The weakest part of the Blue Jays roster is their bullpen. After acquiring so much elite talent for the lineup and starting rotation, in contrast Anthopoulos has done little to improve the pitchers that will close out 2013′s games. On top of it all, it looks like Darren Oliver will only come back to the Blue Jays if they offer him more money than what he signed his contract for. With one of the league’s best lefty relievers ultimately set to leave the team, whether through trade or retirement, the bullpen still has some interesting scenarios yet to be answered. Let’s go through them, shall we?
Before the trades for pitchers this off-season Happ seemed to be the 5th starter for the Blue Jays. His 4.50+ ERA over the last two seasons had suggested that he would not be the best 5th starter, but might be able to pick up something with the new team and perhaps get some middling benefit out of him. Now with former Opening Day starter Ricky Romero set as the 5th starter in the rotation, it looks like Happ will be the long man out of the bullpen with Loup going to AAA.
Why would Loup be demoted after a strong appearance last year for the Blue Jays? For one, Esmil Rogers, Jeremy Jeffress and Cecil (more on him later) are out of contract options. If they are taken off the 25 man roster, they will be subject to waivers, where each one has a strong chance of being taken by another team. Brad Lincoln, Aaron Loup and Steve Delabar have options, however with Cecil needing to stay on the active roster to avoid being waived he seems to be set up as a lefty specialist, with Happ as a long man ready to replace an injured starter. It’s better to keep Loup active in Buffalo facing batters in key situations and getting regular playing time instead of throwing him out as a 7th reliever to mop up and possibly have two relievers face waivers. In addition, if things don’t work out for either Cecil or Happ out of the bullpen, Loup can be brought up to facilitate either of those players.
Waiving Jeremy Jeffress or Esmil Rogers
These two new Blue Jays seem to be heading into Spring Training seemingly fighting to stay a part of the Blue Jays organization. With Cecil essentially penciled into the rotation, one of these right handed pitchers should be on the outside looking in come end of March. Jeffress is a hard throwing pitcher that essentially hurls a 4 seamer, a 2 seamer and a slow cutter with the fastballs averaging around 95 MPH. His career ERA over 38.2 innings is 4.89, has a 3.97 FIP, 0.23 HR/9 rate but a devastatingly high walk rate of 6.98. He spent most of 2011 and 2012 in the Royals’ AA and AAA affiliates and averaged 1 inning per appearance in the majors. Additionally, Jeffress has violated the MLB drug policy for marijuana 3 times, with the next violation resulting in a lifetime ban from baseball.
Esmil Rogers appears to have more to offer for the Blue Jays. His 4.69 ERA from 2012 may look just as daunting, however he had inflated numbers due to the video game-esque hitting atmosphere provided by the Colorado thin air. After joining the Cleveland Indians, Esmil boasted a 3.06 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 54 K’s over 53 innings with the team. Additionally, he went more than 1 inning of work for roughly half his appearances last year, meaning he could be utilized in a long relief role. He also throws a 95 MPH fastball and a 85 MPH slider as his main pitches, adding more variety to his repertoire. Save for an impressive Spring Training, expect Jeffress to be waived in favour of keeping Rogers on the Blue Jays active roster.
The trade for Sergio Santos looked like another excellent AA move on paper. Unfortunately, Santos has not produced yet for the Blue Jays, as he struggled in April last year before sitting the rest of the year on the DL. Casey Janssen did very well taking over for both Santos and, subsequently, last year’s setup man Francisco Cordero. He’s been very good out of the bullpen in general after failing his previous attempts of cracking the Blue Jays starting rotation. Unfortunately, this past off-season Janssen underwent right shoulder surgery to repair joint soreness and might not be 100% ready for Spring Training play. While it’s Janssen’s closer job to lose, Santos’ talent level and readiness might be able to push him over the edge into closer contention. As opposed to last year’s closer nightmare pre-Janssen, a healthy level of competition might be good for the Blue Jays’ 8th-9th inning punch.
What is scary to note is the Blue Jays’ bad luck with shoulder injuries. While it’s a mostly superstitious observation, there are quite a number of Toronto pitchers that have had terrible run-ins with shoulder problems. Dustin McGowan and Jesse Litsch‘s pitching careers are on the brink of ending due to ongoing shoulder problems, as well as Santos himself coming off of a season-ending surgery that started in May of last year. Hopefully both pitchers will maintain their true potentials, otherwise closing out games might continue to be the main problem for the Blue Jays.
Newbies Brad Lincoln and Steve Delabar
While neither of these pitchers are rookies, these middle relief pitcher are relatively inexperienced compared to the rest of the pre-8th inning guys. Lincoln of course was the piece that the Blue Jays received in exchange for Travis Snider, so there should be a lot of pressure put on him by the fans for him to play to as much potential as a reliever as Snider had as a hitter. Luckily for him his career numbers have been getting better each year he’s played. Last year Lincoln had career bests in ERA, K/9, BB/9 and WHIP. Unfortunately, due to an extremely high HR rate over 28.2 innings with the Blue Jays, his ERA with the team was 5.65. Expect this number to go significantly down next year, as hopefully Lincoln continues to improve in 2013.
Delabar had the opposite problem as Lincoln. He had an exceptionally higher amount of home runs (9 over 36.2 innings) when he was with the Mariners, resulting in a 4.17 ERA. Compare that to 3 HR over 29.1 innings with the Blue Jays to a 3.38 ERA. What makes the scenario weirder is that Delabar had a better WHIP and BAA in Seattle than with the Blue Jays. His strongest asset that separates Delabar from the rest of the sub-8th inning pitchers is his incredible ability to strikeout batters. His strikeout rate at 33.6% last year had him in the Top 10 of all major league relievers, with similar rates joining the likes of Jonathan Papelbon, David Robertson and Jake McGee. If he can keep the ball in the yard, he could turn into quite a valuable asset that is under team control for quite some time.
How the mighty have fallen. If you don’t quite know exactly how valuable Brett Cecil was as a prospect, the first Google result for “Brett Cecil prospect” yields this page from 2008, comparing who would be better between him and David Price. They had similar numbers coming up as hot starting lefty prospects, with many of Cecil’s numbers beating out Price’s numbers. While the Rays have the current Cy Young winner and staff ace in Price, Cecil looks to be the Jays’ lefty specialist and is out of contract options. He just couldn’t make it as a starter, and last year he did not fair that well out of the bullpen either (although 11.2 innings is way too small of a sample size). He hopes to go down the reliever path towards success like Janssen did and sustain at least a lengthy career as a dependable reliever. Whether that can happen or not is a toss up.
However, all hope might not be lost for Cecil. As noted by the man himself in this one-on-one interview (after 4 minutes of a heart-wretching reality check provided by Barry Davis) he says he has a “pretty good knuckleball” and “would love to pick (R.A. Dickey‘s) brain” about how to throw the pitch properly. While it was meant to be a fun way to end an otherwise depressing interview for a previously-highly-touted pitcher on the decline, and I don’t like to read into a player’s reaction in an interview format that they are subject to all too often, there’s something to the way that Cecil reacted to the question with serious intent. Maybe he should ask Dickey about perfecting the knuckleball. If all else fails and he’s really up against the ropes there’s nothing he can lose from just trying to make a go of the pitch. I know it’s may be a delusion of grandeur seeing how hard it is to master the pitch and to live and die by it, but you never know. Anything to restore a once promising pitching career with the Blue Jays.