Despite a brutal 65-97 record, the 2019 season can go down as a success for the Toronto Blue Jays, largely because they’ve graduated a core of position players.
There are still lineup holes — first base and at least one outfield spot require attention — but a competitive starting nine is beginning to take shape. The same cannot be said for their pitching staff, which unfortunately for the Blue Jays tends to comprise more than half of a baseball team.
While they have a whole offseason to construct a rotation and bullpen, that’s as tall a task as it’s been for the Blue Jays in a long time. The collection of arms they have in their possession is not utterly devoid of potential, but the level of uncertainty is a little bit overwhelming. When they addressed the media on Tuesday, Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins made it clear that pitching was their number one priority — meaning there will be plenty of new faces come spring training.
Even so, this entire pitching staff isn’t going to turn over in a single offseason so it’s worth wondering which in-house arms will be a part of this club’s 2020 staff — even if it’s something of a fool’s errand.
The offseason is the time for irresponsible speculation, though, so here’s a look at where all the pitchers on the team’s 40-man roster stand in terms of their tiers of likelihood of making the team, with a couple of non-roster bonus options thrown in.
Locks and Near-Locks
Ken Giles, 29, RH Closer
While the Blue Jays have reached a point in their rebuild where the idea is to add established talent as opposed to subtracting it, Giles is the last major trade chip the team can cash in. The closer was nearly shipped off at the deadline this season, and would have netted a sizeable return if there hadn’t been concerns about his elbow.
If Giles isn’t moved during the offseason, he’s going to make this team as the Blue Jays look to dangle him at the deadline again. He could be considered an extension candidate, but this doesn’t seem like the kind of front office that’s sinking a fat multi-year contract into a reliever.
Ryan Borucki, 25, LH Starter
This is health-dependent, obviously. Right now, the idea is that Borucki will be available for the 2020 season. Although it may seem like a long time ago, in 2018 Borucki was far more successful than any rookie pitcher the Blue Jays have graduated lately.
While the lefty doesn’t profile as a front-of-the-rotation stud, he could be a steadying influence in a rotation that’s likely to need one. That’s an unusual statement to apply to a guy with serious injury worries and just 104 MLB innings under of his belt, but that’s where the Blue Jays are right now.
Wilmer Font, 29, RH Opener
Font has been nothing short of outstanding since coming over to the Blue Jays in July with a 3.66 ERA to go along with a pretty 12.5 K/9. The right-hander seems to thrive in the opener role, and is even known to wear a t-shirt that says simply ‘Opener’ around the ballpark. It seems likely manager Charlie Montoyo is going to deploy a few openers in 2020, meaning Font could come in handy.
Considering the team is low on old-fashioned heat in general, Font’s big fastball is a valuable asset and he’s not arbitration-eligible until 2021, so he’ll cost the MLB minimum. The package he brings is pretty hard to turn down at that price.
Trent Thornton, 25, RH Starter
Thornton’s ultimate future role is still in question, but he had a plenty respectable first year in the rotation, posting 1.9 WAR in 154.1 innings. The 26-year-old had his struggles, and his velocity flagged at times, but he wields high-spin fastballs and breaking balls that give him promise beyond his statistical profile.
After stealing changeup and curveball grips from Clay Buchholz, Thornton finished the season strong. His September ERA was a gleaming 2.19 and opponents managed a measly .155/.245/.226 line against him in 24.2 innings. That sample is awfully small, but Thornton’s late-season performance strengthens his claim to a rotation spot in 2020.
Ryan Tepera, 31, Reliever
Tepera is coming off a lost season, but considering how barren the Blue Jays bullpen looks it would be hard to justify denying him a job. The right-hander has been a reliable reliever in the past and he’s under team control through 2021. He costs just over $1.5 million in 2019 and he won’t earn much of a raise through arbitration.
Thomas Pannone 25, LH Reliever
Pannone’s overall numbers from 2019 look pretty grim. His 6.16 ERA in 73 innings doesn’t inspire confidence, nor does his 0.0 WAR. That said, there’s a huge difference between what he managed as a starter and in relief. The soft tosser was miscast in the rotation and posted an 11.31 ERA there, while out of the bullpen that number was 3.54. Put another way, when he started opponents crushed Pannone to the tune of a .306/.370/.574 line, in relief they managed a far more modest .225/.320/.382.
The 25-year-old seems like the most logical candidate to fill Tim Mayza’s shoes as the bullpen’s primary lefty — a role that’s suitable to his talents. Helping his case is Atkins’ recent statement on the importance of bringing in left-handed relief.
“That won’t be a primary focus for us to add left-handed relievers early in the offseason,” he said. “We’ll consider that as we go. We want to prioritize starting pitching.”
Pannone’s biggest risk of being sent to Triple-A is the club feeling he’s more valuable as starting depth.
Matt Shoemaker, 33, Starter
Early on, Shoemaker shattered all expectations the Blue Jays had for him when he was signed to a modest $3.5 million contract prior to 2019. Unfortunately, the veteran tore his ACL in a freak fielding accident and was limited to just five starts of 1.57 ERA ball.
Shoemaker is arbitration-eligible for 2020 and the Blue Jays could bring him back at an affordable rate if they’re comfortable with his recovery. They’d also have the option of non-tendering him and trying to come to an agreement at a discount. For what it’s worth Atkins was non-committal on the idea of tendering him a contract for 2020, saying “we’ll see what happens there.”
Shoemaker spent much of the season around the club, and it seems like both parties are likely to be open to making a reunion work.
Sam Gaviglio, 29, RH Long Reliever
Gaviglio isn’t good, per se, but he can be relied upon to soak up innings two or three at a time. That makes him awfully useful to a team with an unreliable rotation. Because the right-hander is more or less replacement level on raw talent alone he’s always a threat to be replaced, but you generally don’t jettison a guy who just gave you 95.2 innings out of the pen and still costs the MLB minimum.
Derek Law, 29, RH Reliever
Law got some high-leverage work in 2019, throws pretty hard, and misses bats. That’s about the totality of the case for his presence in the Blue Jays’ 2020 bullpen — that and the fact he’ll make the minimum next year and is controllable through 2023. That said, his MLB WAR marks over the last three years are 0.0, -0.1, and 0.0 in a total of 111.1 innings.
The 29-year-old is exactly the type of guy you look to replace if you’re trying to contend, but if the Blue Jays figure they’re not a significant step closer to the playoffs next year they might not bother spending money to do that. Considering how many bullpen spots are up for grabs on this team, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Law slide into one.
Anthony Kay, 24, LH Starter
Kay got into three starts with the Blue Jays at the end of the season, and made an impression even if his results weren’t sterling. The southpaw flashed promising velocity, an intriguing curveball, and kept the ball in the park in his 14 MLB innings — a feat that’s actually rather significant in this homer-crazy ERA.
Of the young Blue Jays starters we’ve seen so far Kay might have the highest ceiling, and it’s not hard to imagine him beating out the Jacob Waguespacks and T.J. Zeuchs of the world. That said, because he’s got such limited experience at the highest level he has a lot to prove. Kay will need to win a spring training battle in earnest to crack this rotation, but he’s got the tools to get it done.
Jacob Waguespack, 25, RH starter
Waguespack gave the Blue Jays 78 innings of 4.38 ERA ball out of the rotation in 2019, which is a fine accomplishment for a rookie. The problem is the undrafted rookie had “smoke and mirrors” written all over him. He didn’t miss bats, he didn’t limit hard contact and his walk and home run rates were approximately average.
The 25-year-old has a wide repertoire, but he doesn’t have plus stuff and it seems like he benefitted from hitters being unfamiliar with him. Although his 2019 performance may give him an inside track to a rotation spot, Waguespack would fit better as the sixth or seventh starter ready at Triple-A.
T.J. Zeuch, 24, RH starter
Although Zeuch has more prospect pedigree than Waguespack as a former first-round pick, they are rather similar. Both had surprising success in 2019, but don’t project as quality starters heading into 2020. Zeuch has a big sinker, but he doesn’t have anything else too impressive in his arsenal and it’s not like the Blue Jays infield defence is anything special.
Like Waguespack, there’s a chance he cracks the bottom of this rotation, but that would represent a sign that something has gone wrong for the other contenders. Zeuch looks like a depth guy now and for the foreseeable future.
Starter-to-Relief conversion candidates
Sean Reid-Foley, 24 RH Starter/Reliever
For most of his minor-league career Reid-Foley wowed with swing-and-miss stuff but couldn’t find the strike zone. In 2018 he seemed to turn things around at Triple-A, and showed flashes in an MLB cameo. This year he wasn’t effective at any level and piled up walks in Buffalo and Toronto with a 6.57 BB/9 and 5.97 BB/9 respectively.
The slider is still there, the fastball would play up in shorter stints and it’s looking less and less like he has the consistency to start. If anything, he probably needs a better handle on his stuff just to be an effective reliever.
Yennsy Diaz, 22, RH Starter/Reliever
Diaz is young enough that putting him in the bullpen might be considered impatient, but he just hasn’t made in impact as a starter in the minor leagues. The 22-year-old hasn’t posted a K/9 of eight or better since his 2017 season in Single-A Lansing, and although he’s climbed the ladder consistently a great deal of his success has come from limiting home runs — a skill he’ll have a hard time replicating in the bigs.
In his one major league outing this year he got shelled in relief, but he was brandishing a 96.5 mph fastball, which is precisely the type of raw power the Blue Jays could use more of.
Hector Perez, 23, Starter/Reliever
Like Diaz, Perez is still young, but he just repeated Double-A and was OK at best, walking too many batters and striking out too few. It would be surprising to see Perez thrive as a big-league starter any time soon while his big fastball could give him a fast track in relief.
Justin Shafer, 27, RH Reliever
Shafer put up a respectable 3.86 ERA in 2019, but the 5.16 FIP and resulting -0.1 WAR show that’s not a number to be trusted in his case. Shafer has a high-spin fastball and solid velocity, but very little else to recommend him as an MLB reliever. He could sneak onto this team, but it would be through a lack of good alternatives.
Jordan Romano, 26, RH Reliever
Romano has a big arm, a Canadian passport, and missed a tonne of bats in his first year as a full-time reliever. That said, his command is a serious work in progress and nothing will be handed to him.
True Long Shots
Patrick Murphy, 24, RH Starter
Murphy is a little bit behind a traditional development track, but he’s also had an injury-plagued past that’s slowed his climb. He has big-time velocity and is coming off a strong 2019 at Double-A. It’s not hard to imagine his time coming in 2020, but it would be surprising if he didn’t open the season at Triple-A.
Julian Merryweather, 27, RH Starter
In the middle of the season Merryweather created some buzz with some big velocity readings, but then he promptly disappeared into the ether. The right-hander has some upside in theory, but it’s hard to be excited about a guy his age who’s thrown six professional innings since 2017.
Brock Stewart, Buddy Boshers, and Ryan Dull (27, 31, and 29 respectively. RHP, LHP, RHP. All relievers)
These guys helped the Blue Jays get through the stretch run, but if any of them open 2020 with the team something is wrong. If anyone had a chance here it would be Bosher because he’s a lefty.
Non-Roster Wild Cards
Nate Pearson, 23, RH Starter
Pearson is the Blue Jays’ best prospect and an absolute beast who profiles as a top-of-the-rotation starter in the near future. His emergence is more a matter of when than if, but it is complicated by the team’s desire to carefully manage his workload.
It wouldn’t be shocking to see him open the season in the team’s rotation, but the club might leave him in Triple-A for a bit so he can master that level while keeping his innings count low.
“We feel like he’s still got some refinement to do, and he still needs to be built up to be a 200-inning pitcher,” Atkins said of the situation. “Whether that happens in the major leagues or minor leagues, we’ll see. That will largely depend on his continued development and our alternatives.”
Matt Dermody, 29, LH Reliever
With Tim Mayza out of the picture for 2020, anybody with a workable left arm is a candidate to crack this bullpen. Dermody has recovered from the Tommy John surgery he underwent in 2018 so now that description applies to him.
There was never any reason to be particularly excited about the lanky southpaw, but he held the 44 MLB lefties he faced to a .195/.227/.244 line between 2016 and 2017. If the Blue Jays don’t find lefty relief help outside the organization he’s the type who could sneak onto the team.
Travis Bergen, 25, LH Reliever
Bergen had an outstanding 2018 allowing just six earned runs in 46.2 innings across two levels. That work allowed him to be selected by the San Francisco Giants in the Rule 5 Draft prior to 2019. He wasn’t able to hold his own and now he’s back in Toronto looking for a reset.
The lefty did hold fellow lefties to a .195/.250/.385 line in 28 tries with the Giants, so perhaps he’ll get a look as the Blue Jays’ second bullpen southpaw.
Ty Tice, 23, RH Reliever
Tice made a little noise in the middle of the season with his mid-90s velocity and his climb through the upper minors. The diminutive righty will be in for a tough fight, but there should be some bullpen spots up for grabs and he’s the sort of guy who could come out of nowhere.
A League of his Own
Elvis Luciano, 19, RH Starter
Luciano doesn’t fit anywhere on this list because the whole point of carrying him on the roster in 2019 was not to do so in 2020. Now the 19-year-old can return to the minor leagues where his development can begin in earnest.
Whether he winds up being worth the headache of carrying him through the season remains to be seen. Considering he’s faced some MLB hitters but also never pitched above Rookie Ball as a starter, High-A Dunedin seems like it might be a good level for him. Even if he went to Single-A Lansing he wouldn’t be out of place considering his age.
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