The Toronto Blue Jays have been collecting pitching depth, but what are they going to do with it all?
Over the last couple of seasons, a primary aim for the Blue Jays front office has been to build the team’s starting pitching depth. Countless near-ready pitching prospects have been acquired via trade (Thomas Pannone, Jacob Waguespack, David Paulino, Hector Perez, Julian Merryweather, Trent Thornton and Andrew Sopko), while veterans like Matt Shoemaker and Clayton Richard have been signed this off-season as short-term measures. These additions have complemented pitchers who were drafted and developed internally and are expected to pitch in the majors or upper-minors in 2019 (Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Ryan Borucki, Sean Reid-Foley, T.J. Zeuch, Jon Harris, Patrick Murphy, Yennsy Diaz and Zach Logue).
A few days ago, Tammy Rainey highlighted an issue in need of some kind of resolution: where will all of these pitchers pitch? Starting at the MLB level, the most likely Opening day setup is a rotation of Stroman, Sanchez, Borucki, Shoemaker and Richard and a bullpen with Ken Giles, Ryan Tepera, Tim Mayza, Danny Barnes, Joe Biagini, David Phelps, Sam Gaviglio and Elvis Luciano. This “most likely setup” will almost certainly change by Opening Day, but it’s a reasonable starting point for now.
This leaves a total of nine pitchers who might normally be assigned to the Triple-A rotation. This group includes guys who have pitched in the majors (Reid-Foley and Pannone) or at the Triple-A level (Thornton, Waguespack, Paulino, Shawn Morimando and the recovering-from-TJ Merryweather), as well as those who have succeeded (Zeuch) or pitched a lot (Sopko) at the Double-A level. While I think that Sopko could justifiable be sent back to Double-A—it’s his highest level and his career FIP there is 4.59—he was assigned to Buffalo after the trade, perhaps suggesting that the team views him as ready for Triple-A. The fact that he has already spent three seasons (189 IP) at the level might further motivate a promotion to Triple-A.
While the excess pitchers on this list might typically be tabbed for relief duty (whether temporarily or permanently), the Blue Jays already have eight relievers expected to pitch at the Triple-A level this season: Corey Copping, Mark Leiter, Matt Dermody, Justin Shafer, Conor Fisk and MiLB Rule 5 pick David Garner, plus Double-A conquerors Zach Jackson and Danny Young.
A level further down, as Tammy notes, there is only more logjam. Perez and Harris will likely return to Double-A New Hampshire, while Murphy, Diaz and Logue have all produced quantity and quality at High-A and are each in line for a promotion, with each producing a Top 10 FIP in the 2018 Florida State League (min. 90 IP). Obviously, having too many upper-level pitchers isn’t a bad problem to have, but it’s something that nevertheless requires a resolution.
Part of any resolution is the fact that Merryweather likely won’t be healthy for Opening Day. Given that his Tommy John surgery was conducted in March 2018, a mid-season return seems more likely. [I haven’t been able to find any update on his rehab process.] Moving on from Morimando after Spring Training represents another likely part of the solution—over 262.2 innings as a Triple-A starting pitcher, he has produced a 4.54 FIP, on the back of a 16.9% K rate, 7.8% BB rate and 1.13 HR/9. Moreover, he produced one of the highest FIP marks in the Arizona Fall League in 2018 (5.81).
Nevertheless, Reid-Foley, Pannone, Thornton, Waguespack, Paulino, Zeuch and Sopko remain as potential Triple-A starters, while Perez, Harris, Murphy, Diaz and Logue are pencilled in at Double-A
The logjam can be resolved further (in part) via some kind of move with MLB Rule 5 pick Elvis Luciano. The team will give him a chance in Spring Training to show that he can hang in the majors as an eighth reliever for a year. However, come late March, they might end up deciding that keeping him on the 25-man all season isn’t possible. If they do, whether they simply send him back to the Royals or try to work out a deal with them, Luciano would no longer be pencilled into the Blue Jays bullpen.
In his place, the team might insert Paulino and use him in some kind of multi-inning/long man role, so as to give him an eventual chance as a starter. Or, they could just decide that he’s a one-inning reliever. He had an impressive cameo last September in that kind of role. Plus, the Jays would still have Gaviglio in the ‘pen as a long man/spot starter.
Negating Luciano from the mix and slotting Paulino into the big league team would allow the AAA Bisons to have a rotation of Reid-Foley, Pannone, Thornton, Waguespack and Zeuch. Down at AA New Hampshire, High-A graduates Murphy and Diaz would join returnees Perez, Harris and Sopko.
If the team decides to start the season with Luciano in the majors, the above scenario could also play out if Danny Barnes was shown the door. I’ve been a fan of Barnes since his debut in 2016, but last season was rough and he has the highest Depth Charts projected FIP (4.82) in the Blue Jays bullpen (aside from Luciano). That said, the logjam wouldn’t be completely solved, even after removing Luciano or Barnes from the MLB bullpen and inserting Paulino into the open spot, as Sopko would still be stuck repeating Double-A again, while Logue would be left to start at High-A.
At this point, creating more space would probably require a more meaningful roster move, which begs the question: is it alright if Sopko and Logue have to repeat their levels in 2019, at least to start the season? Given Sopko’s 1.14 HR/9 at Double-A, an argument can be made that he still hasn’t really conquered the level. That said, you’d hate to make a guy that you just traded for, and who has already pitched 189 innings at the level, repeat Double-A again. His assignment to AAA Buffalo suggests the team feels the same way. Logue pitched very well at High-A and is entering his age-23 season. He, too, is due for a promotion.
A potential solution would involve moving one of the Blue Jays’ current starting pitchers prior to Opening Day. That won’t be either Borucki (who is young, controllable and good) or Shoemaker (who is also good and would need a run of good health before he has meaningful trade value anyways). Obviously, both Sanchez and Stroman have been the subject of rumours all off-season, though the extent of any trade talks is not clear. With all of the upper-minors depth, trading either for a younger, high-ceiling pitcher would both help with this logjam and be a positive move for the future.
A simpler option than trading either would be a late-March release of Richard. He seems like a great guy who is all-in for being a Blue Jay. He also was an effective innings-eater as recently as 2017, when he produced 2.4 fWAR over 197.1 innings for the Padres. As such, he will be a favourite in Spring Training for the fifth spot in the rotation. However, things might not go as planned, particularly if someone like Reid-Foley, Pannone, Thornton or Waguespack has an excellent Spring Training, while Richard does not.
Regardless of the specifics, an open spot in the Blue Jays rotation would allow one of the guys that’s been penciled in at Triple-A to start the year in the majors. That would open a spot for Sopko in AAA Buffalo, which would open up a spot for Logue in AA New Hampshire. Essentially, everyone would be at an appropriate level, development-wise.
In sum, the Blue Jays currently have a logjam of pitchers from Double-A up to the majors. The team has five MLB-caliber starting pitchers (Stroman, Sanchez, Borucki, Shoemaker and Richard), nine who would benefit from starting the season at Triple-A (Reid-Foley, Pannone, Thornton, Waguespack, Merryweather, Morimando, Paulino, Zeuch and Sopko) and another five who should start the season at Double-A (Perez, Harris, Murphy, Diaz and Logue).
This can be resolved with a few reasonable roster moves. Merryweather will likely start the season on the disabled list, recovering from Tommy John surgery, while Morimando seems destined to be an expendable org guy. A spot in the Jays bullpen can be opened up for Paulino in a few different ways—either Luciano is sent back to the Royals or acquired in a trade with them or Barnes is let go—which would open a spot for Zeuch in the Bisons rotation.
If the team stops there, Sopko and Logue would be a level lower than they should probably be. That might be fine with the team. If it isn’t, moving one of Stroman, Sanchez or Richard would open a spot in the Blue Jays rotation that could be filled by whichever of the most near-ready guys (Reid-Foley, Pannone, Thornton and Waguespack) has the best spring. This would allow Sopko to move up to Triple-A rotation and Logue to move into the Double-A rotation.
Let me conclude by saying that this is all just one long brainstorming session. There are surely good ways to solve this logjam that I didn’t discuss. For example, maybe they keep Barnes and Luciano, instead opting to move on from a Triple-A reliever like Dermody or Leiter. This would give Paulino a chance to hone his craft as a reliever (whether one-inning or multiple) in Triple-A and allow Zeuch (AAA) and Diaz (AA), if not also Sopko and Logue.
Having too much young and promising upper-minors pitching depth is a fun problem to have. I’m excited to see the competition heat up in Spring Training and to watch the prospects continue their development at their respective levels come April. Beyond those mentioned, Jays fans will get to follow Nate Pearson and Maximo Castillo at High-A Dunedin, Eric Pardinho, Josh Winckowski, Joey Murray and Sean Wymer at Class A Lansing and Adam Kloffenstein get his pro career properly started at Advanced Rookie Bluefield. The future is bright.
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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.