Blue Jays: Looking Outside the Bullpen Box

Apr 14, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; Texas Rangers relief pitcher Shawn Tolleson (37) greets catcher Bryan Holaday (8) after picking up the save against the Baltimore Orioles at Globe Life Park in Arlington. Rangers won 6-3. Mandatory Credit: Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 14, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; Texas Rangers relief pitcher Shawn Tolleson (37) greets catcher Bryan Holaday (8) after picking up the save against the Baltimore Orioles at Globe Life Park in Arlington. Rangers won 6-3. Mandatory Credit: Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports /

The Toronto Blue Jays should consider unconventional ways to fill their 2017 bullpen

The Blue Jays 2017 bullpen is still under construction.  Apparently the plan is to leave Osuna in the closer role, and to exercise Grilli’s option.  But with the possible losses of Brett Cecil, Joaquin Benoit, Gavin Floyd and Scott Feldman, there will likely be a need to find replacement arms.

The conventional way to find bullpen arms is through trade or free agent signings.  But both of those options come at a price.  Teams are placing increasing value on high-end bullpen arms in trade talks – just look at the hauls the Yankees received in 2016 for Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman.  Free agent signings are cheaper in prospect capital but not in dollars – Chapman and Kenley Jansen are expected to sign deals in the 4/$60mil range, and even non-closers like Darren O’Day are getting contracts over $30 million.

The Blue Jays will hopefully (!) have a higher budget in 2017, but there are many needs to fill.  Spending eight figures on relievers will mean less money elsewhere, and potentially insufficient funds to plug holes at the trade deadline.

So what is the answer?

Think outside the FA/trade box.

Option 1:  The recycling bin

Teams have been successful in the past in finding pitchers who were once good, but have struggled, and finding a way to right their ships.  Remember Fernando Rodney?  A 4.50 ERA with the Angels in 2011 (and a 5.07 SIERA).  The following year with the Rays his ERA dropped to 0.60 and he saved 48 games.  Other examples would include Jason Grilli and Joaquin Benoit with the Jays in 2016.

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So who might be an example of a 2017 option?  How about Shawn Tolleson?  A 2.99 ERA and 35 saves for Texas in 2015, but a terrible 2016 with an ERA of 7.68.  He was outrighted by Texas earlier this week, and elected free agency.  But there were signs that 2016 was not as bad as it appeared.  His xFIP was 3.89 and his SIERA 3.77.  Not great, but not terribad.  His BABIP of .372 and HR/FB of 24.2% are both so high as to be obvious candidates for regression.  Shawn made $3.3m in 2016, and will likely command a lower amount in 2017.

Option 2:  Overseas

Conventional wisdom has it that pitchers in the Japanese and Korean leagues do not transition well to the North American Majors.  The hitters are too much better, people say – it is like taking a AA pitcher and expecting him to dominate in the bigs.  As a result, there was great skepticism in 2016 when the Cardinals signed Seung-hwan Oh, the “Final Boss” and greatest closer of the Korean league, and when Texas signed Tony Barnette, a top closer from the Japanese league.

How did they do?  Well, Oh pitched 80 innings with a 1.92 ERA and 19 saves.  Barnette pitched 60 innings with a 2.09 ERA.

2017 example?  How about Dennis SarfateCurrently closing for the Softbank Hawks of the Japanese league, Dennis has been averaging an ERA of about 1.50, a K/9 of 12 and a hits per 9 innings under 5.  He is currently under contract with the Hawks for 2017 and 2018, but is rumoured to have an opt-out clause.  Dennis struggled with the Brewers, Astros and Orioles from 2006-2010 despite excellent stuff.  His issue was walks – over his MLB career, he averaged 6.11 BB/9.  But since moving to Japan he has learned to put more faith in his fastball, with the result that in his last two years his BB/9 was 1.6 and 1.9.  Possibly not a closer in the majors (though not impossible) but a potentially valuable late-innings piece.

Option 3:  Closer to home

Another option for finding quality bullpen help is to look at the pitching assets you already have, most commonly aging or marginal starters.  Remember Wade Davis‘ 5.32 ERA for the Royals as a starter in 2013?  Or is it easier to remember his 1.00 (!) and 0.94 (!!) ERAs out of the Royals’ bullpen in the following two years?  Or Joe Blanton (who is a free agent this offseason!), or Dellin Betances, or Zach Britton?  Or Andrew Miller (325 major league innings as a starter, 5.70 ERA)?

2017 example?  Gavin Floyd was signed to a one-year deal by the Jays in February, as rotation depth and a possible longman / swingman out of the bullpen.  He only pitched 30 innings for the Jays in 2016 before suffering a partially torn lat muscle in June.  Floyd’s 2016 ERA of 4.06 was disappointing, but his 2.70 in 2015 and 2.65 in 2014 were not.  Floyd will be 34 years old on opening day 2017, and should be an inexpensive sign (his 2016 contract was for $1m + incentives)

Next: Why Blue Jays should aggressively address backup catcher

The bottom line

In baseball, as in business, it is all about the risk:reward.  Many unconventional bullpen options come with considerable risk, but at a cost that makes the potential reward more than sufficient to offset the downside.