Heading into their Monday off day at 7-9, the Toronto Blue Jays are faced with a number of issues ranging from a largely underperforming lineup to a rotation that’s tough to trust beyond Hyun-Jin Ryu and Steven Matz.
Their most acute concern, however, has to be a flurry of bullpen injuries that turned one of the club’s greatest strengths into an exploitable weakness. That was apparent over the weekend when they lost two games late with pitchers like Joel Payamps and T.J. Zeuch surrendering the back-breaking runs in high-leverage situations. Sunday’s loss was particularly emblematic of their bullpen issues as they were forced to turn to their two most ineffective starters (Zeuch and Tanner Roark) in the same inning with the game on the line.
Although it appears that reinforcements are on the way with the injury prognosis on both Tyler Chatwood and Jordan Romano looking encouraging, if the Blue Jays are going to survive the next stretch of their schedule — and Julian Merryweather’s longer absence — they’re going to need some unexpected contributors to step up.
That’s not necessarily unrealistic. Relievers often emerge from obscurity and have significant positive and negative swings in performance. While it’s unrealistic to hope that you can pluck a star shortstop from the scrap heap, it’s fairly common to find yourself a trustworthy reliever.
In recent years, the Blue Jays have seen guys with modest expectations like Steve Delabar, Liam Hendriks and Joe Biagini become bullpen stalwarts, and gotten better-than-expected performances from modestly-priced veterans like Seunghwan Oh, Tyler Clippard, A.J. Cole and Anthony Bass. Whether they have someone else who can elevate their game is up for debate, but they have a few viable candidates:
The Converted Starters
2021 stats: 7.04 K/9, 3.52 BB/9, 0.00 HR/9 with a 2.35 ERA and 2.77 FIP in 7.1 innings
Expected 2021 role: Low-leverage middle reliever/long man
How he could step up: There’s always been an expectation with Thornton that if he dedicated himself to relief, he could be a difference maker in the bullpen with his high-spin fastball and breaking ball. The 27-year-old was a shutdown reliever early in his college career, and again in the Arizona Fall League just before the Blue Jays acquired him in November 2018.
While the results, in a very limited sample, seem promising so far, it would be hard to call what Thornton has done in 2021 impressive. Instead of seeing his stuff play up in short stints, the right-hander is throwing his fastball precisely as hard (92.9 m.p.h. on average) as he did as a rookie starter in 2019, and hasn’t missed many bats.