By: Dan Grant
Following up the thrill ride of the last season’s playoff run was always going to be difficult for the Toronto Blue Jays, but Jays fans aren’t making it any easier by doing the most Toronto-sports-fan-y thing possible. Kicking off baseball season in an endless cycle of hyperbole and nonsense is asinine, be it debating Jose Bautista’s contract ‘demands’ (he was just being honest), the lack of a contract offer to David Price (get over it), or even a non-Jay Bruce trade (it fell through, move on!).
You can blame it on the media and the 24/7 sports news cycle, but desperate fans are the ones engaging in the bluster and need to take a look in the mirror when attempting to assign blame for the early season unrest.
Yes, the view from here on my high horse is gorgeous. Thanks for noticing.
Mostly, I just want this all to be fun again! It feels like people aren’t having fun, which sort of defeats the purpose of the entire ‘fan’ exercise. In fact, a lot of fans seem to have missed out on something quite noteworthy:
Spring Training has actually started!
I began talking Blue Jays with our new 25 Deep feature three weeks back, and with respect to the growing cast who will audition to play left field (hello Domonic Brown!), or lead off (Saunders or Pillar? Come on, Gibby!) to me, the bullpen is the most interesting and fluid situation in regards to the 2016 Jays.
Seen by many as a weakness to begin 2015, the Jays actually finished the year with the 5th best bullpen ERA (3.50) in the American League. This was greatly aided by the fact that they posted the 3rd best bullpen ERA post-All Star Break (3.35). They did slightly outperform both their FIP and xFIP, but not so significantly that it’s a red flag. The acquisitions of the since departed Mark Lowe and LaTroy Hawkins certainly helped to drive that second half number, but so did improvements from R.A. Dickey and Marco Estrada, the addition of David Price and the return of Marcus Stroman; the Jays bullpen was only asked to throw 207.0 innings in the second half, the second lowest total in the entire AL.
So how will the bullpen shake out in 2016? Great question, I’m glad I asked it.
Brett Cecil has had a few different roles during his tenure as a Blue Jay. He had some marginal success as a starting pitcher, but has become dominant since he moved to the bullpen full time in 2013. To see that, one just needs to look at his K/9 rates over the past three seasons:
Yowza. That’s a lot of whiffs.
The 2015 number ranked him 8th among American League relievers and helped to drive his 5.38 K/BB rate, 9th best in the AL. He struggled with an injury early last year, but regained his form as the season progressed and posted a truly extraordinary second half in which he didn’t allow an earned run over 25.1 innings, striking out 37 batters and walking only 2. He baffled both righties and lefties nearly identically, holding both under the Mendoza line. As the title suggests, Cecil will be a mainstay in high leverage situations for Toronto in 2016.
To Close or Not to Close
I’m personally of the mind that the closer is an overrated and antiquated job. In an ideal world, you would simply use your best bullpen options whenever you needed them most. If that happened to be at the end of the game, fine, but it shouldn’t be restricted to such a narrow role. Current managers and players don’t tend to agree however, seeming to thrive on the certainty that comes with a defined role. I’d argue that managers and front offices should simply start creating different role definitions and that in the long term, players would adjust their mentalities accordingly, but what do I know?
For Toronto in 2016, the coveted role of the closer comes down to two candidates. Whoever doesn’t fill it will join Cecil in a set-up role; either way, the three names at the back end of the Toronto bullpen are set.
Hard-throwing reliever Drew Storen was acquired this off-season for outfielder Ben Revere. The move made a lot of sense for Toronto, for a variety of reasons that I wrote about here. The most important reason? Storen has been really great at points in his career, and helps the Blue Jays create the potential for dominance late in games. Storen posted a dominant 29 save first half for the Washington Nationals last year, before their ill-fated acquisition of Jonathan Papelbon. Many thought Storen’s struggles afterwards were due to his being unhappy with losing the closer role, but he simply pegged it as a workload issue and has said he’s happy with whatever role he’s given on his new team.
Roberto Osuna is a known (and beloved) commodity to Jays fans. Despite being just 20 years old to begin last season, Osuna had ice in his veins, assuming the closer role about a month into the season and never relinquishing it. He did flag slightly as the season went on, allowing four home runs in September after giving up just three on the season to that point. He also gave up more runs in September/October than he had in June/July/August combined. For a young pitcher recovering from Tommy John surgery, he likely just hit a wall. As the incumbent, many think the closer job is Osuna’s to lose, and they may be right.
Personally, if you’re going to have a defined role, I think it makes more sense to give the closer job to Storen. It’s about maximizing the effectiveness of your personnel. Storen has shown in the past that he’s struggled at times when assuming base runners and works best when given a clean sheet. Osuna came up as a starting pitcher and it follows that Toronto would want to explore whether or not he can transition back to that role, perhaps as early as 2017, when R.A. Dickey comes off the books. As such, it would make sense to use him in multiple inning situations. Also, he was so damn good last year that saving him for more elementary ninth inning situations seems like a waste when you have another guy perfectly suited to that type of role.
Aaron Loup is a player who has trended in the wrong direction so far in his career. After a strong 33 game 2012 debut, he became a mainstay for Toronto manager John Gibbons in 2013, appearing in 64 games and posting a 2.47 ERA and 1.14 WHIP, and a 3.32 FIP suggested it was only a little bit lucky. In 2014, he appeared in 71 games and was slightly less effective, posting a 3.15 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and a 3.83 FIP; this was on the back of his BB/9 rate ballooning to 3.9 from only 1.7 the year before. In 2015 he got the BB/9 back under control, posting a 1.5 rate, but unfortunately in an attempt to throw more strikes, Loup began to get rocked, especially by right handed batters. He posted career worst numbers (by far) in ERA and WHIP, H/9, HR/9 and while he still managed to appear in 60 games, he threw just 42.2 innings.
The main culprit appears to be his slider. In 2013, he threw it 109 times and batters managed a minuscule 7.1% line drive rate against it, compared to a 78.6% ground ball rate. In 2014, he threw is 130 times and the number remained solid at 17.6%, with a ground ball rate of 64.7%. However, in 2015, he threw it only 89 times and was rocked for a 46.2% line drive rate, and an identical 46.2% ground ball rate. Loup will need to correct this if he wants to remain a member of any big league bullpen.
Pat Venditte is in camp, and will look to push Loup for the lefty specialist role. Venditte is a rare switch-pitcher, meaning he can throw with both arms. For those unfamiliar, Venditte must declare which arm he will pitch with before each at bat, and he can’t switch mid-batter, so he can’t force a switch hitter to hit at a disadvantage. He can, however, switch arms batter to batter based on scouting reports, and can also switch arms if a pinch hitter comes to the plate. It’s a unique advantage, and despite minimal major league experience, the 30 year old Venditte has had success in the minor leagues. He boasts a career 2.62 ERA over 110 innings pitched at Triple A, pitching from both sides.
Venditte was effective from both sides, but particularly as a lefty for Oakland in 2015, holding opponents to a .116 average and just a .447 OPS with 16 strikeouts in 22 appearances. A right shoulder injury led to a brief experiment wherein he pitched as a lefty against right-handed competition, but this went poorly and will likely not be repeated with Toronto. The lefty specialist spot would appear to be his opening, as Loup struggled last year and Toronto doesn’t have another lefty on the 40 man roster. Chad Girodo, Pat McCoy, Wade LeBlanc and Scott Diamond are all in camp, but Venditte has the best chance of the bunch.
Loup probably hangs onto the job unless Venditte has such a good camp that he can’t be ignored. I would expect Loup to be on a short leash however, and hopefully Venditte remains with the organization in Triple A Buffalo to provide much needed southpaw depth should Loup struggle in the early-going.
[Ed. Note: Loup has been experiencing ‘forearm discomfort’ so far in camp. Hopefully he’s OK but might be a door opening for Venditte]
The Long Man
This question has more to do with the competition for the fifth starters job, so we’ll be brief here. If all goes correctly, right-hander Jesse Chavez should be slotted into this role. I think it’s unlikely you’ll see Drew Hutchison or Aaron Sanchez getting any kind of a look here; if Hutchison struggles, I think he’ll be starting the season in Triple A Buffalo, while if Sanchez fails to crack the rotation, he’ll join Osuna, Storen and Cecil in high leverage relief situations.
If Chavez winds up in the fifth starters role to begin the season, the job could fall to Gavin Floyd, recently signed on a cheap (but fully guaranteed) one-year deal. However, I think it’s a lot more likely that Floyd gets the initial shot at starting, if he makes the team. Chavez is the good bet here.
The Question Marks
So we have Cecil, Chavez, Osuna, Storen and probably Loup occupying five bullpen positions. Who will fill the other two?
Bo Schultz & Ryan Tepera
I’m putting the two of these guys together, because I feel like that’s how most Blue Jays fans remember them. ‘Who the hell hasn’t Gibbons used yet today? Oh yeah, Schultz and Tepera’.
Both are reasonably hard-throwing righties that were occasionally effective for the Jays in 2015. The 27 year old Tepera appeared in 32 games; 29 year old Schultz got into 31. Tepera posted a 3.27 ERA, while Schultz put up 3.56. FIP wasn’t kind to either, saying that Tepera was actually closer to 5.77 and Schultz 4.85, meaning they relied heavily on their defense and/or got extremely lucky. Neither guy cracked 7.0 K/9 but both did a good job throwing strikes and limiting walks. Both are somewhat decent and both are very replaceable.
There’s a laundry list of guys vying for these positions, which means that Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins have done their job. We have the usual cast of bullpen cliches: young guys trying to prove themselves, a Rule 5 pick, and former stars attempting to return from injury and/or ineffectiveness. Aaron Sanchez is not included here; he’s a lock for the team and I think he’ll be in the rotation. If he isn’t, all these guys are fighting for a single spot. Any of them could make the team if they have a lights out spring; know that that’s a given. I also haven’t included Will Browning, Taylor Cole, Scott Copeland or Brad Penny, because a man has limits and I just don’t see them having even an outside chance to break camp with the team.
There’s no fair way to do this, so let’s just go alphabetically, rapid fire style!
Having won the ‘let’s just do this alphabetically’ competition since birth doesn’t make me feel anything towards the 34 year old Aardsma positively or negatively. However, he missed full seasons in 2011 and 2014 and struggled in 30 appearances with the Atlanta Braves last year. He did manage 35 strikeouts in 30.2 innings, but his HR/9 was a rough 1.8 and his average fastball velocity was a career low 91.4 mph, a far cry from the 94+ he averaged when he was a closer for Seattle in 2009-10. A more recent signing makes Aardsma feel like he’s destined to be either Triple A depth or released.
The rule 5 pick from San Francisco either has to make the Blue Jays roster and remain there for the entirety of the season or be offered back to San Fran at half of the $50,000 Toronto paid for him. The 25 year old has never pitched above Double A and while he was reasonably effective there last year, there’s a reason San Francisco left him exposed. I’d say he’s a long shot to make the Opening Day roster.
The 2013 All-Star is a known commodity to the Jays. As always, the questions with Delabar will be control and consistency. When he maintains his mechanics and pitches downhill, he’s an effective strikeout pitcher; on any given day, you can see why Toronto has kept him around, despite godawful overall numbers the past two seasons. A dark horse, but I’d expect him to begin the season in Triple A Buffalo.
The 23 year old Dragmire has never pitched above A ball, and while he’s posted some solid numbers in the minors, particularly in this past years Arizona Fall League, he’s destined for further seasoning in the minors. He was added to the 40 man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. The Jays have to love that he throws 93-96 with sink and that he posted a K/9 rate over 11 last season. I’d expect to him to compete for a bullpen job in 2017.
Has already cleared waivers and been out-righted to Triple A Buffalo, nearly three weeks ago, in fact! One down, many to go.
We need to go faster with these. The 27 year old Leon was signed as depth. He’ll begin the season in Triple A and might even get a chance to start again, because he wasn’t great as a reliever for Oakland in 2015. Great first-name-as-a-last-name combo though. When can we start calling him Ponce?
The 27 year old McFarland is interesting. He pitched to a 1.72 ERA with an 0.89 WHIP and 62 K’s in 47 innings for Double A New Hampshire last season and earned a promotion to Buffalo, where he was slightly less effective but in far too small a sample size (8 games) for it to matter. He’ll likely start the season in Triple A, but could see time with the big team if he can maintain anything close to that strikeout rate.
The 26 year old Rowen is a submariner who barely breaks 80 mph with most of his offerings. However, as I wrote in 25 Deep, how do you argue with a 1.76 ERA and 0.98 WHIP in 225 minor league games? Rowen had a cup of coffee with Texas in 2014, but otherwise has no big league experience, so I think he’s unlikely to make the big team, but is an interesting depth piece for Buffalo.
The Jays inked Soriano just two days ago! The 36 year old was solid for the Nationals in 2014 but barely pitched last season due to injury. He was released in early September by the Cubs after just 6 appearances. He no longer throws as hard as he once did, but his velocity had already declined severely when he put in that strong 2014. If Soriano is healthy, he could be a boon for a Jays bullpen that could use the experience.
The Jays bullpen will be a work in progress throughout the season. Injuries and ineffectiveness will create the need for depth when a team least expects it. The Jays have done a good job of acquiring high upside candidates that can contribute now or down the road. For the final two spots, I’m going to split my vote. I think one of Schultz or Tepera will make the team, coupled with one of the high upside veteran signings. I need to poop or get off the commode, so I’ll go with Schultz and a hopefully rejuvenated Soriano.
So there you have it: your opening day bullpen will be Roberto Osuna, Drew Storen, Brett Cecil, Aaron Loup, Jesse Chavez, Bo Schultz and (healthy) Rafael Soriano, with a litany of others waiting in the wings should they falter.
I fully expect to be completely wrong, because building a bullpen ain’t easy.
Ed. Note, March 21st- Rafael Soriano has officially retired. So much for that chapter!