The Toronto Blue Jays uncharacteristically spent much of the offseason in the spotlight, exhausting their Rolodex to add talent in free agency. As a result, their lineup, to borrow a phrase, is in the best shape of its life. Yet, doubts about their status as contenders prevail, largely because of a perceived lack of high-end firepower in the rotation. They brought Robbie Ray back, but otherwise added only Steven Matz coming off a disastrous season in New York. Though Matz has impressed so far, per MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand, the rotation anxiety is warranted. Arguably, however, the bullpen poses a greater threat to the Jays as they attempt to unseat the Rays and Yankees atop the American League East.
GM Ross Atkins landed stud closer Kirby Yates in free agency, and despite just two appearances this spring, they’re ready to commit to the former Padre as their closer, writes Gregor Chisholm of the Toronto Star. There was little doubt, though the 34-year-old is hardly unblemished. He made just six appearances last year before undergoing surgery to remove bone spurs from his elbow. Thus, he’s not likely to shoulder a workhorse burden as a 70-80 inning arm out of the pen. So while the glory and the title will belong to Yates, the responsibility of holding leads weighs just as heavily on arms like Jordan Romano, Rafael Dolis, Tyler Chatwood and David Phelps.
Romano burst onto the scene as a legitimate weapon with a 1.23 ERA and 36.8 percent strikeout rate in 2020, while Rafael Dolis returned stateside for the first time since 2013 to post an equally impressive 1.50 ERA and 31.0 percent strikeout rate. Both had FIPs roughly a run and a half higher than their ERAs, however, and could be in line for at least a touch of regression in 2021. Newcomers Chatwood and Phelps are pro arms, but they lack the pedigree of high-leverage, first-division bullpen stalwarts.
Julian Merryweather has some potential to pop as a multi-inning option. The Blue Jays aim to get the 29-year-old right-hander around 100 total innings. He’s 29 years old with only 13 career innings in the Majors, but he’s long been an intriguing talent. Armed with a fastball that averages close to 97 mph, Merryweather is at least worth watching as a potential difference-maker. The Jays hoped Tom Hatch might be another sleeper, but they await a status update on elbow inflammation, per Arden Zwelling of Sportsnet.ca (via Twitter).
From the left side, Francisco Liriano, Ryan Borucki, and Anthony Kay are the most likely to make the roster. The 37-year-old Liriano has been in the Majors since 2005, but the 3.47 ERA he posted last season in Pittsburgh was his best ERA or FIP since his first Pirates’ tenure in 2015. Kay has a higher ceiling, but he has yet to establish himself at the big-league level.
On the whole, the Blue Jays very much require Yates to actualize as the guy who locked down 53 saves with a 1.67 ERA/1.93 FIP for the Padres from 2018-19. If he doesn’t return to that form, the bottom could fall out for this group; a rudderless unit is prone to spiral.
Speaking of Yates’ former club, the Padres, too, are working to establish a new pecking order at the back end of the bullpen. Yates left town, but so did his replacement Trevor Rosenthal. The Padres exported another potential closer in Andres Munoz to the Mariners last August. Luis Patiño could have been used out of the bullpen as well, had he not been included in the Blake Snell deal.
Unlike the Blue Jays, however, the Padres have made repeated efforts to replenish their bullpen reserves with veteran, battle-tested arms. While keeping Craig Stammen in the fold, the Padres added Drew Pomeranz and Pierce Johnson in free agency last winter. They supplemented that crew with free agent additions Mark Melancon and Keone Kela this year. President of Baseball Ops and GM A.J. Preller didn’t stop there, however. He exhausted the trade market as well, netting Tim Hill from the Royals and Emilio Pagan from the Rays prior to 2020. Then, in the deal that sent Munoz to the Mariners, Preller acquired Dan Altavilla and Austin Adams, the latter of whom continues to work his way back from injury. Even non-roster invitee Nabil Crismatt has impressed so far this spring.
Should that deep pool of arms prove insufficient, the Padres can fall back on their depth of prospect arms like MacKenzie Gore, Ryan Weathers, Adrian Morejon, Michel Baez, and others. For now, Morejon looks like he’ll start the year in the rotation, notes Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune, but roles are certain to change throughout the season.
On a roster that includes 282 career saves, it’s Pagan who appears closest to nabbing the title of closer, writes Acee. Pagan had a difficult 2020, but the team believes right arm pain was a significant mitigating factor in his 4.50 ERA/4.69 FIP. He saved just two games last year, but he is only a year removed from locking down 20 saves for the Rays. He has averaged seven holds per season over the last four.
Granted, Pagan’s fastball velocity was down from 95.5 mph in 2019 to 94.5 mph in 2020. Even dropping velocity, his high-spin four-seamer showed elite vertical rise. He’ll weaponize it up in the zone, contrasting with his cutter, which zags where the fastball zigs.
Bottom line, the Blue Jays and Padres both field strong relief units – but both can reasonably chart a path to future adversity, though differently so. While Pagan isn’t the most experienced arm in the Padres’ pen – that would be Melancon with his 205 career saves – he’s certainly capable closing games. If not, the Padres have no shortage of alternatives, even with the threat of injury looming. The counterpoint: as they say in football, a team with three quarterbacks has none. For the Blue Jays, Yates won’t have nearly as much internal competition breathing down his neck, but that also means less of a safety net. The Jays don’t boast the diversity of options the Padres do – what they have is three arms in Yates, Romano, and Dolis who posted sub-2.00 ERA’s in their last full season.
Different approaches, but the same goal: preserve leads and win enough ballgames to make the playoffs and contend for a title. Which bullpen do you trust more? What grade would you give each bullpen heading into 2021? Lastly, in a draft for 2021 comprised only of the veterans in the Padres ’and Blue Jays’ bullpens, I’m curious know what who MLBTR readers trust the most. Between both teams, who is the guy you’d want closing games on a contender?