The Jays have been at the forefront of the majority of moves lately, as the hardest working GM in the business, Alex Anthopoulos, continues to attempt to piece together a bullpen that will improve upon their performance in 2011. It seems that the work he needs to do in that area may be nearing completion, so taking a look at what he has brought together seems to make sense at this point.
The end of 2011 situation:
The Blue Jays had dealt most of their experienced relievers or lost them to free agency. Jason Frasor, Marc Rzepczynski, Shawn Camp, Frank Francisco, Octavio Dotel, and Jon Rauch all left the nest one way or another after pitching a total of 280 innings in 297 outings for the Jays. That’s a whole lot of innings to replace from year-to-year, but as the 2011 Rays showed us, it can be done.
The biggest problems, by far, for the group listed above were the blown leads and the blown saves. Sadly, MLB doesn’t keep statistics for blown leads, therefore the only evidence I can credibly present to you is the fact that the group above saved 30 game in 47 chances. That’s a lousy 64% success rate, or conversely, a 36% failure rate when the game was on the line. Something, anything, had to be done. And thus the revamping of the Jays pen began.
First Things First, the Closer Situation:
Sergio Santos was dealt for in return for one very high quality prospect. The cost may be steep when we consider Nestor Molina‘s ceiling, but that has yet to become reality and the truth of it all is that it took nothing away from what the Jays had in-house. Santos saved 30 games in his 36 chances in 2011, the first season he was entrusted in that role for a lengthy period of time. That, an 84% success rate, a 20% improvement over what the group let go by the Jays were able to achieve. Had he been with the Jays in 2011 and had provided the Jays the same success rate, it would have resulted in an improvement of 9 wins. That’s a VERY substantial improvement and one that shouldn’t go unnoticed.
There’s a reason that almost all great teams who compete for World Championships have great closers. Just as the Yankees have Mariano Rivera, the Red Sox had Jonathan Papelbon, and the Giants have Brian Wilson, the Jays needed to find someone who could really shut the door on their opponents. I believe the Jays may have found the best one they’ve had since Tom Henke left the club in Santos, and I believe it will make the Jays a much more successful club in 2012.
Unlike J.P. Ricciadi who committed $47 million on BJ Ryan to get a premium closer for the Jays, Anthopoulos has acquired one who is under control for the same amount of time (5 years) at a more affordable rate, a maximum of $21.5 million if they pick up all options. Therefore, the risk the Jays have undertaken in this case is a fraction of what they undertook years ago. Should Santos sustain a serious injury before the 2014 season, the Jays would be able to avoid both of his last options, saving themselves $14 million in the process and having benefited from his closing ability over 3 years for a mere $7.5 million. That’s quite a contrast, and is typical Anthopoulos. Low risk, very high reward.
In itself, this was a massive step forward for the Jays pen revamping, but more was needed to make it a success.
The Lefty Issue:
One thing that John Farrell and the Jays came to rely on in 2011 was the ability to depend on Marc Rzepczynski for great outings whenever a lefty specialist was required. Make no mistake, if there’s one reason the Cards agreed to dealing Colby Rasmus to the Jays for more than any other, it’s Rzepczynski. In 39.1 innings with the Jays, he allowed only 28 hits and 15 walks for a nice 1.09 whip, and was much more reliable than any other LHP option in the Jays pen. His loss really needed to be replaced if the Jays were going to be able to set up Sergio Santos with a lead on a regular basis.
Enter what may arguably be one of the best LHP specialist relievers in the American League over the last 4 years, Darren Oliver. He may not save any games, but Oliver definitely keeps you in many and sets the table for the closer very effectively. His ERA over the last 4 years: 2.88, 2.71, 2.48, and 2.29. Just like a wine, Oliver is getting better with age. His whip has been steady over that time, hovering between 1.103 and 1.153, while his WAR rating has been a low of 1.5 and a high of 2.2!
Not only do the Jays get one of the best LHP specialists in the game in Oliver, but they also get one that performs very well against AL East opponents. In 2011, he had a .235/.278/.471 line against when facing the Red Sox, a .214/.353/.214 line against when facing the Yankees, and a .154/.154/.154 line against when facing the Rays. Against all 3 AL East headliners, he accumulated 12.2 IP, 9 hits against, 3 ER, 3 BB and 7 Ks. That’s not a bad line at all when pitching against some of the best lineups in baseball.
Oliver also brings a wealth of experience gained over 18 seasons and has lots of playoff experience to share with a very young pen. That, when combined with all other positives, makes him one shrewd addition to the Jays pen. If it wasn’t for contract negotiations ongoing between the Rangers and Yu Darvish, there’s a chance he’d still be a Ranger. As it is, Alex Anthopoulos saw the opportunity to land this important piece to the pen puzzle, and aggressively pursued him until he let go of the opportunity to return to Texas. That’s no easy feat when you consider that his chances of making the playoffs with the Rangers may be much easier than it will be with the Jays. At his age, that has to count, so a big kudos to AA on this one for landing him.
RHP Guys Not Named Frasor:
With Carlos Villanueva and Jesse Litsch likely to remain in the long-relief role or 6-7 inning roles, the RHP setup role seemed to be falling entirely on the shoulder of Casey Janssen and Joel Carreno. Both are very capable, and I certainly look for big things from Carreno in particular who could earn a full-time setup role in the near future if he pitches up to his capabilities. However, it’s a long season and the Jays had a couple of unproven RHP (Danny Farquhar and Chad Beck) set to compete for the “next-in-line” positions.
I’ll take a quick glance at each of what could be the 4 main RHP components of the pen not named Frasor.
Litsch performed very well in 2011 once moved to the pen. His average against went from .268 to .204, his whip went from 1.424 to 1.081, and his SO/9 went from 7 to 9.4. He attacked hitters much more effectively out of the pen and is probably an under rated part of the 2012 pen. His ability to pitch many innings when needed will be very valuable for the Jays, particularly since it allows the Jays to give Villanueva a break in that role and to alternate between the two.
Villanueva made an impact as soon as the 2011 season began after being obtained in another shrewd Anthopoulos deal with the Brewers, for a player to be named later originally which turned into cash at a later date. While his stats as a starter may have been lacking, its in the pen that Villanueva made his mark with the Jays. His 1.60 ERA and 1.01 whip over 33.2 innings of work were the best the out of the Jays pen as he held hitters to a lowly .161 average and .264 OBP.
Janssen became a fan favourite in 2011 as he performed very well in any and all situations. His 2.26 ERA, 1.096 whip and 3.76 SO/BB ratio are all outstanding and he even closed a few games (2). That performance saw his WAR rating jump from 0.6 to 1.7 and made him one of the best “go to” pitchers in the Jays pen. Along with Frasor, he will likely be counted on to setup Sergio Santos.
Carreno has very high upside out of the pen and had been mentioned as a possible closing candidate in the future. We had him listed as our 21st Jays prospect pre-2011 and Jared noted that:
“One really interesting thing about Carreno is his ability to pick batters off, something that often gets overlooked in a box score. From 2007-2010, Carreno has notched 3, 1, 6, and 10 pickoffs in those respective seasons. He works really hard on his pickoff move, and credits his success in that regard to a quick, short step and a sharp, accurate throw.”
That, and his ability to be effectively wild, makes Carreno an interesting addition to the pen. He’ll have to fight Luis Perez off for the last spot in the pen, but Carreno certainly has tools to become an important part of the pen, particularly with runners on.
One final note about the relievers just listed is that 2 of them, Janssen and Villanueva, will be free agents along with Frasor after the 2012 season ends. So it seems that the revamping of the Jays pen may be a yearly occurrence unless Anthopoulos extends some of them while negotiating their 2012 contracts.
Mr. Jays Pen:
Enter Mr. Jays pen, or Jason Frasor as Toronto knows him, who was extremely upset when he left and ecstatic when he learned of his return. When you think of the Jays pen since 2004, Frasor always comes to mind, and in a great way. With over 461 innings as a Blue Jay, Frasor has accumulated a 3.69 ERA and a 1.295 whip. He was in the end of his best season with the Jays when they dealt him, having thrown for a 2.98 ERA and 1.252 whip in 44 GP. He may not be a “shut down” set up guy, but when it comes to being effective and getting the Jays pitchers out of tight spots, he’s better than most.
You don’t have to look any further than his .174 batting average against with runners in scoring position to know that you can count on Frasor to get you through tough innings. While I fully expect the Jays will use Casey Janssen in the set up role the majority of the time, Frasor will get his fair share of set up opportunities and will otherwise be a great option for the 6th or 7th innings when needed.
An Overall Balanced Pen:
When I look at this revamped pen on paper, I see as much balance as I can ever remember seeing in a Jays pen. Here’s a list of what I mean when I say, balanced:
- If you need a closer, Santos is your guy. If he’s spent, Jason Frasor and Casey Janssen also have some experience in the role.
- If you need a RHP setup guy, Casey Janssen and Jason Frasor can provide you with solid outings on any given night. If they’re spent, go to Carlos Villanueva and/or Jesse Litsch. That’s 4 guys who can give you high quality outings from the right side without going to the closer.
- If you need LHP setup guy, you go to Darren Oliver who can shut the door. If he’s spent, you also have the option of using LHP Luis Perez (if he”s penciled into the pen), or Carlos Villanueva and/or Jesse Litsch who are effective against guys on both sides of the plate.
- If you need Long Relief, Litsch and Villanueva give you great options from the RHP side of things, while Perez (and possibly the newly acquired Aaron Laffey) can also fill the role from the LHP side of things.
- You’ve got young blood in the pen in Joel Carreno, a high ceiling reliever who has nothing but upside with 3 seasons of 10+ K/9IP in the minors behind him.
- Need experience to help calm the nerves in the pen? Oliver has 18 seasons of it, Frasor has 8 season of it, and 3 of the others have over 5 years of experience each.
- You wanted competition? Well, from the list of what should be the regular 6+2, you have Sergio Santos (closer), Darren Oliver, Casey Janssen, Jason Frasor, Carlos Villanueva, and Jesse Litsch all pretty well assured of a spot in the pen every night. Luis Perez and Joel Carreno will have to battle it out for the last spot unless the Jays go with a short bench on some nights, and the up-and-coming relievers listed above all get to compete with them for that coveted spot. Add in the starters in AA or AAA that may be called upon, Scott Richmond and Chad Jenkins come to mind, if those in The Show don’t perform, and you’ve got a pretty hefty level of competition for the last spot in the Jays pen.
- Finally, there’s the familiarity. Santos threw with Frasor in Chicago last season, and the remainder are all well known to one another aside from Oliver who is new to everyone. So, although the Jays have new blood in the pen, it’s a group that knows each other fairly well and therefore should be cohesive, assuming they get along, that is.
The revamped Jays pen for 2012 should enable the Jays to hang onto more leads and to climb back into more games. A full season of Litsch and Villanueva in the pen, as well as the continued presence of the always sharp Janssen and the youngster Carreno, already made the pen look promising for the Jays in 2012. The additions of Santos, Oliver, and Frasor to support them really solidified them as a well above average pen in the American League, something the Jays desperately needed to accomplish if they wanted to compete in 2012.
The fact that they were able to accomplish this without breaking the bank or dealing a ton of prospects speaks volumes of the job well done by Alex Anthopoulos, and allows flexibility in the payroll and in trade talks to accomplish more than to just fix a lack luster pen. Having Sergio Santos as a closing option through 2017 if the club picks up all options is also a very important piece of the big picture puzzle and still provides the Jays the opportunity to let him go if it doesn’t work out for one reason or another.
All-in-all, the 2012 Jays pen should benefit the team by allowing them to compete more effectively against their strong rivals and should be a good enough improvement to make the Jays a very dangerous team overall.
Jays fans should be impressed with this revamped pen. Hopefully the “what looks good on paper” issue won’t become a problem for the Jays, because judging from what they have to work with on paper right now, it all seems to amount to the most important thing of all, more wins and fewer losses.