Shun Yamaguchi aiming to add to starting rotation for Blue Jays

Toronto Blue Jays newly-signed pitcher Shun Yamaguchi speaks to the media, Wednesday Jan. 15, 2020 in Toronto (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)

The Toronto Blue Jays have committed more than $100 million this offseason to overhaul a pitching staff that saw a team record 21 different players start games last season. Hyun-Jin Ryu and Tanner Roark’s deals alone account for nine digits of spending, but they are not the only new faces that will be on the mound for the team in 2020.

Shun Yamaguchi, a 32-year-old right-handed pitcher from the mighty Yomiuri Giants of Japan officially signed with the team in December on a two-year deal worth $6.3 million. The contract includes several six-figure bonuses for hitting innings minimums ranging between 70 and 170 innings pitched that can escalate the deal up to $9.15 million. He also can’t be sent to the minor leagues without his consent.

The wide range of innings pitched incentives paint a good picture for the possible roles the Blue Jays may ask him to play, as his tenure in Japan shows two distinctly different types of usage history across his 14 seasons.

He pitched a career-high 181 innings in 2019, a standard number for starter to hit — especially one that carries a 2.78 ERA. When healthy, Yamaguchi made the majority of his appearances in Japan as a starter dating back to 2014. From 2008-2012 he spent his early seasons in the league closing games out, notching a pair of 30-plus save seasons at age 22 and 23. He is a starter most recently, and intends to remain one with the Blue Jays.

“For spring training what I’m aiming for is to win a spot in the rotation as a starter,” Yamaguchi said at his introductory press conference on Wednesday.

Behind Ryu, Roark, offseason trade acquisition from the Milwaukee Brewers Chase Anderson, and veteran Matt Shoemaker, there are a lot of ways the Blue Jays could go with the remaining starting pitching opportunities. Trent Thornton spent all of 2019 in a major league rotation as a 25-year-old, and there is a long list of arms that spent time last year with the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons that surely warrant big league looks at some point this season.

At the same time, none of those tweener Triple-A types have staked a claim to the role just yet, and just as Yamaguchi is coming into the season with every intention of staying a starter, general manager Ross Atkins echoed feeling the same way about his new pitcher’s possible place on the team.

“The way we feel about it is come in and try to win a spot in rotation,” Atkins said. “Based on performance and the health of others we’ll see where we are.”

Health is a big part of it, and one that will likely come in to play a large part in what role Yamaguchi will play for the team. Ryu has missed time on the injured list in almost every season he’s played in the majors, and Shoemaker hasn’t thrown more than 100 innings since 2016. Opportunity through injury will probably present itself at some point or another, it will be up to Yamaguchi to be ready for it.

“I understand in a team situation when the time comes sometimes we have to be flexible,” Yamaguchi said of working out of the bullpen. “When the time comes I’ll be ready for that too.”

He asked a couple of times about working out of the pen, but all signs at the press conference pointed to Yamaguchi believing he is and carrying himself as a starting pitcher.

That certainty and drive is part of what drew the Blue Jays to pursue Yamaguchi in the first place. “All the work our pro scouting department did pointed to his elite competitiveness,” Atkins said. “We continued to hear from his peers, coaches, teammates. It resonated with us. That gives us a great deal of confidence.”

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