Francisco Liriano will make his first start in nearly a month tonight against the Yankees after being sidelined with left shoulder inflammation for the past few weeks. The most immediate ramification of this move is that Blue Jays fans will no longer have to suffer through Mike Bolsinger’s walkathon events as he was Designated For Assignment yesterday.
With Liriano back in the rotation, Toronto now has five desirable starters on the 25-man roster for the first time since the beginning of the season. However, they’re not the same five starters the team had at that time.
That’s because something interesting happened when the injury bug attacked the Jays rotation early in the season; they found another reliable arm for this role in Joe Biagini. Short term, this means the Jays can enjoy a rotation they probably feel pretty comfortable with even while Aaron Sanchez remains on the shelf. However, if Estrada, Stroman, Happ, Liriano and Biagini all stay healthy through the time Sanchez is ready to come back, the Toronto front office is going to have an interesting problem on its hands.
So far, Biagini’s pitched better than Liriano. He’s posted a 3.86 ERA while holding opposing hitters to a .585 OPS in his five starts. In fact, outside of one disastrous inning in Atlanta, Biagini’s demonstrated what you’d like to see from a guy you’re excited to send to the mound every fifth day. His innings total is still low, but that’s largely because he was on pitch counts in his first few outings as he built up the stamina needed to transition from a reliever into a starter.
Compare this to Liriano so far this season who’s got a 6.35 ERA and walked more batters than he’s struck out in five of his seven starts. Now to be fair, it’s very possible that the shoulder inflammation that landed Liriano on the DL was negatively influencing his last couple of starts against Tampa and Cleveland in which he gave up a total of ten runs in just 5.2 innings.
Before coming off the rails in early May, Liriano had a 3.97 ERA in his first five starts of the season, and that included the clunker during opening week when he couldn’t get out of the first inning in Tampa.
Put it all together and it’s hard to know what to expect from Liriano over the next few weeks. He’s not only struggled with inconsistency and injury so far this season, but he also had a 5.46 ERA in Pittsburgh last year before coming to Toronto. Whether or not the 2.92 ERA he posted with the Jays during the last two months of 2016 is something he can carry over to 2017 is still very much in the air.
In other words, I think there’s a good chance Liriano’s pitching for his spot in the rotation the next couple of weeks. If Biagini keeps outperforming him now that they’re on the same wavelength and pitching back-to-back days, there’s three really strong reasons to give Biagini the final rotation spot for good.
This is the most obvious and doesn’t need any explaining. The Jays should have their best starting pitchers in their starting rotation. Duh!
2) The absence of reliable lefties in the bullpen
So far, the J.P. Howell signing hasn’t worked out. He has an 8.64 ERA, opposing hitters have a 1.025 OPS against him, and he hasn’t been used in a high leverage situation since April. Now he did have more strike outs in last night’s outing (three) than he did in all the rest of his appearances this season combined (two), so maybe he’s about to turn a bit of a corner; but he’s easily the guy John Gibbons has the least amount of faith in during a big spot in games right now.
Once you get beyond Howell, the only other left handed option in the pen in Aaron Loup, who despite an impressive ERA has allowed lefties to reach base at a .389 clip (OBP) so far in 2017.
The Jays probably need more left handed help in the pen at some point, and there’s a scenario where Estrada, Stroman, Happ, Sanchez and Biagini are all healthy and Liriano becomes the best option for that role.
3) Biagini has a better long term outlook than Liriano
Francisco Liriano is going to be a 34-year-old free agent after this season, and there’s a good chance he enters the market coming off back to back seasons with an ERA over 4.50. That’s not a great option for this club going forward. Biagini on the other hand is under team control through the 2021 season and keeps passing every test the Jays throw at him.
If we look ahead to 2018, the rotation is going to begin with Stroman, Sanchez and Happ who are all under team control. However, they could lose two options here as both Estrada and Liriano are eligible to hit the market. If the Jays think they have a reliable starter in Biagini going forward, the hole in the bottom of their rotation entering 2018 suddenly becomes much easier to fill.
If all goes well, Biagini could be a staple in the Toronto rotation for years to come, and that may not leave Liriano much margin for error over the next few weeks.
Of course, all of this may never play out. The injury bug has not been kind to the Jays in 2017, and it’s possible that they will need all six of these guys to fill out the five rotation slots for the rest of the year. If they ever do reach a point where all six are healthy and capable of starting at the same time though, Liriano is probably going to have to pitch better than he has for the majority of the last two years to keep his spot in the rotation. We’ll see if that starts tonight.
If Estrada, Stroman, Sanchez, Happ, Biagini and Liriano are all healthy at the same time, what should the Blue Jays do?
This poll is closed
Move Liriano to the pen to get another left handed option there.
Move Biagini back to the pen to get another high leverage reliever option there.
Use a six man rotation for a while.
Take Estrada, Stroman, Happ, or Sanchez out of the rotation in some form (please explain in the comments).