CLEARWATER, Fla. — The past few seasons have taken traditional pitching roles and put them in a blender.
This transition was already in its early stages, but there’s now a fast-growing middle ground of pitchers who go by many names, whether that be openers, long relievers, hybrids or bulk guys. Not quite a starter, but not quite a one-inning reliever. The Blue Jays’ young pitching depth gives them a half-dozen options, and nobody knows the gig better than Ross Stripling.
Since Stripling debuted with the Dodgers in 2016, he has bounced between the rotation and bullpen annually. The 32-year-old is used to arriving in camp, building up as a starter and then seeing what happens next, which was part of the draw for the Blue Jays. This isn’t an easy life for a pitcher, but with experience, Stripling understands the value.
“That’s the game now,” Stripling said. “The last couple of years have been so goofy with scheduling; Now we’re going to have nine-inning doubleheaders and fewer off-days. Depth is going to be challenged right off the bat because guys aren’t going to be built up, so we have as deep a 40-man [roster] as anybody. We have guys who can just fill in, get out in the bullpen or the rotation, long guys, all of that stuff. Where is Nate Pearson going to be? That guy’s going to be a massive asset wherever he is. I think that’s how you win in Major League Baseball now.”
A move to the bullpen is no longer a “demotion” for a starter, necessarily, but it’s still not a comfortable conversation for everyone, especially when you’ve come up through high school, college ball and the Minor Leagues as “the guy” in each rotation. Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins has been encouraged by how his young starters approach the potential new roles, though, and he believes it’s the team’s job to create one thing: consistency.
“As long as you can create some level of that, then usually you’re going to have it embraced, especially in a winning environment,” Atkins said. “If you’re winning and you can create consistency around roles and routines, then it’s usually going to be embraced. What gets really challenging is when it’s changing and fluctuating, and obviously that could happen. It’s a round ball and a round bat, so things happen.”
Pearson, who Stripling mentioned, is a perfect example. The former No. 1 prospect has gifts few others do and is being built up as a starter, but Toronto’s five starters are currently locked in and strong. Pearson is too talented to be waiting at Triple-A Buffalo if he’s healthy, though, so how do the Blue Jays make that work?
Sixth starters will be needed, given the quick ramp-up and increased number of nine-inning doubleheaders, so a hybrid role looks sensible for Pearson. If he’s throwing multiple innings out of the bullpen and sliding into the rotation when needed, there’s a path to 100-plus innings, much like Stripling did — albeit with a much different profile — with Los Angeles.
Stripling, on the other hand, threw 36 pitches over three innings Tuesday in Dunedin, Fla., then fired off 15 more in the bullpen. That’s a good workload for this point in his ramp-up as he focuses more on getting his best curveball back and attacking right-handed hitters. Righties, Stripling feels, have been able to eliminate the inside part of the plate and focus on the outer half, so he’s working to become more unpredictable in those matchups.
He also approaches spring outings a bit differently. Many pitchers will use an inning in a spring start to focus on a pitch or location, for example, but Stripling prefers something much closer to simulating a regular-season game. He’s trying to get outs, plain and simple, especially with the clock ticking toward Opening Day.
Part of Stripling’s experience coming up with the Dodgers also includes an appreciation for a deep 40-man roster, not just the gameday lineup. Beyond Stripling and Pearson, the Blue Jays have Thomas Hatch, Bowden Francis, Trent Thornton and Anthony Kay all capable of handling bulk innings. Covering innings will still be a challenge, but they’re set up better than most.
This picture will evolve as the year wears on, too, and the Blue Jays have made it clear they won’t shy away from spending, whether that’s in the form of money or prospects.
“To have a front office that’s obviously trying to win and make a run and capture this group of talent they’ve developed, now bringing guys in from the outside with trades and free agency to build this really great roster, is really cool,” Stripling said. “You can only look at a handful of teams who are saying, ‘We’re going for it,’ and we’re one of them. That’s really cool. Props to them. We show up and it’s almost like, ‘Well, what are you going to do today?’”