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Blue Jays Bullpen Breakdown: Internal and external additions Toronto can consider

Yesterday, we looked at where the Blue Jays bullpen currently stands — the high-leverage locks, the middle-inning situational options, and the depth relievers with major-league experience.

Today, we’ll get into some of the pitchers within the organization who have yet to make their big-league debuts but could pitch their way into roles this season. Plus, some of the relievers available on the open market that the Blue Jays could still consider as spring training nears — all the way from the high-end options to the bounce-back candidates.

40-man prospects

Yosver Zulueta, Hagen Danner

Zulueta — added to the 40-man roster last month to shield him from the Rule 5 draft — might have made his MLB debut in late 2022 if not for right knee inflammation and shoulder soreness that developed in early August and sidelined him for a month. Instead, the 24-year-old’s season culminated at triple-A, his fourth minor-league level of the campaign. Through it all, Zulueta pitched to a 3.72 ERA in 21 appearances — 12 as a starter, nine in relief — while striking out 33.9 per cent of the batters he faced.

With a well-rounded arsenal including a high-90s fastball, plus slider, fringy changeup, and big curveball, Zulueta has all the tools to start and we know the Blue Jays prefer to exhaust that possibility before shifting a prospect to a permanent bullpen role. That’s why it’s likely Zulueta begins 2023 in the Buffalo Bisons rotation. But he could be a big-league relief option in the season’s second half as his innings total climbs. Possibly even sooner if he flounders as a starter or Toronto’s bullpen circumstances turn dire.

Danner, meanwhile, was added to the 40-man roster last off-season and began 2022 closing games at double-A. But he was shut down with an elbow injury in late-April and sat out the remainder of the season, an unfortunate outcome for the converted catcher who’s now mixing an upper-90s fastball with a heavy slider from the mound.

Finally healthy again this October, the Blue Jays sent Danner to the Arizona Fall League where he worked to a 3.52 ERA over 7.2 innings, striking out eight while walking one. The 24-year-old will start his 2023 in the high minors, but with strong performances and a big-league need arising he could be making his MLB debut before long.

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Non 40-man prospects

Adrian Hernandez, Brandon Eisert, Hayden Juenger

We’ll see if Hernandez is still in the Blue Jays organization by this time next week, as the 22-year-old is a candidate to be taken in the Rule 5 draft coming off a 2022 season that saw him work to a 4.22 ERA with a 33.3 per cent strikeout rate across four levels.

That ERA’s a little deceptive, as nine of the 20 earned runs Hernandez allowed came over a six-outing span in September after he returned from a mid-season bout of shoulder soreness. Prior to the injury, the right-hander pitched to a 1.88 ERA with a 36.6 per cent strikeout rate and was trending towards an opportunity to test himself at the next level in the Blue Jays bullpen.

Hernandez’s screwball changeup is undoubtedly major-league ready, but there’s some question as to whether his low-90s fastball will play against the world’s best hitters. Still, it’d be a no-risk bet for a rebuilding club to take a chance on him in the Rule 5 draft and find out.

If he remains with the Blue Jays, Hernandez will begin 2023 in the Bisons bullpen — and Eisert will be there, too, coming off an under-appreciated 2022 in which he posted a 3.41 ERA with a 31 per cent strikeout rate over 60.2 triple-A innings.

Eisert doesn’t have big velocity but creates plenty of deception with a short-armed, crossfire delivery that helps the left-hander earn swinging strikes with a four-pitch mix. His stuff won’t jump off a Baseball Savant page, but Eisert’s earned results at every minor-league level he’s touched, can work two innings at a time, and could be playable out of a big-league bullpen in a lower-leverage, middle-inning capacity.

There’s also Juenger, a 2021 draftee who’s been rapidly working his way up the Blue Jays system in a multi-inning relief role. Leaning heavily on a mid-90s fastball coming out of a three-quarters arm slot, Juenger put up a 3.76 ERA over 88.2 innings split between double- and triple-A last season with a 27.7 per cent strikeout rate. Like Eisert, Juenger’s utility to a big-league bullpen is likely more towards the middle of games than late, or even as an opener.

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High-end free agent options

Taylor Rogers, Chris Martin, Matt Moore, Trevor Williams

On the surface, it appears unlikely the Blue Jays — already projected to run a franchise-record payroll in 2023 — will shop in this premium aisle of the free agent market considering the team’s other obvious areas of need. Toronto could make a more meaningful impact to its win expectancy by deploying its remaining budget towards a free-agent starter, outfielder, or both. And the club’s front office has typically been reticent to spend big on high-leverage relief as is.

But what if the Blue Jays fill their holes in the rotation and outfield via trade? In that scenario, there could be some excess budget to commit to one of the higher-end free-agent relievers available. The Erik Swanson addition can’t close the Blue Jays off from continuing to improve the back end of their bullpen. Depth is imperative when building a relief corps and there’s a strong case to be made that the Blue Jays didn’t add enough of it coming out of last winter’s lockout.

To that end, Rogers, featuring a heavy, mid-90s sinker and a frisbee slider that breaks three inches more than average, would be an excellent left-handed complement to Toronto’s current stable of late-inning options (For more on why Rogers is a strong bounce-back candidate coming off a down year, see our free agency pitching preview). And Martin, who’s mixed a respectable 26.5 per cent strikeout rate with an absurd 2.8 per cent walk rate since returning from an NPB stint in 2018, would add as much dependability as you can find at an inherently volatile position.

Meanwhile, the right-handed Williams and left-handed Moore are converted starters with decent stuff who could fit in middle-inning bulk roles. Listing them as higher-end options is a bit of a stretch, but pickings are slim on this winter’s relief market, which is why you saw a slew of names — Edwin Diaz, Robert Suarez, Rafael Montero — come off the board early.

Veteran, name-brand free agent options with question marks

Kenley Jansen, Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton

A signing from this widely recognizable group would be a boon for web traffic of outlets that cover the team but potentially a bane for the Blue Jays bullpen itself.

Jansen is likely the most dependable of the bunch, as he’s adjusted his pitch-mix in his mid-30s to combat declining raw stuff, allowing him to continue creeping up MLB’s all-time saves leaderboard (Jansen currently resides eighth with 391). The 35-year-old’s still serviceable if no longer dominant, coming off a 3.38-ERA season as Atlanta’s closer. But many of his peripherals — Jansen set a career-high hard-hit rate and career-low whiff rate in 2022 — have been creeping in the wrong direction for some time and the late-career drop-off for relievers can be sudden. Jansen will get paid like a closer this winter — but there’s reason to wonder how much longer he can keep performing like one.

Kimbrel — three saves ahead of Jansen in seventh on the all-time leaderboard — has been adrift for the better part of four seasons and was most recently left off the Los Angeles Dodgers’ post-season roster. He could return to form if he can reverse his downward velocity trend and find a way to get hitters to respect his fastball again. But how often does that happen in a pitcher’s age-35 season? There certainly could be upside in Kimbrel on a low-cost, one-year deal. But as soon as the bidding nears $10-million for 2023, the risk begins to outweigh the potential for reward.

Chapman’s been a problematic player throughout his career and remained consistent in 2022, missing time towards the end of the regular season due to a leg infection resulting from tattoo complications before being left off the New York Yankees’ post-season roster after skipping a club workout. We could get into the declining fastball velocity, the waning control and command, the fact he was a net negative on the Yankees last season with a -0.2 fWAR. But for a team that preaches the importance of culture and character such as the Blue Jays, the discussion likely doesn’t even get that far.

Britton clearly wasn’t right upon his return from Tommy John surgery this September, walking six of the nine batters he faced while throwing a 92.6-m.p.h. fastball — several clicks down from the mid-90s heat he featured in his prime. There would be zero risk in seeing if Britton can recapture his form on a minor-league deal. He was one of baseball’s best relievers from 2014 through 2020, after all, pitching to a 1.84 ERA over 369 appearances. But there would be a metric ton of risk in betting on post-surgery Britton with a guaranteed contract, particularly considering how valuable 40-man roster spots have become for the Blue Jays.

Middle-tier free agent options

Andrew Chafin, Carlos Estevez, Michael Lorenzen, Seth Lugo, Adam Ottavino, David Robertson, Matt Strahm

All of the above could be turnkey late-inning options for the Blue Jays if they choose to insert another proven veteran into a set-up role alongside Anthony Bass, Erik Swanson and Yimi Garcia. But free agent prices have been high in general this winter and the going rate for any of these names likely starts somewhere around $8-million for one season. And in some cases, it could even require a two-year commitment.

It’s fair to wonder if the Blue Jays would see the value in that kind of deal for a reliever who might return 1.5 WAR in a best-case scenario. But there are off-season scripts that could see the Blue Jays address their other roster needs via trade and have some payroll left over for this kind of luxury. And if the price on any of the above drops, the Blue Jays could check in and look for a bargain.

Estevez is particularly interesting coming off a six-season run with the Colorado Rockies that produced a pedestrian-looking 4.59 ERA over 302 innings. What’s not so pedestrian is his stuff. The right-hander throws an upper-90s fastball with a hard slider and changeup that ought to be getting more swing-and-miss than they do. His arsenal is begging for a progressive franchise with a clever pitching department to help him reach new heights.

Strahm could be a fascinating developmental case, as well. The left-hander throws a mid-90s fastball from an unusual arm slot that carries nearly five inches more than a league-average heater. It’s an uncomfortable look for a hitter up in the zone. And he has a hard slider, high-spin curveball and fading changeup to throw off of it — a deep arsenal of secondaries he’s been unable to maximize over his first seven big-league seasons. Walks and durability have been issues for Strahm at times throughout his career. But there’s a ton here for analysts and pitching coaches to work with.

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Lower-tier freeagent options

Brad Boxberger, Miguel Castro, Shintaro Fujinami, Michael Fulmer, Mychal Givens, Chad Green, Luke Jackson, Pierce Johnson, Tommy Kahnle, Corey Knebel, Trevor May, Trevor Rosenthal, Drew Rucinski, Vince Velasquez

Here’s where the Blue Jays could find some value. All of these players have obvious warts — inconsistent performance, injury histories, etc. But that could lower their prices into the $3-5 million range on a one-year deal. That’s a potential bargain if you can identify the pitcher primed for either positive regression or a breakout. Here are a few the Blue Jays could consider.

Trevor May

The first half of May’s 2022 was disastrous, as he allowed runs in five of his first eight outings before hitting the IL in May with triceps inflammation that was ultimately tied to a stress reaction in his humerus. But upon his return three months later, May rattled off a strong, 18-appearance stretch to finish the season, pitching to a 3.24 ERA with excellent strikeout (35.7 per cent) and walk (7.7) rates. May’s velocity also ticked up when he returned from the IL, as he averaged 96-m.p.h. on his fastball with a wicked changeup that earned a whiff nearly half the time. Those are legitimate weapons that make May a strong bounce-back candidate provided his arm troubles are truly behind him.

Pierce Johnson

Questions about Johnson’s health abound after the right-hander missed most of the 2022 season due to right forearm tendinitis. But when healthy, there’s no questioning the effectiveness of his curveball, which features a sky-high spin rate, generates a whiff nearly a third of the time, and graded as MLB’s fourth-best hook in 2021 by Baseball Savant’s Run Value metric. Johnson’s posted 31 per cent or higher strikeout rates each of the last three seasons and could provide plenty of value if concerns about his arm health submarine his market.

Shintaro Fujinami

Fujinami, posted this week by the Hanshin Tigers, has flashed big-time stuff throughout his decade-long NPB career, reaching triple digits on the lively fastball he complements with a splitter and slider. But he’s also demonstrated extreme volatility, running double-digit walk rates in multiple seasons and spending his last few campaigns bouncing between Japan’s equivalents of the minor- and major-leagues due to inconsistent performance. The 28-year-old’s spent time as both a starter and reliever, but it’s not hard to dream of what his huge velocity could look like coming out of an MLB bullpen. That is, if a team can help him reign in his overpowering stuff and find the zone more consistently.

Tommy Kahnle

Kahnle pitched only five times between the end of 2019 and the summer of 2022, as a series of arm issues — Tommy John surgery, forearm inflammation, a bone bruise in his elbow — derailed the once-dominant set-up man’s career. But in 12 appearances with the Dodgers this September and October, Kahnle looked like himself again, averaging 95.6-m.p.h. with his fastball and flashing a 90-m.p.h. changeup with more inches of drop than the one he threw prior to surgery. Considering his extensive injury history, Kahnle ought to be a relatively inexpensive signing this winter. And if he’s healthy again — big if — he could return a ton of value on a one-year deal.

Drew Rucinski

After struggling in a series of stints with five different MLB organizations, Rucinski took his services to KBO’s NC Dinos in 2019 and unlocked his potential. He’s pitched to a 3.06 ERA over the four seasons since, making at least 30 starts in each of them while running groundball rates in the mid-60s. It’s obviously one thing to do that in Korea and another to do it in MLB. But if the 33-year-old can replicate something close to those groundball rates against North American competition, he could bring plenty of value in a swingman role.

Chad Green

After undergoing Tommy John surgery in June, Green likely won’t be healthy until the second half of 2023. But he pitched to a 3.18 ERA with a 30.8 per cent strikeout rate over his three seasons prior to the operation, pounding the zone with a high-spin, mid-90s heater and racking up swinging strikes with his curveball. The Blue Jays could get creative and offer Green a back-loaded, incentive-laden, two-year deal, essentially signing up for whatever Green can provide on the cheap in 2023 before paying him closer to the rate he’d command if healthy in 2024 once he’s fully recovered.

Blue Jays Bullpen Breakdown: Internal and external additions Toronto can consider Source link Blue Jays Bullpen Breakdown: Internal and external additions Toronto can consider

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