CHICAGO—The Blue Jays’ bullpen has done a decent enough job of protecting leads this year. But the longer the season goes on, the more obvious it becomes that a couple of key additions will have to be made if this club wants to make a deep run into October.
After an injury to Julian Merryweather and a disappointing stretch from the since-departed Ryan Borucki, the Jays are down to — at most — five relievers who have earned the trust of Jays manager Charlie Montoyo: Jordan Romano, Adam Cimber, Tim Mayza, David Phelps and Yimi García.
When that group is rested and healthy, this team usually ends up doing fine. Trouble looms when the core five are overworked. While lots of ball clubs can say the same, it’s something that will have to be fixed prior to the Aug. 2 trade deadline for the Jays to be a legitimate threat when games matter most.
“It’s all about the starters, if they go deep or not,” Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said prior to Monday night’s series opener against the Chicago White Sox. “If they don’t go deep, it’s tough to cover four or five innings against good teams … In games we’re struggling early on, against the Yankees and good-hitting teams, they’re tough to cover.”
Montoyo stated the obvious, but that situation raises a red flag for a contender because starters don’t go as deep into post-season games as they do the regular season. For every Marco Estrada — who had three starts of at least 7 2/3 innings with two earned runs or fewer during American League Championship Series runs in 2015 and 2016 — there are countless examples of guys being limited to five or six innings, often less.
The reasoning should be obvious. With every game feeling like a must-win, teams are increasingly going with quick hooks to avoid having pitchers go through an opposing lineup for a third time. Late-season fatigue can be a factor, too. Per FanGraphs, the average length for a starting pitcher has been under five innings during all but one of the previous five post-seasons.
For Jays fans, that should bring back bad memories of 2016, when their team was beaten almost entirely by the Cleveland Indians bullpen. Any Cleveland lead in the series, which lasted just five games, felt insurmountable as the likes of Andrew Miller, Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen overmatched what was still considered a potent Jays lineup.
Montoyo doesn’t have the same luxury and Saturday’s game against the Yankees exposed his lack of depth. After Ross Stripling was taken out in the fourth inning of a one-run ball game, the Jays didn’t have enough options to keep the score close. Trent Thornton allowed five runs, Trevor Richards surrendered three more and neither one should be anywhere near the mound in crucial games down the stretch.
There are holes elsewhere — the back end of the rotation and the lack of a reliable lefty bat to name a couple — but with six weeks remaining until the deadline, a case can easily be made that the bullpen should be priority No. 1.
“I feel so good about our team and coming together, feel good about the pieces that we acquired in spring training, but we’re always thinking about how we can improve,” Jays general manager Ross Atkins said recently. “It’s depth in areas, complementary skill sets and others. We’ve spent a lot of time in that over the last month, and we’re going to continue to in the coming weeks.”
The bullpen deserves credit for the Jays’ 17-8 record in one-run games. Unlike a year ago, there haven’t been long stretches when the entire group fell apart and caused a prolonged losing streak. During this year’s low points, a lack of offence has often been the bigger story.
Even so, the numbers aren’t great. Jays relievers rank 23rd in the majors with a 4.35 ERA, and 21st with 229 strikeouts. Workload hasn’t been an issue for the entire group with 242 1/3 innings, which ranks 18th, but at times the burden has been too much for the top five to handle on their own.
What this club lacks is an elite reliever or two to put in front of Romano.
While they’ve pitched well, there would be increased confidence in Cimber, Mayza, Phelps and García if their responsibility in September — and ideally October — is middle relief, instead of trying to protect a one-run lead in the seventh or eighth against a high-powered offence.
The good news is that there are plenty of options to consider as the deadline approaches.
Cubs closer — and former Yankees setup man — David Robertson, Colorado’s Daniel Bard and Alex Colomé, Detroit’s Gregory Soto, Michael Fulmer and Andrew Chafin, and Oakland’s Lou Trivino are just a few reportedly on the block. The list will only grow in the coming weeks.
“To this point, great job,” Montoyo said of his bullpen. “We were leading the league in one-run games and that was all about the bullpen, the job they did. They all come in in different spots, and Cimber closed games when Romano wasn’t (available). Everyone did something for us to win those one-run games.”
Saying they’ve done a “great job” might be an overstatement, but for the most part the group has lived up to expectations. The bullpen wasn’t considered a strength at the start of the season, and it hasn’t been exposed as a weakness that derailed post-season aspirations.
Success in October, however, is a different beast. The bullpen will have to cover off even more innings than it’s handling now, and right now there just aren’t enough high-end options to rely on.
There’s a month and a half left for that to change. The quicker Atkins addresses it, the better off the Jays will be.
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