Three years ago the Toronto Blue Jays took a calculated risk with Josh Donaldson. Donaldson, then an impending free agent, dealt with shoulder and calf injuries in 2018, and landed on the injured list in late May. The Blue Jays were out of the race and the hope was Donaldson would get healthy early enough that they could showcase him prior to the trade deadline.
That did not happen. Donaldson suffered a setback in late June and rather than trade him to a team willing to acquire him sight unseen at the July 31 deadline, Toronto held onto him and hoped he would get healthy prior to the Aug. 31 postseason roster eligibility deadline. That didn't happen either. Donaldson did not return to the field until September.
Waiver trades were still allowed in 2018, so in the hours leading up to the postseason roster eligibility deadline, the Blue Jays sent Donaldson to Cleveland for what looked like a meager return. Toronto was not going to make Donaldson the qualifying offer, so the leverage was limited. It was very much a "take whatever we can get" situation.
"What I can tell you is that we're excited about the return," GM Ross Atkins told the Canadian Press following the trade. "It's a near-term prospect we feel can impact our major league team in a significant way."
The prospect: Julian Merryweather. The then-26-year-old right-hander was rehabbing from Tommy John surgery at the time of the trade and Baseball America ranked him the No. 17 prospect in Cleveland's system. A former MVP traded straight up for a 26-year-old who recently had his elbow rebuilt? It was seen as an underwhelming return even with Donaldson's injuries.
Fast forward three years, and Merryweather is making an impact "in a significant way," as Atkins predicted. Now 29, Merryweather closed out Toronto's Opening Day win at Yankee Stadium (TOR 3, NYY 2) with a dominant three up, three down, three-strikeout 10th inning. He fanned New York's No. 3 (Aaron Hicks), No. 4 (Giancarlo Stanton), and No. 5 (Gleyber Torres) hitters on 11 pitches with a one-run lead and the automatic runner at second base.
Here is Merryweather's three-pitch strikeout of Hicks. It was surgical. He started Hicks with a 97 mph fastball, then put him away with back-to-back perfectly placed changeups. The best-case scenario is fouling those changeups away and extending the at-bat, otherwise you're hitting a weak grounder or missing with the swing entirely given the locations.
"He's got the stuff," Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo told reporters, including Sportsnet's Ben Nicholson-Smith, following the Opening Day win. "If he stays healthy, he's going to help us all year. We knew that's what he can do and he did it (Thursday). It doesn't get more high-leverage than what he did."
Merryweather's fastball averaged 98.4 mph and topped out at 99.1 mph on Thursday, and the Yankees missed with three of their five swings against him. Montoyo rolled through his usual late-inning relievers (Tyler Chatwood, Rafael Dolis, Jordan Romano) earlier in the game, so Merryweather was not his first choice to close, but he was dominant and looked fit for the role.
"The moment itself, being in Yankee Stadium was pretty surreal. That's like little league dreams right there," Merryweather told Nicholson-Smith. "... I came in just feeling good and feeling confident with everything. To be able to feel it all come together in the bullpen and have it work out in the game was great."
Merryweather finished his Tommy John surgery rehab in 2019 (six minor-league games) and split last season between the alternate site and the big leagues, allowing six runs in 13 innings spread across three "opens" and five traditional relief appearances. His role coming into the year was undefined and it still is, though Thursday's outing was eye-opening. Merryweather was that overpowering.
The Blue Jays lost presumptive closer Kirby Yates to his second career Tommy John surgery in spring training and the ninth inning is a little unsettled at the moment. Romano is the favorite for saves -- Romano, it should be noted, got eight misses on nine swings Thursday, which is insane -- though he's not locked into the role. Merryweather has an opportunity to grab the job and run with it.
If nothing else, Merryweather started his season with an excellent first outing, and that's pretty much all any player wants at this time of year. Start well and build on it. Now that he's fully healthy, Merryweather has a chance at age 29 to finally carve out a big-league role, and Thursday indicated he has the stuff to be a high-leverage option for a contending Blue Jays team.
"I've always been open to whatever role they're going to use me in, whether it's an opener, long relief guy in extra innings," Merryweather told Nicholson-Smith. "It's just about being ready for the whole game."