Injuries to Axford, Tepera Opens Door in Blue Jays Bullpen Battle

John Axford

Over the last week before the 2019 season starts, the Toronto Blue Jays’ bullpen battle is about to get more fierce and much more complicated as Ryan Tepera and John Axford, both expected to be in the Opening Day bullpen have been dealing with elbow issues.

With Axford and Tepera out, the Blue Jays’ bullpen, by my estimation, is now down to about five “for sure” pitchers. There’s Ken Giles, Bud Norris, Tim Mayza (the only lefty in the group), Joe Biagini and Elvis Luciano. For Luciano, the spot opens up, making the decision to keep him with the major league club a little easier than it would with a more crowded bullpen picture.

Looking at pitchers who are currently on the 40-man roster to take the spot of both Axford and Tepera, there’s Sam Gaviglio, whom I would think was already slotted for a spot as a long reliever in the bullpen, leaving two more spots available.

We also have David Paulino who, with some major experience in the past couple of years, as a leading candidate to get bullpen spot #7 or #8 while Thomas Pannone, Sean Reid-Foley and Trent Thornton are also still with the Blue Jays major-league team.

I think Paulino is likely to be leading the charge of those four pitchers with Pannone and Reid-Foley almost certain to end up in the starting rotation in Buffalo. That said, Pannone could be a dark horse if the Jays want to add another lefty to their bullpen but, on the other side of the coin, Pannone has had trouble with powerful lineups like the Yankees and it might be better for his development to stash him in Buffalo for a while.

That leaves Thornton as an interesting option. He’s looked good by all reports and could probably step into a big league bullpen right away, seeing his fastball play up, much in the way that Joe Biagini got a nice boost in his stuff when he went to the bullpen in 2016 after being a starter for his entire career. On the other hand, Shi Davidi has quoted Ross Atkins as wanting to “‘exhaust’ the possibility of making him a starter.”

Danny Barnes

Other names that could make it onto the Opening Day roster include non-roster players Javy Guerra, Justin Shafer and Danny Barnes. Recently traded-for Jason Adam is also a candidate. Out of this group, I think Barnes would have the inside track, with a longer track record than Shafer or Adam and with a little more youth on his side than Guerra. Barnes has been excellent so far this spring with 10 strikeouts and no walks, giving up just one run on a solo home run among five hits in 6 2/3 innings. Guerra has been very good too, pitching seven innings with one run allowed (also on a solo home run) but has walked three and struck out six. Baseball Reference, which ranks the quality of opposition players face in spring training has Barnes facing slightly better opposition at 7.5, meaning about halfway between Double-A and Triple-A opposition while Guerra’s OppQual rating is 7.3.

Another important thing to consider is who will need to have a roster spot opened for them. All of the non-roster players will need to have someone come off the 40-man roster to be able to take their place. Bud Norris is already going to need someone to come off the roster for him. If the Jays go with Paulino and Barnes, then another 40-man roster spot will be needed.

The fallout of how many 40-man roster spots are needed to fill the bullpen will trickle down to the decision making for other spots, particularly in the battle between Richard Urena and Eric Sogard for the backup infield position. If the Jays need to make room for two pitchers in the bullpen, would they go with Sogard, who, despite a strong spring, would need another 40-man roster spot for him.

From what I can see, Devon Travis can go to the 60-day injured list (IL) and if they don’t expect to see Julian Merryweather before the end of May, he can go on the 60-day IL as well. Another player who can go on the 60-day IL is David Phelps, if the club believes that he needs another two months, although I believe he is further along than that. The other way to get some room is to move a player or simple put him on waivers. Dalton Pompey is in somewhat of a dangerous position but he’s going to have to go through waivers to stay in the organization as he’s out of options, so he could be an obvious choice.

On the pitching side, there isn’t much fat to cut as the Blue Jays likely want to keep guys like Hector Perez, Trent Thornton, Thomas Pannone, Patrick Murphy and Yennsy Diaz. Julian Merryweather (a.k.a., the guy the Jays got for Josh Donaldson) would be a bad look to DFA right now (and since he’s injured, they won’t have to) and Jacob Waguespack (a.k.a., the guy the Jays got for Aaron Loup) might be the only option as to someone to DFA to make room.

By my count, there are two, maybe three spots available by sending guys to the 60-day IL and one that will work itself out if the Jays decide not to keep Dalton Pompey on the 25-man roster.

I give the inside track to Paulino and Barnes. Who do you think has the inside track for the bullpen jobs?

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