At first glance, “Francisco Liriano has signed with the Toronto Blue Jays” doesn’t seem like an especially fascinating headline. For starters, Liriano turned 37 last fall. He also didn’t play in the shortened 2020 season after making the decision to opt out.
So, what’s the deal with this seemingly odd signing?
The answer’s pretty simple, truthfully. He’s a lottery ticket signing who’s shown exceptional talent in the past. “The past” is also not as far in the rearview mirror as some would think – he was excellent out of the bullpen for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2019. That’s where he’ll likely fit in with Toronto, despite the seemingly already deep group the team has there when compared to their rotation. Per Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi, he’ll make $1.5 million if he does make the team.
In 2019, Liriano appeared in 69 games, all in relief. He pitched to a 5-3 record with an ERA of 3.47. He struck out 63, and walked 35. His bWAR was higher than in any season since 2015, and he appeared to be in line for a similar role with Philadelphia before the COVID-19 pandemic started its impact. (He was later released after reporting late due to COVID concerns)
It’s definitely understandable, then, that teams were seemingly less interested in Liriano after the season, as evidenced by the trend in that he apparently went from multiple guaranteed offers in 2020 (as reported by Robert Murray of FanSided) to signing a minor-league contract in February of the following year with an invitation to Spring Training.
Liriano’s 2019 Baseball Savant chart strongly suggests that he should consider shifting his focus to his slider, as both his fastball velocity (around 93 mph on average, per his Brooks Baseball page) and spin are far below average at this point in his career.
The flipside to that news is that the rest of his chart is very strong – his ability to limit hard contact is a standout. His sinker’s velocity will matter less in the bullpen than it would in a rotation, and his slider/changeup combination seem to be a strong combination even at this point in his career.
He’s also a lefty, and that makes him an even more intriguing option to think about. As it was currently projected, the only strong left-handed options Charlie Montoyo had in his bullpen would have been Ryan Borucki and Anthony Kay.
Borucki is surely a lock to be on the Opening Day roster, but the Jays are likely to send both Kay and Thomas Hatch back to AAA to pitch in preparation for future rotations. The mixture of Borucki’s ceiling and Liriano’s experience could prove to make a strong combination for Montoyo to work with.
Barring an absolutely disastrous spring, it sure seems like there should be a roster spot for the veteran. Of course, this is assuming he enters the spring camp with all of his pitches working as they did in 2019 – something that seems reasonable to expect, but it’s not a guarantee.
This is another signing that is very much on brand for the current Blue Jays front office.
With Robbie Ray, Tyler Chatwood, Kirby Yates, Steven Matz, and now Liriano, the Blue Jays are consistently signing talented arms who have not pitched at their highest value of late – all of it with the clear hope that they can bring the best out of them and create a sneaky-good pitching staff.
Clearing Up the Bullpen Picture
Although there are few flashy names, the Blue Jays have quietly formed a really solid group for their bullpen. No one but Ross Atkins knows if they’re planning on adding an additional name (Trevor Rosenthal, perhaps?), but even if they don’t, it should rank as one of the more solid groups in the American League.
With Borucki and Liriano likely to slot in as the lefties, that likely leaves some combination of Tyler Chatwood, Ross Stripling, Julian Merryweather, and Jacob Waguespack as the long relievers. Out of this group, Waguespack is easily the most likely to start in AAA. Merryweather was previously thought to be out of options, but he was given an extra option year due to injury history. (Thanks to Andrew Stoeton for helping clear that up.) Given the newfound flexibility, the Jays may opt to start him in AAA from the rotation as well.
A.J. Cole, Shun Yamaguchi, Patrick Murphy, and TJ Zeuch will probably benefit the most from strong spring showings, though both Cole and Yamaguchi showed enough promise last season to where they’d probably be favoured in the current setup. Both Murphy and Zeuch also have options remaining, so it’s probably a safe bet to expect them to begin the season in AAA. As previously mentioned, Kay and Hatch will likely start the year as starters for Buffalo. Both Tim Mayza (returning from a long-term injury) and Ty Tice could also compete for spots, but they’ll be the underdogs of the crowd.
Kirby Yates will be the team closer, while Jordan Romano and Rafael Dolis will be expected to be the high leverage late-inning relievers. The disclaimer must be mentioned, though, that the rotation is still badly in need of another arm or two, so there’s potential for a lot of bullpen movement between now and Opening Day.
At a Glance, Here are the Bullpen Names to Watch
RHP Kirby Yates – Closer*
RHP Jordan Romano – Late Inning Reliever*
RHP Rafael Dolis – Late Inning Reliever*
RHP Shun Yamaguchi – Middle Reliever
RHP A.J. Cole – Middle Reliever
LHP Ryan Borucki – Middle Reliever*
LHP Francisco Liriano – Middle Reliever
RHP Tyler Chatwood – Long Reliever*
RHP Ross Stripling – Long Reliever
RHP Julian Merryweather – Long Reliever
*Essentially a lock to be on the Opening Day roster.
The following key bullpen pitchers have options remaining, per FanGraphs: Yamaguchi (3), Stripling (2), Borucki (1), Merryweather (1), Romano (2), Kay (3), Thornton (3), Hatch (3), Zeuch (2), Waguespack (2)