By Andrew Hendriks
Canadian Baseball Network
DUNEDIN, Fla. — Shortly before Joe Biagini was scheduled to make his first appearance of the spring, Blue Jays manager John Gibbons told reporters not to read too far into the fact that the 26-year-old righty was starting Toronto’s Grapefruit League home opener.
Of the many noteworthy items around camp this spring, one of the most intriguing story lines involves the former Rule-5 selection and whether he will start the 2017 season in the Blue Jays bullpen, or as a member the Bisons starting rotation.
“It’s something that we’re playing with because I think everyone’s intrigued about what he can do as a starter,” said Gibbons. “Right now he’s so valuable to us in the bullpen, so we’re just going to play with it a little bit.”
Having never appeared above the double-A level prior to 2016, Biagini pitched to an ERA of 3.06 with 62 strikeouts against only 19 walks during his rookie campaign as a reliever with the Blue Jays last season.
“He established himself last year” added Gibbons. “ He’s on the team. The idea down here is to stretch him out a few innings more. We’re not going to get carried away and stretch him out too far unless an injury should occur to one of the five guys (in the starting rotation).”
With a repertoire that includes both a two-seam and four-seam fastball, in addition to a 12/6 curveball and a steadily developing changeup, there’s no doubt that Biagini has the stuff to start games in the big leagues. In fact, all but three of his 89 career minor league appearances came out of a starting rotation.
His 6-foot-5, 240-pound frame and pitch heavy arsenal helped Biagini throw multiple high-leverage innings in 2016 en route to posting an impressive ground-ball rate of 52.5% and allowing only three home runs on the year, the first of which came in his 50th appearance on September 3rd.
Biagini’s dominant first-year showing, coupled with the recent addition of veteran right-hander Mat Latos, has the Blue Jays brass contemplating their decision on the hard-throwing righty.
Signed to a minor-league deal earlier this month, the 29-year-old Latos could conceivably compete for that same spot in the Blue Jays bullpen this spring.
“(Latos) is going to go out there and get his work in,” Gibbons said. “It’s not like he’s a young kid that has to go and prove anything right out of the gate. You look at his history and he’s been one of the better pitchers out there.”
Although he’s on a minors pact, there’s still a potential hang up for Toronto as Latos’ deal comes with a pair of opt-outs, one of which can be exercised at the end of spring training. This means that the former National League Cy Young candidate could seek a major league job elsewhere should the team view him as more of a depth piece when finalizing their big league roster.
As for Biagini, he has options and can be dispatched to the minor leagues without consequence.
Both hurlers saw action in Sunday’s game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium.
Biagini worked 1 2/3 inningss while racking up three strikeouts and a walk. Although a pair of his base runners scored, both runs were unearned due in part to some shaky glove work from Richard Urena, who celebrated his 21st birthday by going 1-for-2 with two errors and was forced to leave the game with a minor leg injury on Sunday.
Latos fired a pair of frames while striking out two, walking one and allowing three hits, one of which -a 2-2 fastball to Andres Blanco - left the yard.
Having now dropped their first four exhibition contests, the Blue Jays resume Grapefruit League action on Tuesday with a 1:05 PM game against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Bradenton.
- Follow Andrew Hendriks on Twitter (@77Hendriks)