Romano may not get the title, but Blue Jays acting as if he’s their closer

Blue Jays closer Jordan Romano joined the FAN Morning Show to discuss how he was feeling after his first full season in the majors, says he could have gone a few more weeks, and will definitely have more tools in his tool kit for the 2022 season.

CARLSBAD, Calif. – Jordan Romano is deserving of all the praise he received, plus more, for the way he pitched in 2021, making his selection as a finalist among relievers for the all-MLB team a nice little bit of national recognition.

There’s no need to revisit the Toronto Blue Jays’ early-season bullpen issues, but imagine for a moment what might have happened had the right-hander from Markham, Ont., and lefty Tim Mayza not provided manager Charlie Montoyo with late-leverage lifelines in May and June.

Romano pitched to a 2.14 ERA and 1.048 WHIP with 85 strikeouts in 63 innings while converting 23 of 24 save chances. His Win Probability Added (explained here) of 3.7 tied Los Angeles Angels free agent Raisel Iglesias for the American League lead among pitchers, underlining his impact.

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So it’s with good reason GM Ross Atkins started a discussion about his bullpen by saying the Blue Jays are “super excited about Jordan Romano,” and praised the native of Markham, Ont., for being flexible when it comes to the way he’s used. “We have consistently talked to him about the potential impact, the potential role and his consistent response is, ‘I want to be a part of a winning team and whatever makes us better, I’m all in,’ which is remarkable about him.”

To that end, Atkins replied “hopefully not,” when asked if the Blue Jays intend to anoint a closer for 2022, conceding that “the psychology of pitching in the ninth inning is something you need to factor in, and routines are exceptionally important.”

“Jordan is not someone that needs that,” Atkins continued. “But we’ll see where our team is when we get closer to the start of the season and we’ll learn more about whether or not the additions need different levels of communication, how Jordan and Timmy Mayza and the (team’s other relievers) feel about the communication and how we can help make it better. But flexibility is exceptionally powerful.”

Now, all that is instructive on how the Blue Jays intend to bolster their bullpen for next season. Romano may not always be used as a traditional closer, but he’s their guy when the team feels the most crucial outs are on the line. And at this point, they don’t seem to be after someone experienced in the closer’s role, at least in free agency, as they’ve yet to engage with Iglesias (who has a looming decision to make on his qualifying offer from the Angels) and Kenley Jansen of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

That could always change, of course, but as they’re executing their script right now, that doesn’t seem to be a priority. Still, Atkins noted that “swing and miss is always nice later in the game to complement (Adam) Cimber and (Trevor) Richards,” and “another arm that could get a strikeout late in the game would be a nice piece to have.”

“Hopefully we have a couple of those.”

That suggests adding relievers with leverage experience, able to slot in alongside Mayza and behind Romano, and ahead of Richards and Cimber. Internal options for the bullpen beyond that mentioned by Atkins include Julian Merryweather, Trent Thornton (“One guy I think could be integral for us, that didn’t have a bad year in some ways – the batting average and ERA were a little bit high, but the strikeouts and walks were very strong”), Thomas Hatch and Anthony Kay.

He also mentioned Nate Pearson, although the Blue Jays still want him to start and are kicking around using him similarly to how the Tampa Bay Rays deployed Luis Patino last season. All of that depends on what they add, of course, leaving the bullpen likely to be among the final pieces of the off-season puzzle to fall into place.

• An odd juxtaposition all week at the GM meetings was how the 30 clubs and agents went about business as usual as the build-up to an expected lockout loomed in the background. Fitting then is that the Major League Baseball Players Association began its annual agent meetings at the Omni La Costa Resort & Spa on Thursday just as the GMs were leaving. Details of MLB’s latest proposal were shared with agents – covered well here by Evan Drellich and Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic — and it’s another non-starter. Without getting deep into the weeds of the proposed changes, the fundamental gap is that the owners don’t want to alter the percentage of the sport’s revenue paid to players without a direct link to how much money the industry takes in, the gateway to a cap system. Players want the market to become freer, rather than more restrictive, and it seems the owners are determined to test their willingness to fight off another round of claw-backs. The CBA expires at the end of the day Dec. 1.

• In 2015 when the Toronto Blue Jays won the American League East, Alex Anthopoulos became so anxious during the post-season, he had to force himself to watch. Given that he’s been to the playoffs six times since, you’d think he’d have gotten used to it by now. Nope. “As I’ve gotten older, I have a harder time watching a game that’s close,” he says. That’s why he was “a wreck” leading up to Game 6 of the World Series, when he watched his Atlanta team beat Houston to claim the championship from home because of a breakthrough COVID-19 case. He feared a loss would give the Astros momentum and put pressure on his team to avoid blowing a 3-1 series edge for the second straight year. After being talked out of a drive by his wife, he channel-surfed between the World Series, an NBA game and the Toronto Maple Leafs game. “You know, Canadian,” he quipped. “But once we got to five or six runs and I felt good about it … we counted down the outs and yelled and cheered.”

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

• Before the World Series, Anthopoulos did some preview media with broadcaster Fox. “They bring into this really cool room, they have the World Series trophy sitting there and they were like, ‘Oh, you can take photos with it and grab it,’” he said. “I’m like, I’m not touching that, we haven’t won it.” He finally got his hands on it last weekend at Truist Park, when he and his family came in to take some pictures. “It was really heavy,” he said, “really, really heavy.”

• Though Lourdes Gurriel Jr., will only have five years of major-league service time when the $22-million, seven-year contract he signed with the Blue Jays in November 2016 expires after the 2023 season, his deal allows him to become a free agent at that time. His salaries of $4.9 million in 2022 and $5.8 million in 2023 make him an intriguing trade candidate. But with only two years of control left, he’s more valuable to a team currently in contention, rather than one that’s rebuilding.

• Old friend update, as first baseman Justin Smoak, who posted an .820 OPS in 41 games with the Yomiuri Giants in Japan this year, is staying in shape and is open to playing in 2022. If the universal DH is a part of the new CBA, that would open up 15 new jobs for offence-first players and could perhaps help his cause.

• Before Yoshi Tsutsugo signed a $12-million, two-year deal with the Tampa Bay Rays in December 2019, the versatile Japanese slugger nearly signed with the Blue Jays. His transition to the majors hasn’t gone smoothly, batting .209/.309/.388 in 447 plate appearances the past two years, and after bouncing from the Rays, to the Dodgers to the Pirates in 2021, he’s now back in free agency.

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