Can the Blue Jays replace Dominic Leone from within, or should they look into outside-the-organization fixes?
In trading for outfielder Randal Grichuk this weekend, the Blue Jays gave up one of their top pitching prospects in Conner Greene and one of their saviors in the 2017 bullpen, Dominic Leone. The two represent very different players, with Greene coming from the 100-MPH bin with serious command issues. Conversely, Leone mixes in three fastballs (two-seam, four-seam and a cutter) with a solid slider, throwing all of them with solid command and earning excellent results in 2018.
Over 70+ innings in 2017, Leone was worth 1.5 fWAR and posted a very strong ERA+ of 180. Stranding runners at a 79.3% rate, he was great in pretty much every situation and had very few meltdown situations. His splits lack any real distinction, with RHB posting a .624 OPS and LHB posting a .627. Replacing a 100 MPH arm like Greene’s isn’t as difficult as it once was – the Jays drafted one in the first round in 2017 already – but replacing Leone might be difficult.
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Of course, Leone has only put up two seasons – albeit very good ones – in which he’s been above-average. In 2015 and 2016, Leone posted ERA+ totals of 49 and 71, BB/9 in excess of 4.0, and FIPs of 5.67 and 6.26. There’s a possibility that Leone is due for a regression in 2018, and Fangraph’s Depth Charts and Steamer projections have him pegged for 0.5 fWAR in 2018.
While General Manager Ross Atkins has said the team will be looking to fortify the pitching staff in both the rotation and bullpen, neither is a guarantee via free agency, as budget and competition over service of these arms will intensify in the coming weeks.
Solutions From Within
By filling Leone’s spot in the bullpen from within the organization, the Blue Jays keep their payroll in place and won’t have to forfeit any talent to another club. There’s still some money left over in the proposed budget for 2018, and with the additions made at middle infield, utility and the outfield, all that’s left in the bullpen and rotation.
Assuming the Blue Jays land a legitimate fifth starter before spring, Joe Biagini could easily slot into Leone’s vacated roll in the bullpen. He features a similar fastball velocity to Leone’s, but features a big curveball rather than a slider. Usage shouldn’t be a problem, as Biagini could easily give 70+ innings in high-leverage situations from the bullpen, and he edges Leone in GB%, 40.2 to 55.7, and keeping the ball on the ground late in the game is certainly favorable.
This season, we should see complete seasons from any combination of Carlos Ramirez, Tim Mayza and possibly even Chris Rowley in a relief role. They can be cobbled together to produce a competent reliever, and they have the options in their young contracts to facilitate this. Mayza and Rowley probably won’t break camp with the club, but Ramirez was nearly untouchable across two levels of the upper minors last season, and held his own with the Blue Jays in September as well. At 26, there’s not much of a reason to keep him down much longer.
Fortifying the Bullpen Via Free Agency
Was signing free agent Al Alburquerque a start? We explored his potential impact here last week, but it will likely take a bit more. Alburquerque had an uptick in velocity in 2017 (up to 93.8 MPH after dipping to 92.7) and he started to show a better BB/9 (4.0) and K/9 (7.0) than in 2016. Still, he’s only thrown 20.0 IP since 2015, so he’s a total flyer at this point and any expectations should be limited.
To be honest, there’s not much out there on the free agent market. Most relief pitchers are already 30+ years old and in the twilight of their careers, some coming off mediocre seasons at best. Leone doesn’t necessarily have to be replaced with a right-hander, and below are two lefty options still available on the market.
The left-hander market is predictably shallow, and the right-handers don’t offer too much more depth. The Jays have seen plenty of Fernando Abad, who’s coming off a much stronger season than Kevin Siegrist is. Siegrist is someone who seems to reoccur plenty of times in regards to the Blue Jays bullpen, and at this point he no longer requires a trade to bring him in. Both Abad and Siegrist, combined with Al Alburquerque, can fill the 70ish innings freed up by moving Leone.
More familiar names come in the form of right-handers, which the Jays already have plenty more options of in-house, on cheaper deals, and with younger arms. Still, the 2018 projections above for Tyler Clippard (change-up specialist), Seung-hwan Oh (one year removed from an 11.6 K/9 rate) and Sergio Romo (slider specialist) look like they could help the Blue Jays in some fashion in 2018. All three would match up well with the top hitters in the American league East, including Manny Machado, Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Giancarlo Stanton and Mookie Betts.
After the big closers signed quickly into the 2017-2018 offseason, there has been little action on the free agency front since. With very little time before pitchers and catcher reporting in February, we’re due for an onslaught of action in the coming weeks. If they Blue Jays do decide to work on the bullpen via free agency, they’ll have to do so soon, as most of the valuable relievers are already off the market.
With about 70 innings to replace, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to add a bullpen arm on top of Al Alburquerque and the young arms that made an impact at the end of 2018. Bringing in another RP, especially one who can be trusted in high-leverage situations, can go a long way in removing the massive load held by Ryan Tepera and Roberto Osuna in 2017.
*Featured Image Credit: Keith Allison UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0
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