When the Blue Jays signed Tanner Roark to a two-year, $24 million deal, they did so thinking that the rock steady veteran would keep a rotation spot stable as the club moved from rebuilding to competing.
The Blue Jays have done just that as a team, but Roark’s struggles continued in his 2021 debut, allowing three home runs in just three innings of work in a 7-4 loss to the Rangers at Globe Life Field. Roark generated some optimism through Spring Training that he’d gotten back to his old ways, but Tuesday’s outing looked like 2020, when Roark allowed 14 home runs with a 6.80 ERA over 47 2/3 innings.
“Nothing was working. Three home runs in three innings is not very good, so nothing was working,” Roark said.
It’s early, but Roark’s situation is a good case study for how the Blue Jays’ overall philosophies will change as they step into this new competitive window with October aspirations. Toronto’s rotation still needs to add a top-end arm and more upside, but its depth was considered a strength going into this season. Depth means options, and as some of those options get healthy, how much patience will the Blue Jays have compared to past seasons?
This was just the eighth time in Roark’s nine-year career that he allowed three or more home runs, and there was plenty of loud contact beyond those big blasts, too. Ten of the 13 balls put in play against Roark were hit 95 mph or harder, according to Statcast, with several of those hit in the air, deep into the outfield. Roark has always been at his best when he’s grinding through innings -- something he has done very well stretching back to his time with the Nationals -- but the three-inning outing Tuesday meant the Blue Jays had to turn to long man Tommy Milone for three innings.
“Our bullpen did an outstanding job,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “[Milone] kept us in the game, and you never know with our offense. In a close game like that, just three or four runs, I feel good about it. Tommy did an outstanding job, and Ryan Borucki. They kept us in the game. Outstanding job.”
The Blue Jays will lean on their depth starters throughout 2021 as they stretch back out to a full 162 games, and bulk relievers will support that. There will be a level of internal competition, though, which is one of the greatest benefits of having options. And unless Roark can reel in his home run troubles, he’ll be at risk of losing or changing his role.
Here is how the Blue Jays' pitching options shape up outside their current rotation:
Answers on the IL
Robbie Ray projects to return first from his left elbow contusion, and he threw a bullpen session on Friday. All indications are that Ray is close, and the left-hander is coming off a great Spring Training with a 1.93 ERA. Walks have troubled Ray in the past, but when he has his best stuff working, he can overpower lineups. He’ll slot right into the rotation and should already be built up when he returns.
The Blue Jays plan to have Ray throw again on Wednesday, which should add some clarity to his timeline.
No. 1 prospect Nate Pearson (right adductor strain) and right-hander Thomas Hatch (right elbow impingement) are working their way back but should be behind Ray. Pearson, especially, should take a rotation spot when he returns, while Hatch is an underrated option whom the Blue Jays project as being part of this rotation, too. Ross Stripling and T.J. Zeuch are in the rotation for Ray's and Pearson’s spots, but this will evolve depending on the timing of their returns and performance.
“I don’t want to speculate on what’s going to happen yet,” Montoyo said after the game. “We’ve got to see first how Robbie Ray is doing, and then we’ll go from there.”
Down on the farm
Anthony Kay is at the alternate training site to stay built up as a starter, and beyond Ray’s return, he likely represents the next starter up should a need arise. Kay had an up-and-down spring, but he was consistently reaching the 97-mph range with his fastball and has shown flashes in the Majors.
Fans will surely be calling for No. 7 prospect Alek Manoah after the 6-foot-6 right-hander was the star of Spring Training. Late 2021 isn’t completely out of the question, but with just 17 innings in the Minor Leagues, Manoah will need more time. No. 4 prospect Simeon Woods Richardson could be closer to the rotation and is far more mature than his age suggests at 20, but the right-hander is also not likely to be considered until late 2021 at the earliest.