TORONTO — Calling a pitcher without a clear role and just 13 big-league innings to his name a key to the Toronto Blue Jays’ pitching staff this year might seem like a stretch.
But Julian Merryweather is one of the arms who could end up being vital to what pitching coach Pete Walker and manager Charlie Montoyo are trying to do.
The reason he doesn’t have a clear role as of yet is because of a deep arsenal and a smooth delivery that screams starting pitcher. That’s why the Blue Jays’ front office told the 29-year-old, who’s still a considered a prospect, to stretch out this winter and prepare to come into camp competing for a rotation spot.
That’s what Merryweather did, but the injury risk is extreme with a pitcher who missed all of 2018 due to Tommy John surgery, returned in 2019 to throw just six minor-league innings before another arm issue cropped up, and then had his big-league bullpen debut cut short last September after another bout with elbow tendinitis.
Wondering if the San Mateo, Calif., native and a product of Junipero Serra High School — the school Barry Bonds and Tom Brady have made famous — can hold up is a fair question, evidenced again by a minor back injury that has delayed his return to game action this spring.
In fact, after showing off high-octane stuff in the majors out of the bullpen last year, it’s curious that the Blue Jays even wanted to risk the heavier workload that comes along with Merryweather stretching out, and the setback this spring made them rethink things, letting him settle back into a one-to-two-inning role recently.
He’s currently slated to make his Grapefruit League debut Friday and could still find himself in the mix for the opening day roster if he can avoid a setback and show he’s ready.
“I think it’s probably a hybrid at this point,” Merryweather said earlier this month. “I think they want to have the flexibility of using me as a starter, for sure, and then obviously being able to be out of the ‘pen, too, is a good option. It’s not the easiest role not knowing exactly if you’re going to end up in the rotation or not, but for me it’s not as daunting as last year being in the bullpen for the first time.”
That’s where Merryweather seems to fit best at this stage of his career.
Even with a minor-league option remaining — the Jays were afforded an extra one this off-season due to his injury-ravaged career up to this point — he’s clearly a capable MLB-ready arm who can help this pitching staff from the get-go as long as he’s healthy.
If he had a choice, like almost all pitchers, especially ones who have spent their entire minor-league careers in the rotation, Merryweather would prefer to remain a starter.
But getting his feet wet out of the bullpen last season — he went two full innings in five of his eight appearances — gave him something to think about as he envisions his future.
“Me, personally, I would love to be a starter,” Merryweather said. “It’s just something that I enjoy doing. Just that kind of chess game you play with the lineup. You’re going through the lineup multiple times, it’s just a fun challenge to take that on, really prepare for each hitter, know exactly how you’re going to attack them with your catcher. It’s just a very fun process to kind of plan all that out. At the same time, the bullpen role is kind of fun where you’re just getting thrown into the fire. They’re calling down to the ‘pen and you’ve gotta get up and go.”
It won’t be this year, but if the right-hander could ever somehow manage to hold up physically in the month of March, the Jays could always reconsider a late-career transition to the rotation once again.
If he can’t, leaving him in the bullpen is a fine consolation prize, even if Blue Jays fans will always likely be underwhelmed by the Aug. 31, 2018 trade return for former MVP Josh Donaldson.
“Being in the reliever role last year was a little different,” Merryweather said. “It wasn’t the volume, it was the frequency, obviously, of throwing more often. Even games where you’re warming up and not going in, all those things are different in the bullpen versus a starter role where everything is regimented and laid out for you. I think that just gave me a good kind of flexibility now to know what my body can and can’t do. Definitely a learning experience being in that position and I think it’s prepared me for what to expect this year.”
The repertoire is extensive.
His four-seam fastball averaged 96.7 mph out of the bullpen last season and held hitters to a .188 batting average and a .219 slugging percentage.
The changeup is his second best offering, getting whiffs at an elite rate and he did not give up a hit on it, throwing it 41 times.
Even though it was a bit unlucky in his debut, the curveball is right there, too, with Statcast giving it an expected batting average of just .178.
The fourth pitch is his slider, a mix-and-match offering that has been a focus this spring with catcher Danny Jansen.
“He’s got such a live arm, man,” Jansen said. “He really throws hard, and he’s got good off-speed, too. He’s got a sharp curveball, and his slider is something he’s really working on to hone that in. He’s got a great parachute changeup that’s one of his best pitches and it’s a great pitch. I think it’s his command to pretty much throw the fastball where he wants to, it’s obviously getting ahead, getting strikes. He’s got the off-speed pitches and the power to put guys away, so it’s really just getting ahead and that’s the focus in the bullpens.”
No matter what opener, high-leverage or multi-inning bullpen role Merryweather ends up in this season, it’s a key year for the 6-foot-4 righty as he approaches his 30th birthday in October.
“I think, yeah, you said it — I’m 29, man,” Merryweather said with a grin. “I don’t have a lot of time to waste. I want to be in the big leagues, I want to help the team win. After last year, after getting the taste, it just makes you want to be there even more. That’s kind of my mentality going into this year.”