By: Dan Grant
Hey Chicken Little. Check out Part 1 here.
With the Jose Bautista signing, the Blue Jays off-season just got a whole lot rosier. It’s not everything, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction for a core that’s built to compete in the here and now. I don’t have a lot to say about the signing actually, because what is there to break down? It’s essentially a one year deal, despite the options, and the price is more than reasonable for a player that has produced like Bautista has over the past half decade. There is literally no downside. If he’s good, that’s fantastic. If he struggle with injuries or declines significantly, it’s a one year deal. No fuss, no muss.
A potential position change for Bautista would be an interesting topic, but might not be in the cards. It’s too early to say. Right now, it’s just good that’s he back in blue.
The Jays front office still have plenty of work to do, to be sure; finding a full-time platoon partner for Melvin Upton Jr. (one not named Ezequiel Carrera) should be a priority, and back-up catcher is still a position that needs to be filled.
Still, these needs pale in comparison to the two gaping holes in Toronto’s bullpen, a dual vacuum created by the departed Brett Cecil.
Cecil filled the role of two men in the Toronto bullpen, both that of the lefty specialist and the late inning reliever. When his breaking ball was working, it was one of the most devastating pitches in baseball, meaning he was able to get both righties and lefties out, and didn’t have to be deployed situationally.
With the recent news that the Jays were after Pirates late-inning lefty Tony Watson (not to mention Andrew McCutchen) it’s clear that Toronto recognizes this void, and would love to fill it with a player of Cecil’s ilk. The thing is, one may not exist.
Left-handed free agent candidates like Jerry Blevins, J.P Howell and Boone Logan are more the lefty specialist types. Premium (among what’s left) late inning candidates like Greg Holland and Joe Blanton throw from the wrong side of the hill, though Blanton has equally good splits against both lefties and righties, and would be an ideal fit.
Many think that the Jays bullpen is a huge weakness for a team with so much strength in the starting rotation and an offense that’s now rounding into shape. It’s actually not quite as bad as you might think.
Let’s take a look at what the Jays actually have in the bullpen right now. Toronto will likely carry seven relievers for most of the season, so we’ll look at those seven spots by role.
72 G, 74.0 IP, 82 K, 14 BB, 10.0 K/9, 2.68 ERA, 3.20 FIP, 0.932 WHIP
Osuna will remain a late-inning reliever, despite rumoured plans to stretch him out as a starter. He’s everything you want in a late-inning, high leverage reliever — ice in his veins, a guy who wants the ball with the game on the line and more importantly than that hyperbolic bullshit, he’s a guy who comes out and throws strikes. He finished 2nd in all of MLB last season with a 70.1% F-Strike%, meaning the percentage of the time he throws a strike on his first pitch. Osuna’s 5.86 K/BB ratio is excellent and he ranked 9th in baseball by only walking 4.9% of the batters he faced last season. Bobby Bear forever.
(As a Blue Jay) 46 G, 42.0 IP, 58 K, 19 BB, 12.4 K/9, 3.64 ERA, 4.29 FIP, 1.119 WHIP
The veteran Grilli was a godsend for Toronto last season, giving them a weapon at the back-end of the bullpen that helped bridge the gap to Osuna, especially when Cecil struggled early on. Picking up his 3 million dollar option for 2017 was, as GM Ross Atkins put it, a ‘no-brainer’.
However, Grilli did struggle a bit down the stretch, showing more of the pitcher he was during his rocky start in Atlanta. He’s not perfect by any means, and no longer throws quite as hard as he did during his heyday in Pittsburgh.With that said, he’s a valuable piece. It’s just important to remember that he’s 40 years old, and relying on him too heavily could ultimately be foolhardy.
60 G, 67.2 IP, 62 K, 19 BB, 8.2 K/9, 3.06 ERA, 2.95 FIP, 1.300 WHIP
Biagini produced beyond the Jays wildest dreams last year. A Rule 5 pick from the San Francisco Giants who had never moved above Double A ball as a starter, he won a job in the Jays bullpen out of Spring Training, and never looked back. By the end of the season he was pitching in high leverage situations, mainly due to his consistency and his ability to throw strikes.
Like Osuna, Biagini’s biggest skill is getting ahead of hitters; he finished 4th MLB with a 69.4 F-Strike%. Right now he’s probably the Jays defacto second set-up man, though you’d much prefer to have him pitching in 7th inning or earlier if at all possible. The Jays have said they’ll stretch him out this spring to see if his stuff still translates to starting — I think this is wholly unnecessary, given what Biagini showed while in the Giants organization — he was decently effective as a starter in 2015, but struggled from 2012-14 and was stuck in Double A at age 26 — but there’s really no downside, given the lack of starting rotation depth Toronto currently has beyond their main five.
The thing is, what’s the end game there? To have him spend the year starting in Triple A, to be brought up if there’s an injury? To join the rotation in 2018? I guess these are OK plans, but if they come to fruition, it has to mean Toronto has done a lot to fortify it’s current bullpen situation. Right now they need Biagini exactly where he is.
Osuna, Grilli and Biagini are the three main cogs of the Toronto bullpen as it stands. The other four spots will likely be filled by at least one candidate that’s not currently with the organization, and possibly two. Still, those four spots have specific roles — a long reliever would be nice, two generic middle relievers are likely, and a left handed specialist is a definite need. There are in-house options at each spot, so let’s take a look at what the Jays have on hand.
I think many believe this is Gavin Floyd’s job to lose. He re-signed with Toronto on a minor league deal, with an invitation to spring training. The thing is, even when he was healthy last season, Toronto didn’t really use him as a multi-inning guy. He appeared in 28 games for Toronto last season, throwing 31 innings over those appearances. His 4.06 ERA and 3.95 FIP over that time were decently effective, if not ideal — his relatively low 42.2% ground-ball rate doesn’t play super well in the homer friendly
Rogers Centre SkyDome.
Floyd is more likely to occupy one of the two middle reliever slots to begin the season. His 8.71 K/9 and solid 3.75 K/BB rates mean he could be a decent piece, if he can ever stay healthy.
So who will be the long man then?
Mike Bolsinger in an interesting name. Acquired in the Jesse Chavez trade, Bolsinger had an awful 2016, posting an ugly 6.83 ERA over just 6 Major League appearances. He was better in Triple A for the Dodgers, but struggled once moving to Toronto’s farm club. Still, he made 21 starts for the Dodgers in 2015 and pitched to a 3.62 ERA with a 3.91 FIP, striking out 98 batters in 109.1 innings.
He did struggle some with walks, issuing 45 free passes over the same time frame and posting a 1.36 WHIP. Bolsinger is under team control for several more seasons, so I think it’s more likely he gets the chance to start in Triple A and provide the Jays with some of that starting pitching depth we mentioned earlier.
It is possible the Jays go without a traditional long-man, meaning that in addition to the lefty specialist, there would be three middle relief spots in the bullpen. If we have Floyd occupying one of those spots, there are still two more to fill, and several names with which to do so. Ryan Tepera and Bo Schultz are familiar names — last year I played a season-long Highlander style game with them, suggesting only one could be on the Jays roster at a time, as they’re both hard-throwing, generic white righties with a limited track record of success.
Tepera did a lot to separate himself from Schultz last season. He established himself as the closer for Buffalo, and while he journeyed between Triple A and Toronto myriad times, he was effective while in the big leagues. He posted a 2.95 ERA and a 3.69 FIP in 18.1 innings, with 18 strikeouts. He did put up 8 walks in that small time frame, which is less than ideal, but I’d expect him to have the inside track on a relief spot for 2017. Schultz had hip surgery early in 2016, and wasn’t really effective at any point. Highlander rules still apply; there can only be one, and right now it’s Tepera.
Two other names have leaped ahead of Schultz on the depth chart for me: Danny Barnes and Chris Smith might not be household names, but either or both could be part of your Jays bullpen in 2017.
Jays fans might remember Barnes, who appeared in 12 games for Toronto last season. He struck out 14 batter in 13.2 innings, which has always been his strength. He posted excellent strikeout numbers in stops at Double and Triple A last year as well. A 35th round draft pick in 2010, the 27 year old Barnes has slowly worked his way through the organization, culminating in a dominant 2016 over two levels. At Double A, he pitched to a 1.01 ERA and 2.55 FIP with 40 strikeouts in 35 innings, and a gaudy 95.2% strand rate. At Triple A, he was even better, throwing an 0.35 ERA and 0.75 FIP, striking out 37 batters in 25.2 innings, again posting an unreal strand rate of 90.0%. He wasn’t quite as effective in the big leagues, but Barnes has earned a shot at the big club this Spring Training.
Chris Smith is a former Yankees farmhand who spent the majority of 2016 at Double A. He threw 57 innings over 43 games working to a 1.83 ERA and 2.31 FIP. He also struck out an impressive 76 batters in that time frame. The 28 year old will probably begin the year in Triple A, but don’t be surprised if you see him at some point during the season.
The Lefty Specialist
It’s not worth going into a detailed breakdown of each of these candidates just yet. The Jays are almost certainly going to acquire another left-handed reliever, whether it be via free agency or trade.
Stalwart fan-unfavourite (is that a thing?) Aaron Loup is returning after posting another ho-hum season in 2016. He is alive and left handed, so those are positives, I guess.
Matt Dermody (Remember him? No? The party animal who immediately got naked when the Jays won the division?) is a strong candidate who posted effective numbers at both Double and Triple A last season, and didn’t look lost in a five game big league stint. He’s got an inside track to make the team, maybe even over Barnes, Smith and Loup.
Other lefties on the 40 man roster include Chad Girodo, who wasn’t particularly good at Triple A Buffalo and struggled mightily in 14 games with the Jays last season, former Astros and Phillies prospect Brett Oberholtzer, talented-but oft injured prospect Ryan Borucki, and Jeff Beliveau, who was very good for Tampa Bay in 2014 but missed most of 2015 with shoulder surgery and spent last season in the Baltimore organization, never rising higher than Double A.
Dermody and Loup are your clear favourites as things stand right now, but this role is wide open.
So How’re We Lookin’ Fella?
Well if you consolidate it all, you have:
Roberto Osuna, Jason Grilli, Joe Biagini (definitely), Gavin Floyd, Ryan Tepera (probably), Aaron Loup or Matt Dermody, and Danny Barnes or Chris Smith. I’d choose Dermody and Barnes, if I had to make picks right now, but most of these battles will play out during Spring Training, likely with a far lengthier list of names in the mix.
It’s not a tire fire. It could use outside help, absolutely, but it’s not nearly as bad as you might have thought, or even as bad as I thought before I began looking into it more deeply.
The sky is not falling Blue Jays fans. The bullpen is fixable and Jose has come home.
This article has been corrected to note the accurate terms of Gavin Floyd’s contract.