seattle Mariners
Fastball velocity: 95.0 m.p.h.
2022 stats: 9.00 K/9, 0.00 BB/9, 0.00 HR/9 with a 0.00 ERA, and 1.13 FIP in 1 IP.
Team control: 2022-2023 ($9.5 million option with a $500K buyout in ‘23)
This one is more fun to think about than likely to happen, but it’s not hard to envision the circumstances that could bring it about.
The Mariners are quickly falling out of the playoff race, giving Giles a month to showcase that his stuff is back after throwing his first MLB inning since he left the Blue Jays on Tuesday. As it stands, Seattle is exceedingly unlikely to pick up his sizable option. That makes getting something for him at the deadline a last-ditch opportunity to salvage a free agent signing that simply didn’t pan out.
For what it’s worth, in his 2022 debut Giles broke off a pair of sliders that had Oakland Athletics batters swinging through air:
Giles would be a pure deadline dart throw, best used as a supplement to other acquisitions — but the Blue Jays have successfully bought low on him before.