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The Blue Jays must confront the ugly truth enveloping Jason Grilli

Oh baseball, you heartless wench.

MLB: New York Yankees at Toronto Blue Jays Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

At some point during the top of the eighth inning of Saturday’s 7-0 loss to the Yankees, the feeling at Rogers Centre turned from disappointing to uncomfortable. This wasn’t just the Blue Jays losing a game to the division leader anymore; it was Jason Grilli possibly watching his career come to an end.

Oh, I’m not suggesting he’ll never throw another pitch in the majors. Veteran relievers with high strike out rates who are popular in the clubhouse probably get more last chances than any other breed of baseball player, but Saturday afternoon’s outing in which the Yankees launched four home runs off Grilli was father time tapping him on the shoulder and saying ... “I’m coming for you.”

Grilli didn’t speak to reporters after the game, and I can’t blame him. This season has to be an obnoxiously bitter pill to swallow after his 2016 campaign. The righty always wanted to play for the Jays growing up, and after being traded to Toronto at the end of May last season, he entered 2017 penciled in as a key bridge arm to Osuna and the ninth inning.

But the baseball gods had other ideas. Signs of trouble began almost immediately when Grilli served up a walk off bomb to Mark Trumbo on Opening Day, and things haven’t gotten much better since. Even before Saturday’s disaster, Grilli was already the second least trusted arm in the bullpen (next to J.P. Howell, but we’ll get to him in a moment), and he had given up five home runs in just 17 innings of work. Awful!

Too many walks and too many gopher balls. That’s been the story of his season. Over 20 percent of the plate appearances against Grilli this year have ended with one of those two results, leaving the rest of the team incapable of making a play to help him out.

Unfortunately, there’s not much the Jays can do here. Everyone from the front office to the local media will try and diagnose the issue, and some of the conclusions might even sound treatable. “His arm slot is too low. “He just needs to locate better. “He started off slow last year too. “He’ll start getting more guys out once he gets his confidence back,” and other excuses like these that don’t get to the heart of the issue will be tossed around.

That’s because the real issue here, the real problem holding Grilli back ..... is that he has a case of the early forties, and they don’t have a cure for that. The electricity he provided last season when he came over from Atlanta was a perfect storm. You had an arm that only spent half a season in the American League since 2009 (2014 with the Angels) coming to the team he always wanted to play for, and that team was having all sorts of problems bridging the gap between the starters and Osuna.

It was an ideal situation for Grilli, and a shrewd pick up by Ross Atkins. The hitters in this division weren’t familiar with his stuff, Grilli was getting an extra boost because he was riding an emotional high, and he fit in perfectly with a bullpen that at the time needed a jolt.

However, as sweet at this was for everyone involved, the Toronto leg of 2016 was not a renaissance in Jason Grilli’s career, but rather the last gasp of a reliever who’s already held back the hands of time longer than most could reasonably expect. Even amid his successful summer, Grilli was serving up home runs at a higher rate than he had at any point since 2004. He made it work with lots of strike outs, fortunate sequencing, and holding opponents to a .563 OPS when they batted with runners in scoring position.

Now the magic’s gone, and a career is flashing before everyone’s eyes. AL East hitters suddenly have experience against Grilli and know exactly what to expect, the .208 BABIP hitters had against him in the first three months after the trade has disappeared, and he’s allowing home runs at an even more alarming rate than ever.

So far in 2017, opposing hitters have a 1.076 OPS off Grilli in 85 plate appearances. In other words, Grilli pretty much turns whoever’s in the batters box into Bryce Harper or Aaron Judge. This is a guy who only gave up more than four home runs in a season once in an eight year span between 2008 and 2015, so giving up four in less than an inning of work is pretty much all the proof you need that he’s no longer a guy who can miss barrels.

This brings us to the elephant in the room. What is it going to take for the front office to remove Jason Grilli from the roster? It’s clear they don’t want to do it. His teammates love him, he’s tied to several promotions the club is running, and when he has an outing where he doesn’t give up any home runs, he actually looks like a guy who can still be a successful big league reliever. But the sobering reality is that Grilli doesn’t belong on this roster anymore, and somebody who’s paid to make difficult decisions is probably going to have to make one very soon to keep the bullpen from flaming out.

During his post game press conference, John Gibbons went out of his way to cover for his veteran player, and in doing so he accidentally revealed one of the biggest reasons the Jays can’t afford to keep him around.

“It’s hard, simply because I like the guy so much,” Gibbons said. “Everybody does. He’s had a tremendous career and in other circumstances with more guys who could pitch he wouldn’t have stayed out there that long.

Our guys in the pen are running on fumes right now. They can’t keep this up. [Grilli] actually pitched pretty good recently but today was one of those days. Going into the game, there were guys we needed to stay away from unless we were tied or had the lead late, so ... that’s how that works.”

The most interesting part of that statement is Gibbons admitting the pen is running on fumes, and one of the biggest reasons it’s running on fumes is because he’s petrified (rightfully so) to use two of the arms during any high leverage situation. His hands are tied.

Here’s a quick look at the seven options out of the pen on the 25-man roster right now:

1) Roberto Osuna (Awesome closer)

2) Joe Smith (Awesome eighth inning man)

3) Ryan Tepera (One of the two best bridge options to get from the starter to Smith and Osuna)

4) Danny Barnes (One of the two best bridge options to get from the starter to Smith and Osuna)

5) Aaron Loup (The best left handed option in the bullpen)

6) Jason Grilli (Only use in close games if the previous five arms are gassed)

7) J.P. Howell (Only use in close games if the previous six arms are gassed)

Thanks to yesterday’s post game press conference, we now know the pen is gassed, and it seems to me that the Jays need two guys in the back of the pen who can actually mop up innings for the other five instead of getting lit up like a Christmas tree. Unfortunately, Grilli and Howell aren’t those guys. Their age and complete inability to get guys out consistently means that even in a 7-0 game like this, the Jays had to burn Danny Barnes in the ninth when they might need him in Sunday’s game.

That’s just bad baseball, and it comes in a stretch where both Grilli and Howell were only being used for the fourth time in 15 days. They should have been plenty rested to get six outs. The rest of the bullpen is getting abused like rented mules trying to pull out the nail biters the Jays have played over the home stand, and these two give you just one inning combined in a game the team was probably going to lose anyway. That’s just not fair to the other guys in that pen.

Now in the spirit of fairness, the gassed pen is not all Grilli and Howell’s fault. The starters have left their relief friends with far too many messes to clean this season, and most of it centers around injuries. The most obvious facet of this is Casey Lawrence, Mat Latos and Mike Bolsinger making ten starts and only averaging 5.1 innings of work, but it goes even deeper than this.

When J.A. Happ got hurt, he only made 67 pitches in the game before he went on the DL, and then he was on a pitch count and only made 81 in his first start back. Francisco Liriano was only able to pitch a couple of innings in the game before he went on the DL, and then he too was limited in his first start back Friday night. Joe Biagini’s done an outstanding job transitioning from the bullpen to a starting roll, but as he did that, he also had to build up his pitch count, meaning the bullpen had to pick up a bunch of outs in each of his first few starts. Finally, Aaron Sanchez had to leave two of his starts early because of the blister issue that has him on the DL now. Add it all up and that’s a huge workload for the relief core, especially with so many close games.

This means the club needs arms in the six and seven bullpen slots who can do a better job protecting Osuna, Smith, Tepera, Barnes and Loup. The only thing that should stop the club from cutting Grilli and Howell loose now is if they truly believe they can pitch successfully in high leverage situation again at some point in the next few months, and right now that looks like a pipe dream. Just like the game yesterday, I’m sure the conversations in the front office right now are very uncomfortable.


Should the Jays DFA Jason Grilli and J.P. Howell in order to make room for guys who can actually mop up innings and save a taxed bullpen?

This poll is closed

  • 51%
    Yes, DFA them both
    (1959 votes)
  • 11%
    Just DFA Grilli (Need to keep a second lefty around)
    (436 votes)
  • 25%
    Just DFA Howell (He’s been even worse than Grilli before Saturday)
    (976 votes)
  • 11%
    No, keep them both for now
    (434 votes)
3805 votes total Vote Now