Published On: Fri, Mar 22nd, 2019

Blue Jays’ bullpen cupboard suddenly bare bones

CLEARWATER, FLA.—For the past two seasons, the bullpen has been the foundation of the Blue Jays’ pitching staff.

Relievers were responsible for 5962/3 innings in 2017, the third-heaviest workload in the major leagues, and 5941/3 last year, 11th in MLB.

Ryan Tepera and the Blue Jays will soon learn the extent of the late-inning reliever’s right elbow injury.
Ryan Tepera and the Blue Jays will soon learn the extent of the late-inning reliever’s right elbow injury.  (Rick Madonik / Toronto Star file photo)

That foundation took a major hit on Thursday.

Late-inning reliever Ryan Tepera was ruled out indefinitely with inflammation in his right elbow and will pay a Saturday visit to Dr. David Altchek, a New York surgeon who has performed Tommy John surgery on a number of major leaguers.

Also, John Axford, in camp on a minor-league deal, will miss at least four weeks with a stress reaction on the inside of his right elbow.

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“Of course there’s concern,” manager Charlie Montoyo said of the possibility of ligament reconstruction surgery for Tepera. “For both of them, so we’ll see.”

The opening day bullpen now projects to be far less experienced than expected. Closer Ken Giles, Joe Biagini and lefty Tim Mayza are the only locks, with Bud Norris — also on a minor-league deal — likely to join them after a midnight Thursday deadline to opt out.

Working high-leverage innings wouldn’t be a stretch for the 34-year-old Norris, who recorded 47 saves over the past two seasons with the Cardinals and Angels. It could be an issue for Biagini, who thrived in late-inning assignments as a rookie in 2016 but, after a failed attempt to stretch him out as a starter, has been more of a sixth- or seventh-inning guy.

Montoyo also mentioned David Paulino, acquired along with Giles in the Roberto Osuna trade with the Astros last season, as a possible late-inning candidate.

The Jays also have to decide what to do with hard-throwing 19-year-old Elvis Luciano, claimed in the Rule 5 draft in December, which will likely determine whether they go with a seven- or eight-man bullpen. Luciano has yet to look comfortable in his unlikely transition from rookie ball to a major-league mound, struggling mightily with his command to the tune of a 14.85 ERA in eight appearances. His inclusion on the opening day roster on March 28 against the Tigers would signal a willingness to make a long-term commitment to Luciano, who they see as a potential starter down the road.

Among the rest of the available options, right-hander Javy Guerra, an eight-year veteran on a minor-league deal, is the only one with more than three years of experience. Sam Gaviglio, a strong candidate to eat up innings in long relief, looks like a veteran with 198 innings over the past two seasons, while Danny Barnes, who is out of options, has pitched 1202/3 innings in three years. After those relievers, Thomas Pannone has the most innings under his belt at 43, but the Jays hope to continue to develop him and Trent Thornton — acquired from the Astros last fall for infielder Aledmys Diaz — as starters with the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons.

“We want (them) to start,” Montoyo said.

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Of the nine still in the mix for the remaining spots in the bullpen — Paulino, Luciano, Gaviglio, Guerra, Barnes, Thornton, Pannone, Justin Shafer and Jason Adam, recently acquired from Kansas City — only five are on the 40-man roster, but the Jays could open up space if anyone starts the year on the 60-day injured list.

There is more potential help on the way. Free-agent pickup David Phelps, about a year out from Tommy John surgery, isn’t pitching in games yet but could be available by May. And another free-agent signing, Clay Buchholz, is slated to throw two innings in a minor-league game on Friday and could bump starter Clayton Richard to the ’pen.

For now, Montoyo and the Jays are left scratching their heads at a half-empty drawing board that was nearly full not long ago.

“Other people are going to get chances now,” the skipper said. “That’s how baseball works.”

Laura Armstrong is a sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @lauraarmy

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Blue Jays’ bullpen cupboard suddenly bare bones