Two months ago the Blue Jays had an unexpectedly elite bullpen. Julian Merryweather, Jordan Romano, and David Phelps were leading a stable of arms that matched any unit in the league.
Now, that same bullpen is a disaster. No lead is safe, and manager Charlie Montoyo has to frustratedly explain each late-game collapse after winnable contests slip away on a near-nightly basis.
“It's been frustrating because we have been playing good baseball," Montoyo said after the latest loss. "When your bullpen struggles, nothing's going to work."
There are avenues to address the weakness, but this Blue Jays bullpen isn't one move away from stability. Toronto rosters two current relievers with an ERA under 3.5 and there are few arms Montoyo can trust. But, they have to start somewhere:
The Blue Jays called up Murphy before Wednesday's game, the first step in solving the bullpen question marks.
A Murphy call-up was the most obvious move, and after Carl Edwards Jr.'s injury Tuesday night the time was right. The Blue Jays trusted him to pitch in the MLB pen last year when they were hunting down a playoff spot, and he did so admirably, allowing just one run in 6 IP. In Triple-A this season, after coming off a shoulder injury, the righty didn't allow a run and struck out eight in 6.1 IP.
Montoyo and the Blue Jays brass have repeatedly stated that Hatch will be stretched out as a starter this year, but at some point, the need for a seventh SP will be outweighed by the bullpen struggles. In 26.1 IP last season, Hatch was one of the brightest spots in a great bullpen. He struck out 7.9-per-nine and held opposition to a 2.73 ERA. Like Murphy, he is rehabbing an injury in Triple-A and has allowed one earned run in 7 IP, having been stretched out to 50+ pitches.
Pearson is somehow both the least likely Triple-A arm to save Toronto’s bullpen, and the most capable of doing so. As the Blue Jays top pitching prospect works through some mechanical adjustments that could define his long-term ceiling, calling on him to ditch the length and join a battered pen is a desperation move the Blue Jays are unlikely to pull, at least not yet.
If this Blue Jays rotation continues to dominate and stay healthy and the only route for a performing Nate Pearson to crack the roster late in the season is via a bullpen role, the Blue Jays may transition him then. Sacrificing nearly an entire year of stretched out starting development (especially when it is clear Pearson needs it) doesn’t seem like the risk this front office is willing to take — rightfully so.
Other Options: Kirby Snead, Connor Overton
The cost of rental relief arms can vary greatly from season to season, and Toronto has little leverage with their pressing bullpen need. In 2019, the Atlanta Braves had to overhaul a shaky pen mid-season and moved their seventh, 10th, and 17th ranked prospects from a good system to acquire a controllable Chris Martin, Mark Melancon, and Shane Greene. To force a selling team to budge well before the deadline, Toronto may have to pay an even bigger premium.
Givens is a stable back of the pen arm with proven success in the AL East — across five-plus seasons with the Orioles, Givens posted a 3.38 ERA and 3.41 FIP. Now with the Rockies, the righty is posting a 2.78 ERA (4.97 FIP) as a pending free agent for one of the worst teams in baseball. His home run numbers have always been suspect, but in 2021 Givens has yet to allow a long ball or even a run away from Coors Field.
Another pending free agent, Iglesias was cheaply dealt to the Angels in the offseason for LA's 25th ranked prospect and Noe Ramirez, who was later released by the Reds. Iglesias has had a volatile season, striking out 13.5-per-nine and barely allowing any walks, but his HR/9 have ballooned to 2.4 (up from .4 in 2020).
The Blue Jays have some familiarity with Los Angeles’ General Manager and former Toronto director of pro scouting Perry Minasian, but with the Angels sitting around .500 despite an injured Mike Trout, it’s hard to see them selling this early.
Just 25 appearances into 2021, Colome has three times as many blown saves as he had all of last season and has converted just 40% of his save attempts. After a rough start to the year, Colome posted a 1.74 ERA in May in lower leverage duties, but his season mark still sits well over five. Colome doesn’t seem like he would be a bullpen fix, but with the Twins in the AL Central basement and Colome not working out, he is the type of arm a team would move early.
The Twins seem like an ideal trade partner for the Blue Jays this year, as they also roster pending free agent reliever Hansel Robles and starting pitcher Jose Berrios who the Jays have been connected to.
Other Options: Daniel Hudson, Ian Kennedy, Kendall Graveman, Joakim Soria
To begin, there are always reasons players are still free agents in mid-June. While both Robertson and Peacock have lengthy MLB track records, neither latched on with a team this season and Robertson hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2019. But, Toronto has been willing to take fliers on passed over arms (Carl Edwards Jr.), and with the state of their bullpen they have to be flexible.
The Blue Jays can offer free agents the unique combination of opportunity and competition. Not many teams with lofty playoff aspirations (and the roster to get there) have a bullpen weak enough to grant mid-season free agents playing time and maybe even leverage chances.
Peacock threw a bullpen showcase for multiple teams last week, Ken Rosenthal reported, after recovering from arthroscopic shoulder surgery in October. In 181 MLB appearances as both a starter and reliever, Peacock has a career 4.0 ERA and 9.5 K/9.
Robertson had an eight-year stretch as one of the best relievers in baseball, saving 39 games for the Yankees in 2014 and getting Cy Young votes three years prior. Even as recently as 2018, Robertson appeared in 69 games for the Yankees and posted a 3.23 ERA.
In August 2020, Robertson suffered a setback in Tommy John recovery that prevented him from pitching last season. The Phillies bought out his contract, and Robertson, alongside former big leaguers Edwin Jackson and Todd Frazier, recently pitched for Team USA in Olympic qualifying. In two innings, Robertson allowed one run, struck out four, and had two saves.