Reinforcements could boost Blue Jays' 'pen

September 23rd, 2020

For much of the 2020 season, the Blue Jays’ relievers were one of the club’s biggest success stories. That’s changed recently, but it’s not too late for the bullpen to catch a second wind for the postseason.

Just like the lineup, Toronto’s bullpen has ridden a string of hot streaks from different names throughout the summer. Early on, it was breakout star Jordan Romano climbing the ladder, while young starters like Anthony Kay and Thomas Hatch emerged as middle-inning arms capable of more. Since then, Anthony Bass, Rafael Dolis and A.J. Cole have filled a variety of back-end roles in the absence of Ken Giles.

It’s been a game of “next man up” that’s mostly worked, but bullpens are naturally streaky. Toronto’s missing piece might just be on the way back from the IL, with three enticing arms currently rehabbing:

Pearson threw two innings and approximately 25 pitches in a live BP session on Monday, and manager Charlie Montoyo said the right-hander came out of it feeling good. The club’s next step with Pearson isn’t set just yet, as he’s in the final stages of working back from a right flexor strain, but he’s close.

There are four games left following Wednesday’s matchup against the Yankees, and the Blue Jays would prefer to get Pearson a quick taste of regular-season action instead of dropping their No. 1 prospect right into the postseason.

“That wouldn’t be fair,” Montoyo said. “For him to be active, he would have to be in one of these games for sure.”

On one hand, Pearson has more physical talent than any pitcher in the organization, and there’s a reason he ranks among the best prospects in baseball. His 100 mph fastball has the potential to dominate in shorter outings alongside his slider and curveball but, at the same time, Pearson posted a 6.61 ERA over his four starts prior to hitting the IL. How much of that was Pearson’s elbow and how much of that was a rookie simply struggling?

Either way, Pearson has said throughout his young career that he gets better -- and unlocks his top velocity -- as the game goes on. That means he would be best deployed in a planned scenario, where the Blue Jays can let him warm up with a much longer throwing session in the bullpen than the average reliever. If he’s able to return effectively, though, Pearson could be a game-changing weapon over two innings.

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Romano was dominant this season, posting a 1.23 ERA with 21 strikeouts over 14 2/3 innings. Then, the Canadian right-hander hit the IL with a pulley strain in his right middle finger.

After his bullpen session on Tuesday, there’s quiet optimism that Romano could have an outside shot at returning for the postseason.

“I talked to him and the trainers afterwards, and they said he looked really good and felt good,” Montoyo said. “We’ll see where we go from here, but that’s a great sign. I didn’t think he was going to be even close to throwing a bullpen, but he did and he looked good.”

This could be a case similar to Pearson, where the Blue Jays would want to see Romano pitch in a live game during the final weekend of the season, but it’s an exciting possibility nonetheless. When he was healthy, Romano wasn’t just the Blue Jays’ best reliever, he was one of the most effective back-end arms in the Major Leagues.

Merryweather has the furthest to go of the three right-handers after hitting the IL on Monday with right elbow tendinitis, but he played catch on Wednesday and was included on the club’s 40-man postseason player pool.

After joining the club midway through August, Merryweather strung together four incredible appearances during which he struck out 12 batters over 7 1/3 scoreless innings. It looked like the Blue Jays had found their new hot hand in the middle innings, but he quickly saw his velocity drop down from the upper-90s and his ERA shot up.

When he is healthy, the Blue Jays have something in Merryweather. His return seems unlikely unless the Blue Jays make a deeper run, but the door is being left open a crack.