The Future of the Jays Pen: Jonathan Papelbon and Ryan Madson?

As questions about the bullpen and its makeup, particularly for next season, begin to build, I thought it was important to take a tour of the historical aspects of the Jays pen under their newest GM. If there’s one thing that has been constant in the ERA of Alex Anthopoulos, it has been the use of bullpen pitchers to get what he wants on the trade market, or in the draft. You don’t have to look any further than the evidence at hand, the transactions, to see what I mean. Here’s a rundown of significant pen events since he has taken over as the GM of the Jays:

Using Pen Pieces to Acquire Key Pieces

  • Dec 2009. Traded RP Brandon League to Seattle as the big piece of a package to land SP Brandon Morrow.
  • Jul 2010. Traded RP Tim Collins to Atlanta as a piece in the package that landed the Jays SS Yunel Escobar and SP Jo-Jo Reyes.
  • Nov 2010. Traded RP Trystan Magnuson and RP Daniel Farquhar to Oakland in return for OF Rajai Davis.
  • Jul 2011. Traded RP Jason Frasor and SP/RP Zach Stewart (who could be used in pen) to the White Sox for SP Edwin Jackson. Jackson was then moved, along with RP Marc Rzepczynski and RP Octavio Dotel to the Cards in return for CF Colby Rasmus. This move included moving 3 very notable RP, as 2 are likely going to be Type B free agents this off season and 1 was controllable long term. The Jays did gain 2 RP of their own in this deal, RP Trever Miller and RP Brian Tallet, but it’s unlikely that either will play a prominent role in the future of the pen, if any.

Signing FA Pen Pieces (Minors and Majors) and Claims

  • Has made “core” pen piece signings, such as Kevin Gregg, Jon Rauch, and Octavio Dotel. Two of these have served as closer for the Jays, and the Jays gained this year’s 57th overall pick (RHP Kevin Comer) when they lost Kevin Gregg in FA.
  • Has made “filler” type signings, mostly for the minors system and general pen depth, such as Zach Jackson, Sean Henn, Chad Cordero, Lance Broadway, Dana Eveland, Wade Townsend, Rommie Lewis, Vince Perkins, Yohan Pino, Ronald Uviedo, Steven Register, Willie Collazo, Merkin Valdez, Winston Abreu, Wil Ledezma, Mike Hinckley, Bobby Korecky, Clint Everts, and most recently Chad Gaudin.
  • Claimed Zechry Zinicola and Casey Fien from the Nats and Red Sox respectively.
Exposed to and Lost on Waivers
  • Josh Roenicke and Jo-Jo Reyes.
Roles Switched from SP to RP
  • Both Marc Rzepczynski and Jesse Litsch have had their roles altered to the pen after showing some promise as starters.

The list of transactions above tell us a lot about how Alex Anthopoulos has used his pen pieces, and about how he has approached adding depth to the pen overall. They all point to piecework done by the Jays GM to add to a core that was lacking certain key ingredients. The Jays lacked speed, so he used pen pieces to acquire Davis. The Jays needed another core bat, so he traded what could have been 2 sandwich picks and 3 key relievers in return for Rasmus. In short, he isn’t shy about dealing pen pieces in return for what he is after. Simultaneously, he does keep the minors well stocked with filler pieces, for reasons that I’ll get to next.

The Most Telling Tales of All

  • The first of my 2 most telling tales of all when it comes to Alex Anthopoulos and his pen is that he has drafted and signed pitching like a madman. That’s right, a madman. I can remember sitting there, watching the sandwich picks being made by the Jays in the 2010 draft thinking “ok, now they’ll take a bat…”, but it wasn’t to be. And, there’s good reason for that taking place. Anthopoulos knows full well that not all of these pitchers will have careers in the rotation, but he drafted and signed as many talented pitchers as possible so that he could also fill the Jays pen with the talents that couldn’t make the rotation. Assume that the 2012 rotation mid-season is made up of Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, Brett Cecil, Kyle Drabek, and Henderson Alvarez. What happens when pitchers like Asher Wojciechowski, Joel Carreno, and Chad Jenkins are knocking down the door to the majors? What I see is the slight possibility of one set up, one closer, and one long-reliever. Surely, their roles can  change if circumstances warrant it, but that’s what Anthopoulos envisions, so many internal pieces coming up the ranks that the Jays can build their pen with very, very talented pitchers that were drafted high in the draft. To me, this is the most telling sign of all that the Jays GM knows he doesn’t need to panic about how his pen may look post 2011. He knows he has pieces to fit the bill internally, so the FA market and/or current pen pieces he deals don’t matter nearly as much as they could to a team that lacks depth in minors pitching talent.
  • The second most telling tale of all for the Jays pen is that Alex Anthopoulos was willing to deal C/1B Mike Napoli to the Rangers in return for what they thought would be a closer in Frank Francisco. That’s a big trade that pointed to the Jays realizing that they needed someone at the back of the pen that could shut the door. Trading a player like Napoli who can hit 25-30 HRs per season and crushes LHP (while Lind had struggled against LHP to that point) meant even more than meets the eye, because the Jays also signed Francisco to a 1 year $4 million contract, which means that they knew full well that they were only going to get 1 year out of Francisco and would then be looking for a new closer. I know that most Jays fans will likely point to Jonathan Papelbon as that closer, so he can be reunited with John Farrell, and they may be right, but that’s a pretty big gamble to take from such a long time ago. What I do know is that they expected to be able to reap a draft pick from his being a Type B free agent following this season and that they were satisfied knowing this information alone.

Then we get to this year’s pending free agent period. If we believe that the Jays will spend a lot of their available cash on pitching, here are some of the available starting pitchers they may have interest in:

Mark Buerhle, Chris Carpenter, Edwin Jackson, C.J. Wilson, and possibly C.C. Sabathia will be available as attractive – but aging – free agent pitching options. Of these, only Jackson is under 30 and he may very well become the most sought after of the bunch assuming Sabathia re-signs in NY. Because of the age issues and the fact that the Jays won’t want to block their young up-and-coming starters, I don’t believe they’ll add anyone from free agency. Instead, I believe they’ll try to add someone through trade if possible or depend on internal options.

Where I do expect Alex Anthopoulos to spend lots of money this off-season is in the same place he has spent the majority of his off-season dollars: in the bullpen. Jonathan Papelbon, Francisco Rodriguez, Ryan Madsen, and Matt Capps are the likeliest targets, with one major problem: draft pick costs. All of these relievers are currently ranked as possible Type A free agents this off-season, meaning that signing any of them would cost the Jays their 1st round pick (assuming it isn’t protected due to final rankings in MLB).

*Note, I kept Heath Bell off this list because it’s obvious he wants to remain in SD. He has said he will accept arbitration, and I doubt he’s going anywhere.

Do I still believe they’ll chase one or more of them? Yes, I do, only because without at least 1 of them, the Jays are left in limbo at the back of the pen. Of the four, I expect that Papelbon will be the biggest target for many reasons, but here’s the interesting part: if the Jays sign Ryan Madson as well as Papelbon, not only do they get a great 8-9 inning combination, but they also ensure that the Red Sox get a 2nd rd pick in return for losing Papelbon instead of a 1st rd pick. Therefore, my extremely early and likely very wrong hunch is that the Jays will sign both Madson and Papelbon this off-season, leaving much of the remaining position battles to internal options or trades. It will be very hard to pull Madson away from Philadelphia, but their growing budget issues and other free agents, such as Jimmy Rollins, tells me that they will likely be too cash strapped to make a play for Madson unless he takes a Kerry Wood style discount.

Along with the addition of both pitchers, the Jays could also keep Jon Rauch, Casey Janssen, Luis Perez, and Jesse Litsch around, giving them a fairly experienced pen. Alan Farina and/or Daniel Farquhar could also come into play as they would battle for the last spot in the pen, as could the previously mentioned Carreno, Wojciechowski, and Jenkins.

It’s possible that the Jays will decide to keep things internal or will simply keep guys like Frank Francisco and/or Brian Tallet around, but I wouldn’t bet on it at this point. Francisco will garner the Jays a much coveted sandwich pick if allowed to walk, and Tallet hasn’t been very effective, not to mention his injuries.

If I’m right, which is very far from any kind of a guarantee, the Jays would step into 2012 with Jonathan Papelbon closing for them, Ryan Madson and Casey Janssen setting him up, and a young group leading up to them. They would lose their 1st and 2nd rd picks due to these signings, but just as they were willing to sacrifice Mike Napoli’s bat potential to get Frank Francisco, I believe they’ll be satisfied in knowing that their signings caused the Red Sox to get a much, much lower pick from losing Papelbon to free agency. They’ll also be happy knowing that Madson can also close when/if needed.

What are your thoughts? Will the Jays sign any of the pending free agent relievers post-2011?

How do you see the Jays building the back of the pen for 2012?

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- MG

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Tags: Frank Francisco Jon Rauch Jonathan Papelbon Kevin Gregg Ryan Madson

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