Creative pitching; Merryweather update

February 19th, 2021

If there's one certainty to take from the early days of Spring Training, it's that you'll be seeing plenty of arms in plenty of roles for the Blue Jays this season.

That's mostly a product of circumstance, with the ramp-up to a full 162-game season expected to strain pitching depth across baseball, but it's also by design for the Blue Jays. With so many young arms capable of starting, relieving or playing a hybrid role, Toronto's bullpen could take on a dozen identities this season.

The first question at least, is simple. Will the Blue Jays open with an eight- or nine-man bullpen?

"We don't have a lean yet, but I think there's probably a point in the season where [nine] could occur," general manager Ross Atkins said Friday from Dunedin, Fla. "Depending on how stretched out guys get during Spring Training, how effective they are, it certainly could be something that happens early. I think the makeup of our 26-man roster is going to fluctuate a great deal."

The certainty in Toronto's lineup should help free up the option to carry nine relievers at points, too. With George Springer and Marcus Semien adding to a group of clear everyday starters, the Blue Jays might not need to churn through position players as frequently as they have in the past. A three-man bench might not be sustainable for 162 games, but with the right players at the right time, it can be done.

The Blue Jays' bullpen profiles as a true strength, and you can almost divide it into two groups. Toronto's young starters and multi-inning pitchers need to be considered separately, because their usage depends so much on the club's broader pitching strategy with its rotation, but the group of Kirby Yates, Jordan Romano, Rafael Dolis, David Phelps, Ryan Borucki, Tyler Chatwood and A.J. Cole profile as more traditional one- or two-inning arms.

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If Yates wins the closer's role, which he's expected to, names like Romano and Dolis can be used liberally in high-leverage spots, whether that's the fifth inning or the eighth. Romano was the breakout star of 2020 until a right middle finger strain ended his season early, posting a 1.23 ERA with 21 strikeouts over just 14 2/3 innings. The Canadian right-hander is already looking to soak up some experience from the new veterans around him.

"These guys have done it a long time and pitched in a lot of high-leverage spots," Romano said. "I'm really excited just to learn from them, talk to them, learn how they throw certain pitches, what think mentally. It's just really exciting having these guys in the bullpen with us."

The Blue Jays should be in the hunt for a postseason spot throughout 2021, so these high-leverage situations will be critical. It may not seem as urgent in May or June, but it's easy to picture a situation where Toronto is in a very tight race down the stretch, so every save or blown lead will matter. Romano knows the stakes are higher now, too.

"We're not going to sneak up on anyone this year," Romano said. "Last year, we made the playoffs and people weren't sure what to think of us at first, and then it was like, 'Oh, the Blue Jays are here to play,'" Romano said. "This year, there's no sneaking up on anyone. They know how good we are and how good we can be, and it's just exciting. I'm scrolling on Twitter like you guys are, seeing the signings and stuff, and we're all super excited."

Mapping out Merryweather

Julian Merryweather, now 29, will be stretched out as a starter this spring. That's the initial plan, which the Blue Jays will re-evaluate later in camp as they consider their other internal options, but the club remains open to moving the right-hander back into a bullpen role.

Injuries have slowed Merryweather's rise, but he possesses all of the tools necessary to pitch in high-leverage spots. In 2020, Merryweather's fastball averaged 96.7 mph, which he could max out alongside his slider. Keep in mind that he's building up innings, too, having thrown just 19 professional innings since the 2017 season after he underwent Tommy John surgery in '18. A full season in a multi-inning bullpen role sounds like the best of both worlds.

Pardinho back on track

Eric Pardinho underwent Tommy John surgery in early 2020, but he is nearing the end of his progression now and should work through a full camp, Atkins said. Pardinho's last game action came in '19, when he posted a 2.41 ERA over 33 2/3 innings with Class A Lansing. His velocity will be important to monitor, as that had dipped a bit prior to the injury, but the 5-foot-10 right-hander repeats his delivery well and makes great use of his lower body, driving with his legs. Pardinho is still just 20 years old, but if he's back on the mound for the bulk of this season and maintaining velocity, that's a win for the Blue Jays.

Extra bases

• Right-hander Trent Thornton has no restrictions in camp after his 2020 season ended early. Thornton underwent surgery to remove loose bodies from his right elbow late last summer, but he is ready for a full ramp-up and could be one of the Blue Jays' top rotation depth options.

• Atkins highlighted left-hander Tim Mayza again Friday, who is back after undergoing Tommy John surgery in late 2019. He's not on the 40-man roster, making it difficult to project him on the Opening Day roster, but he'll have an opportunity to push that conversation.

• Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo watched pitching prospect Yosver Zulueta throw a bullpen session Friday and came away impressed. The 23-year-old Cuban right-hander signed with the club as an international free agent in 2019 and throws gas, so keep him on your short list of prospects to track in '21.