Improved rotation health to alter look of 'pen

Improved rotation health to alter look of 'pen

TORONTO -- The pending return of J.A. Happ on Tuesday means the days of Toronto being able to carry extra relievers in the bullpen are about to come to an end.

The Blue Jays have been using eight relievers for most of the year and, at times, even expanded that number to nine or 10. Injuries and a lack of innings from the starting rotation created the unique roster configuration, but with a 25-man roster that is nearing full health, changes are coming.

Unless Toronto does something unexpected, like cutting loose utilityman Chris Coghlan, a member of the bullpen has to go. That would appear to put Dominic Leone, J.P. Howell, or --less likely -- Jason Grilli, on the bubble.

"It hasn't been a concern yet, but you know sooner or later, it's going to catch up to you," manager John Gibbons said when asked about a heavy workload that saw Toronto's bullpen enter play on Monday with an American-League high 181 1/3 innings pitched. "We're always conscious of that ... but there's no doubt that the rotation sets the table."

Leone, who tossed two scoreless innings during Toronto's 17-2 victory over Cincinnati on Monday night, would be the easiest of the three to remove from the roster because he has options remaining on his contract. He was sent to Buffalo once before, and could be again, but the 25-year-old is also someone who has gained the trust of Gibbons. Leone isn't a long reliever, but he's someone who can throw more than one inning, which is less-than-ideal for the other two.

Howell threw a scoreless inning on Monday night as well, but would the obvious choice based on workload. He has made just six appearances in May, and at one point, went 11 days between outings. The problem is that would be giving up on a veteran reliever who signed a one-year deal worth $3 million this offseason to become the lefty specialist, a position that still needs to be filled.

Parting ways with Grilli would be coming at a time when he appears to be throwing much better than earlier in the season. He's had a couple of rough appearances this month, but he's allowed runs in just one of his last eight outings and his high strikeout rate remains appealing in certain situations. That should be enough to keep his spot.

There is no easy answer, but that doesn't change the fact that the Blue Jays have to make a decision. It also doesn't change the fact that Toronto needs more innings out of its starting rotation if the transition back to a normal-sized bullpen is going to work.

"Sooner or later it gets you, no doubt," Gibbons said. "We've been in a position, we put ourselves in a hole, and every game is vital to get out of that hole. It's not like when you're a front-runner and things are going well, there are nights when you can stay away from certain guys. This year we're in that position where you have to win certain games when you're in a position to win them, so that's part of it, too."

Coghlan scratched

Coghlan was a late scratch from Monday night's victory against the Reds because of lower back spasms.

Coghlan initially was listed as Toronto's starting left fielder for the series opener, but was scratched approximately 30 minutes prior to first pitch. Later in the evening, the Blue Jays announced it was because of a back injury.

The 31-year-old Coghlan has been splitting time with Ezequiel Carrera in left field while Steve Pearce remains on the disabled list. Coghlan is hitting .224 with three extra-base hits and five RBIs in 31 games for the Blue Jays this season.

"His back locked up on him during batting practice," said Gibbons, who added he did not believe the injury was very serious.

It's not immediately clear how long Coghlan will be out for. As of now, he is considered day to day, but if he requires a longer absence, that could clear a roster spot for the Blue Jays to keep an extra reliever in the bullpen.

Gregor Chisholm has covered the Blue Jays for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB and Facebook, and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.