Blue Jays consider options to improve 2022 bullpen

KANSAS CITY — Manager Charlie Montoyo was one visit from the mound of having to pitch the ninth inning himself on Wednesday afternoon after Yusei Kikuchi did not survive the first inning.

Kikuchi needed 45 pitches to cross two outs, walking four into the endless low of the first. That’s ominous in and of itself, but what this truncated outing really revealed was a bullpen group that continues to grow and likely needs reinforcements.

“I’m just going to talk about this [Kikuchi] did today, and he wasn’t good today,” Montoyo said after the 8-4 loss to the Royals at Kauffman Stadium. “The last time he had problems like this he regrouped and gave us another four runs after that. He just couldn’t do it today.

It’s not about the back of the Blue Jays bullpen, at least not yet. Closer Jordan Romano has already saved 16 games while Adam Cimber and Yimi Garcia remain very stable options in the seventh and eighth innings. David Phelps was also one of the most valuable players on this list, a perfect fit in this back-end group.

Instead, the focus should be on Toronto’s middle and long relievers. It’s a picture that has changed significantly since Ross Stripling entered the rotation to replace Hyun Jin Ryu, which could be a long-term assignment considering Ryu’s elbow and forearm issues.

Trent Thornton quickly became “the long man” in Stripling’s absence, so naturally he was the first out of the bullpen to pick up the pieces for Kikuchi. Thornton went 2 1/3 innings scoreless to keep his team in the game, earning him more looks going forward, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement around him in this role. massive.

Stripling’s move to rotation also leaves the depth of rotation a bit thin outside of core five, but general manager Ross Atkins’ view of that group could also give some clues to the long possibilities for relief.

“Right now, probably Thomas Hatch,” Atkins said, asking who would be the next starter in line. “We are open to thinking about different ways. Casey Lawrence was obviously very, very good for us, and Maximo Castillo was awesome in Triple-A. There are different ways to think about it.

Hatch has certainly pitched a lot better lately with Buffalo, and beyond the names mentioned, the Blue Jays have Jeremy Beasley, who was recently picked but can provide length. Yet no name in the organization brings a fraction of the intrigue that Nate Pearson does.

Pearson has come a long way since mono and last pitched June 2 in Triple-A, throwing 25 pitches over two innings. The No. 1 prospect’s shine has worn off, largely due to a horrific string of injuries, but if he’s ever able to step back into a loose role and give the Blue Jays a version of a supercharged Stripling, it could be incredibly valuable.

“It’s just being rebuilt,” Atkins said. “Once he’s in that mix, workload-wise it would be great to get him back out there.”

Pearson is enticing not just for his talent, showcased by that fastball that has hit 100 mph so many times in the past, but because of a flicker of dominance we saw a year and a half ago.

In Game 2 of the 2020 AL Wild Card Series, when the Blue Jays faced the Rays after the shortened season, Pearson came out of the bullpen shortly after Ryu was roughed up. He dazzled, pitching two perfect innings with five strikeouts, but he’s only pitched 45 2/3 innings since, leaving that outing to fade from memory.

However, Toronto’s middle feeder group is also facing challenges. Southpaw Andrew Vasquez left Wednesday’s game with the help of coaches after injuring his right foot or ankle while covering first base. Trevor Richards gave up three runs in 1 1/3 innings on his appearance, raising his ERA to 5.68.

It’s part of the bullpen the Blue Jays tackled in 2021, with both the trade for Richards and another for Cimber, who has since moved into a more highly leveraged role. There are young arms in the way, including No. 18 prospect Adrian Hernandez, who boasts a .60 ERA with 22 strikeouts in 15 innings in Triple-A. Hernandez is only 22, however, and it’s a club that aspires to the World Series.

It’s clear where this is all heading. The August 2 trade deadline will be a pivotal moment for the Blue Jays, but just like last year, they can look to get ahead. Last season, Cimber was acquired on June 29 and Richards on July 6, dates that are fast approaching this summer.

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