After a slow offseason punctuated by a few bursts of activity, it appears that the mix for the 2019 Blue Jays is complete with last week’s news of a pair of free agent pitching signings on the final day of February. But far from rounding out the picture, these most recent additions raise as many questions as answers about the composition of the 2019 pitching staff.
At the beginning of offseason, it was clear that additions were in order. Behind Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez (assuming health), the rotation depth chart consisted of Ryan Borucki, Sean-Reid Foley and Thomas Pannone or Sam Gaviglio. Likewise, the bullpen really only had Ken Giles and Ryan Tepera as established options, with a couple of others in Joe Biagini and Tim Mayza in the category of prohibitive favourites.
The additions of Matt Shoemaker and Clayton Richard in the waning days of 2018 provided some stability in having veterans at the backend of the rotation displacing largely untested rookies from primary roles — if not representing a dramatic gain in quality, especially given concerns about how Richard’s contact will play in the AL East. The surprise was the word from Ross Atkins at the outset of Spring Training that Richard was ahead of Borucki in the pecking order.
If healthy, Clay Buchholz projects comfortably above Richard, figuring to fit somewhere in the top four mix. That would seemingly leave Borucki on the outside looking in, competing for a spot that was filled. But I’m not so sure about that. First, Atkins was not unequivocal, the exact quote being that: “they’re most likely going to be the first four starters, [Borucki] will be competing for the fifth spot”. My emphasis, but it’s not exactly writing things in stone.
But more importantly, given that 2019 is about building for the future, it makes little sense that Borucki would be blocked by Richard. It’s one thing to not guarantee him a spot and guard against potential complacency with at least the pretense of competition; it’s another if he looks right and then send him to Buffalo after what he did last year.
Those comments were also made knowing they were still aiming at further additions and probably in talks with with free agents. If you want to position Borucki in a certain capacity (competing for the fifth spot, which was noted as seeming like posturing), it would make sense to position him as such at the outset with Stroman/Sanchez/Shoemaker guaranteed in the rotation if healthy and sticking in Richard to fill the void unless and until something else materialized. That could explain what was otherwise bewildering in announcing Richard ahead of Borucki,
Or maybe they just really like Richard and he’s actually in line as the fifth starter to start the season. It makes sense to keep him stretched out regardless in the event that another pitcher is not ready to go (there seems to be some doubt about Buchholz being stretched out by the end of March), but he makes much more sense in the bullpen. It gives them a second lefty, with Mayza not established and the possibility he could struggle and need to go down.
That brings us to the bullpen, which appears at least equally as muddled. Bud Norris agreed to a pro forma minor league deal, but with his track record he’ll join the four referenced at the the top in the bullpen. John Axford’s probably not in the same category of lock, but I’d think he’s probably got the inside track to a bullpen spot unless he’s really bad in over the next three weeks. So that would be seven.
If the Jays end up carrying Elvis Luciano, I don’t see any way they don’t carry eight relievers and 13 total pitchers (which would be the maximum even if rosters were expanded to 26, so he’d be at the expense of a fourth bench player). Despite the front office assertions of major league readiness, he’s a longer term asset play, in which we can expect strategic IL stint(s) to keep his active days through August close to the 61 required minimum.
That could dovetail with the other significant bullpen addition, David Phelps. His Tommy John surgery was at the end of last March making him less than one year removed, and he just threw his first side session so it’s unlikely he’s ready to go for Opening Day. After playing 11 days in a row to start the schedule, there’s five off days over the last three weeks of April, which could facilitate keeping Luciano while not overtaxing the other relievers. Then when Phelps is ready to go, Luciano has a phantom IL stint, throws some innings in extended and then a month of rehab stints.
That leaves Sam Gaviglio without an obvious role. He’s got an option year left, so he could go to Buffalo — though as I’ll detail below, he may be a victim of the 40-man numbers game. He could make sense as a long man, though that role has really fallen out of vogue. I’d even be interested to see what he could do as an OMG reliever. But there’s now probably a hard count of 13 or 14 (Luciano) pitchers ahead of him, so it would probably require someone else not being ready to go to make room for him.
My best guess for how this all shakes out on Opening Day three weeks from now, barring injuries:
- Rotation: Stroman, Sanchez, Buchholz, Showmaker, Borucki
- Bullpen: Giles, Tepera, Norris, Mayza, Biagini, Axford, Richard, Luciano
- Injured List: Phelps
- Wild card: Gaviglio
The other thing these moves did was put the nail in the coffin for some of the pitchers on the big league threshold who have success in Triple-A and might have had a shot with excellent showings — Sean Reid-Foley, Thomas Pannone, Trent Thornton, maybe Jacob Waguespack and David Paulino. Absent a run of injuries opening up spots, they’re basically guaranteed to go to Buffalo.
That’s the active roster considerations, there’s also 40-man factors. As I expected, the Buchholz signing resulted in one of the bubble outfielders being DFA’d (though I would have probably kept Dwight Smith Jr. over Jonathan Davis). Norris and Axford would require opening up two more 40-man spots, another spot will be needed for Vladimir Guerrero Jr. within the first month.
I had 10 players on the roster bubble to start the offseason, we’re down to three or four — Davis, Dalton Pompey, Gaviglio, and arguably Luciano. And I’m really hoping that they don’t cut Pompey and that he’s actually off the bubble. There’s not very much fat left to trim, finding spots is starting to cut into bone. This underscores why certain pitchers were left unprotected in the Rule 5 — it’s not that there weren’t spots then (or that could have been opened), but knowing they would make additions and need the spots later in the offseason.
At least in the near term, a couple of those spots could come from 60-day IL placements. If Phelps didn’t figure to be ready until the end of May or beyond anyway, that would be an easy call. Julian Merryweather had his surgery a little earlier, so he’s right at the year mark, but he’s ticketed for the minors anyway and could rehab there earlier. It would require paying him major league minimum money though.
But even then, that would be a short term solution since they’d be come off at some point and count towards the limit again. With five expiring contracts and perhaps more trade candidates, 40-man spots shouldn’t be much of an issue by late July. But there could be a bit of a crunch before then, requiring some tough decisions.