Saying the Toronto Blue Jays' bullpen is in a fragile state would be a generous categorization.
The team’s relief corps projected to be average prior to the season, and a combination of injuries and underperformance has caused it to slide comfortably under that bar — especially lately.
Since June 1 the Blue Jays' bullpen has produced a 4.94 ERA, the fifth-worst mark in the league during that span. Its Win Probability added of -0.79 ranks seventh-worst, and the group is one of just two in MLB with more meltdowns than shutdowns this month.
The situation has reached the point that the Blue Jays’ search for an upgrade resulted in the pursuit of Sergio Romo — a 39-year-old with an 8.16 ERA and 7.87 FIP in 2022. Romo was a valuable reliever as recently as 2020, and he did a good job managing hard contact last year, but he’s still not a player most contending teams would be looking to add.
Beyond the unimpressive overall results, the Blue Jays' bullpen has a stylistic issue in that it's geared towards softer tossers whose games rely on inducing harmless contact. In late-game situations with men on base — and especially extra innings — that can be a significant issue.
Outside of Jordan Romano, there isn’t anyone who brings elite velocity or consistently misses bats. The now-injured Julian Merryweather was unable to fill that niche. Nate Pearson is another theoretical fit, but he’s in the midst of a lost season.
This is a problem that will likely be addressed by a trade deadline acquisition, but the Blue Jays might have a surprising internal candidate to help fill the void: Yosver Zulueta.
Zulueta isn’t a household name for Blue Jays fans, but he could be soon. The right-hander came into 2022 as a human mystery box seeing as the Blue Jays signed him out of Cuba in 2019 knowing he’d need Tommy John surgery, and his triumphant 2021 return resulted in three pitches thrown for the Dunedin Blue Jays before he tore his ACL.
After years in the injury wilderness, he’s come back with a vengeance. It took three games at Low-A (where he struck out 23 in 12 innings) before the Blue Jays deemed him ready for High-A. After six starts in Vancouver, he got the call to Double-A over the weekend. Overall, he’s posted a solid 3.53 ERA with a single home run allowed and 54 K's in 35.2 innings so far in 2022.
Zooming out for a moment, the idea of an oft-injured 24-year-old finding success in the low minors and quickly moving up the ladder isn’t exciting. When he has stuff like Zulueta the situation is a little different.
The Cuban throws in the high 90s and tops out around 99 mph — when used as a starter. There’s only Statcast data for three of his outings this season, but in those starts his fastball averaged 96.5 mph.
It’s more of a two-seamer, but he still works up in the zone with it, and the arm-side run on it makes it particularly tough for lefties to reach.
His best secondary pitch is a nasty curveball that averaged a 2568 spin rate in his Statcast-tracked outings — a number that would be in the 63rd percentile among MLB pitchers. The vertical drop he averaged on the hook in those games was also about an inch more than the MLB curveballs thrown at his average velocity (80.5 mph).
That’s all small-sample stuff, but it indicates the movement and spin on the pitch is at least MLB-calibre, and the eye test suggests he can make it fall off the table:
Those two pitches alone would probably be enough for Zulueta to function as an MLB reliever in the near future, especially if working out of the pen allows his already-elite velocity to tick up. That said, he’s also added a slider to his pitch mix that could have its uses, even if he hasn’t thrown it enough for it to have accumulated much of a statistical profile.
Zulueta isn’t a finished product. He still needs to work on his command, his changeup is raw, and his lack of minor-league experience is glaring. Although he’s pitched almost exclusively as a starter since the stellar 2018-19 season in Cuba that got him signed by the Blue Jays, he’s a ways away from starting an MLB game.
In their search for rotation help, the Blue Jays will undoubtedly look elsewhere, but if Zulueta handles the challenge of Double-A with aplomb he’ll be a legitimate late-season bullpen candidate.
That may seem radical considering he hadn’t recorded a minor-league out prior to 2022, and he hasn’t yet faced a hitter in the upper minors. The best thing for his development would probably be to continue to accumulate as many innings as the team thinks is safe in the minors.
Even so, the Blue Jays may need to prioritize their present issues over Zulueta’s ideal developmental path sometime in the weeks to come. In 2015 they rushed Miguel Castro and Roberto Osuna — neither of whom had pitched in relief above Rookie Ball — to the majors out of spring training under similar circumstances.
In 2020, they reached for Alejandro Kirk’s bat when his defence was a work in progress and they couldn’t offer him everyday at-bats. Even in 2022, the timing of Gabriel Moreno’s promotion was dictated by need, even if it looked like an inevitability at some point this season.
This team is in win-now mode, and a fireballing bullpen weapon is among its greatest needs. Prior to the season Zulueta looked like a project to be brought along slowly, but the combination of his explosive stuff and the Blue Jays’ shaky relief corps could change that in a hurry.
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