Near the end of September, Alex Anthopoulos told the media that the Jays are “certainly going to have to go the free agent route in the bullpen” this offseason, saying that the team just doesn’t have enough quality internal options heading into 2012. That’s not surprising, as the Jays sent Marc Rzepczynski, Octavio Dotel, and Jason Frasor packing in order to acquire Colby Rasmus in July, and all three of Shawn Camp, Frank Francisco, and Jon Rauch likely won’t be returning next season, either, so the Jays’ ‘pen is pretty bare at the moment.
I’ll have a few trade candidates in an upcoming post, but here’s a look at a few left-handed relievers that could be options for the Jays via free agency.
George Sherrill | 2011 salary: $1.2 million
Jays fans know all about Sherrill, as he spent his entire career in the American League with Seattle and Baltimore until midway through 2009. He suffered the worst season of his career with the Dodgers in 2010, posting a 6.69 ERA/5.20 FIP in 36.1 innings, and was particularly awful against right-handed hitters who hit .427/.516/.707 off of him.
But, as a member of the Atlanta Braves‘ top-ranked bullpen this past season, Sherrill was used more in situations where he was likely to have success, and the results speak for themselves. He allowed 33 hits and 12 earned runs in 36 innings (3.00 ERA) striking out 38, which was good for a 9.5 K/9, his highest mark since 2008. Sherrill’s 3.08 FIP and 3.0 BB/9 almost exactly matched his previous career-lows, and he was exquisite with inherited runners, as only four of 37 (11%) scored.
In addition to the numbers, though, what was really noticeable about Sherrill this past season was how he completely revamped his approach on the mound. He got ahead in the count by throwing first-pitch strikes 69% of the time, which was not only a new career-high, but well over 8% higher than any figure he recorded in his previous seven seasons. This mindset also helped him record a career-high 45% ground ball rate, his highest in over five years, and a new career-low 33% fly ball rate.
The key to Sherrill, though, is using him almost exclusively against left-handers, as it’s well-known that he has a hard time getting righties out. While the .236 average and .722 OPS he held right-handers to in 2011 were below his career norms, Sherill did record a 5.06 ERA against them as well; a stark contrast to his tidy 1.35 ERA against lefties. Plus, 11 of the 12 walks he allowed in 2011 were to right-handed hitters.
Though he pitched a career-low 36 innings this past season, Sherrill’s new mindset on the mound and the fact he wouldn’t command a large salary make him one of the more appealing southpaw free-agent relievers. His dismal 2010 campaign has ensured he won’t rank on Elias’ list of free agents, so he wouldn’t cost the Jays anything in terms of draft pick compensation, either. If the Jays could afford to carry a lefty specialist for the season, Sherrill could be that guy if worse came to worse.
Darren Oliver | 2011 salary: $3.25 million
Having turned 41 years old last week, Oliver showed this past season that he’s clearly capable of shutting down opposing hitters, even into his forties. The main drawback with Oliver is that he projects to rank as a Type-A free agent, meaning the Jays would have to give up a draft pick just to sign him, but other than that, he has been as consistent as any reliever could be over the last six seasons. From 2006-2010, Oliver went 20-6 with a 3.07 ERA, 1.153 WHIP, and 7.4 K/9 in 352 innings spread across stints with three different teams.
This past season with the Rangers, though, Oliver fashioned a clean 2.29 ERA and 2.77 FIP in 51 innings, with 11 walks — good for a career-low 1.9 BB/9 — 47 hits, and 44 strikeouts. Left-handers and right-handers had nearly an identical OPS off of him — .587 and .594, respectively — and he was even better for the Rangers after the All-Star break, as they geared up to clinch a playoff spot. The 10% drop in his ground ball rate and 9% increase in line drives this season over his 2010 campaign are things to note, but it’s hard to ignore how successful Oliver has been for six straight seasons.
Oliver could likely be had for a salary similar to what he made in 2011, but it really comes down to whether he’s worth giving up a draft pick or not.
Aside from Lopez, Sherrill, and Oliver, there aren’t many guys left that would be worth considering. The Giants will likely exercise their option on Jeremy Affeldt, which leaves Rangers lefty Mike Gonzalez as an option, but his numbers haven’t been fantastic over his last two seasons at a $6 million salary.