Eyeing 2019 form, Yates feels like 'himself'

January 22nd, 2021

TORONTO -- Step one for Blue Jays reliever is getting back to his 2019 form, when he was one of baseball's most dominant relievers with the Padres. From there, step two should be a short one into Toronto's closer's role, a job that will be extremely important on a club hoping to contend.

These are no longer the 67-95 Blue Jays of 2019, when their rebuild hit a pivot point. The development of Toronto's young core along with major additions like George Springer on a reported six-year, $150 million deal make the Blue Jays legitimate contenders, and at the top of this league, margins are thin.

The job hasn't been handed to Yates, but most arrows point in that direction. The right-hander missed much of 2020 and underwent a procedure to remove bone chips in his right elbow, but he is back to throwing bullpen sessions and feels like himself again. For Yates, "himself" is a 1.19 ERA with 41 saves for the Padres in '19, including 101 strikeouts over 60 2/3 innings.

"I need to prove I'm healthy," Yates said Friday, after his one-year, $5.5 million deal was made official. "I need to prove that I'm still myself and I'm still capable of doing it. If I can go out there and do those two things, I think I have a good opportunity of being able to get that ninth inning."

Last season, the Blue Jays patched together the closer's role with Ken Giles missing much of the season and eventually undergoing Tommy John surgery. It mostly worked, too, with some combination of Rafael Dolis, Jordan Romano, A.J. Cole and Anthony Bass. Of those four, only Bass has moved to another club, so Yates' arrival -- plus the addition of right-hander Tyler Chatwood -- lets Toronto stretch out its bullpen.

"We've got a lot of power down there," pitching coach Pete Walker said on Sportsnet 590 THE FAN Thursday. "A guy like Kirby Yates was exceptional. You look at his strikeout-to-walk ratio, his strikeout-to-inning ratio in 2019. What he can do to the baseball, now he's made some adjustments with that split-finger fastball, he is a definite back-end guy that can close games for us and pitch in the highest-leverage situations."

After a brief return to the expanded postseason in 2020 and the jump this club has already taken over the winter, postseason contention is the bare-minimum expectation going forward. The rest of this offseason will determine whether the Blue Jays are viewed as a contender to just make some noise or do something greater, but regardless, it's easy to envision a tight race in September.

If Yates can settle into that closer's role, it will allow the Blue Jays to use a number of other high-leverage arms in earlier innings. Look no further than the Tampa Bay Rays, who quickly eliminated the Blue Jays from the 2020 postseason, and you'll see the value of having multiple power arms capable of shutting down innings.

Speaking of the Rays, Yates will have some familiar faces in Toronto.

Yates made his Major League debut on June 7, 2014, with the Rays. Two nights prior, he pitched for the Triple-A Durham Bulls against the Pawtucket Red Sox. Around 1:30 a.m. ET, there was a knock on the door.

Standing there to tell him that he'd just received his call to the bigs? Durham manager Charlie Montoyo.

Yates was also teammates with Blue Jays bullpen coach Matt Buschmann in 2013 with Durham, and the two will work closely again. These connections are icing on the cake, but when Yates went over his priorities as a free agent earlier this offseason, many of those aligned with Toronto.

"I was looking for a place where I could go and be myself," Yates said. "Before we ever opened negotiations with anyone, I was definitely attracted to the Blue Jays. That excitement of a young team and where you see that trajectory going, it definitely caught my eye. I was interested in being a part of it."

Spring Training is quickly creeping up, and while you can loosely call this a "competition" for the closer's role, Yates should have every opportunity to take this job and run with it. If and when he does, the 2021 Blue Jays should give him plenty of leads to tie a bow on.