Trades have stabilized Blue Jays' bullpen, now it's time to find a relief ace

·MLB Writer
·4 min read

As the MLB trade deadline draws closer, the Toronto Blue Jays’ primary goal hasn’t been a secret.

With an elite lineup and a surprisingly effective rotation featuring productive rookie Alek Manoah and a trio of pitchers bouncing back from rough 2020 seasons (Robbie Ray, Ross Stripling, and Steven Matz), the team has explicitly stated its goal is to bolster an ailing bullpen.

Injuries to Julian Merryweather, Ryan Borucki, Kirby Yates and David Phelps, as well Rafeal Dolis’s decline, had left the Blue Jays with just Jordan Romano and an ascendant Tim Mayza providing consistent production. While the team has yet to reel in a big fish like Craig Kimbrel or Richard Rodriguez, that’s changed significantly in recent weeks.

Trevor Richards is another arm who figures to get chances in high-leverage situations for the Blue Jays. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
Trevor Richards is another arm who figures to get chances in high-leverage situations for the Blue Jays. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, the Blue Jays shipped Rowdy Tellez out of town to bring in Trevor Richards, the third trade for a reliever the team has made since June 19. Richards, Adam Cimber, and Jacob Barnes aren’t the foundation of a dominant bullpen, but they can inject the Blue Jays' relief corps with some much-needed competence.

Richards and Cimber, in particular, are both in the midst of strong seasons.

Here’s how that duo’s 2021 campaigns prior to joining Toronto compare to how the Blue Jays bullpen has fared since May 1 — an approximate estimate of when the wheels started falling off (and the day Phelps hit the IL):

The strikeout numbers for Richards and Cimber are low, but that’s simply because the latter is a soft contact specialist. In his first year as a full-time reliever, Richards actually has a better strikeout rate (11.65 K/9) than Romano (11.15). Even if those two additions can’t keep up the elite home run suppression — which should still remain above average considering Cimber’s career 0.62 HR/9 — they’ll provide an upgrade over what the Blue Jays have gotten lately. Cimber has already chipped in with 3.1 scoreless innings for his new team.

Barnes is a different kind of acquisition because he was struggling when the Blue Jays acquired him, but there’s already reason to be optimistic about his ability to contribute. In his five outings with Toronto — all scoreless — his fastball velocity has jumped to 95.6 mph, up from the 94.3 mph he was averaging with the New York Mets prior to the trade.

The Blue Jays are also playing with the right-hander’s pitch mix. He’s thrown significantly fewer cutters (29.1 percent) with Toronto than he did with the Mets (40.3 percent), and he’s going to his split change more frequently. In his July 1 outing he set a career high in usage with the offering (18.8 percent) and he already has more strikeouts with it in six innings as a Blue Jay (3) than he did in 18.2 frames as a Met (2).

While it’s an unproven weapon — Barnes debuted it last year and has used it sparingly since — it’s not surprising the Blue Jays want to see if there’s something there with a pitch that looks like this:

The combination of a solid veteran duo and a shot in the dark may not be exciting to Blue Jays fans, but it’s a meaningful step forward for the team. If they had a solid bullpen that needed an impact arm or two to reach elite status, Richards, Cimber, and Barnes wouldn’t move the needle.

That’s not where they’re at, though.

The Blue Jays bullpen has melted down again and again in recent months, which has rendered adequacy a meaningful upgrade. The guys they’ve brought in can clear the extremely low bar that’s been established by the club’s injury-riddled group.

When this team makes marginal low-cost upgrades the front office is often derided for failing to take the risks required to succeed. Those shouts have become murmurs in the wake of the Hyun-Jin Ryu and George Springer signings, but there’s a lingering notion that this front office is reluctant to make big swings — especially if doing so is going to eat into the franchise’s hoard of prospects.

Through that lens, it’s easy to perceive the Blue Jays' recent deals as half measures that fail to do enough to address the club’s biggest concern. If this front office stands pat from here that will be a valid criticism, but that seems unlikely. Instead, these trades shouldn’t be seen as quantity as a substitute for quality, but rather quantity because quantity was needed.

A single relief ace wouldn’t have fixed what ails the Blue Jays. An influx of talent was always going to be required to right the ship. The team has gone a long way in restocking its relief corps in recent weeks, and should have some of its better arms back from injury in the not-too-distant future.

Now they have 23 days to see about that relief ace.

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