The Toronto Blue Jays have three members of their 2016 season-end bullpen entering free agency this offseason
The MLB free agent period officially opens when the clock turns to Tuesday, and the Toronto Blue Jays have some work to do.
The trio of Brett Cecil, Joaquin Benoit, and Scott Feldman are hitting free agency this offseason, leaving the Blue Jays without their top left-hander, a dominant late-inning veteran, and their long man from the end of the 2016 season. It’s also looking like Joe Biagini will audition as a starter this spring, potentially eliminating another key bullpen cog.
If the season were to start today, closer Roberto Osuna would be joined by Jason Grilli, whose $3 million option for 2017 was picked up by the Blue Jays on Friday. Aaron Loup is projected to earn $1.2 million in arbitration according to MLBTR, leaving he and a group of inexperienced left-handers as the only southpaw options. The Blue Jays need to add, but how big a splash are they willing to make?
Only four teams in baseball got more mileage out of their starting rotation than the Blue Jays in 2016. Houston, who ranked first, had just 8.2 more innings from starters than Toronto. That may not be sustainable, and striking gold in the Rule 5 draft is not an annual event. Toronto was also very fortunate to buy low on Grilli and Benoit at the perfect time, so there’s a strong argument to be made that they’ll need to prepare themselves better than in 2016.
The recent MLB playoffs — at times known as the Festival of Andrew Miller — again highlighted the value of teams using their best relievers in the highest-leverage spots, not just in the ninth inning. Now more than ever, “closer money” will be spent on non-closers.
Ahead, we’ll examine relievers who are in, or near, the top-50 available free agents and could conceivably earn a multi-year deal. This isn’t to say they are likely to be in blue and white by the end of November, but these are the names you can expect to hear ad nauseam in the coming weeks.
RHP Brad Ziegler – 37 years old
2016: Arizona Diamondbacks, Boston Red Sox
Brad Ziegler has long been one of the game’s more underrated relief options, and for the first time as a major leaguer, he’ll have the opportunity to test free agency.
After emerging late with the Oakland Athletics as a 28-year-old in 2008, Ziegler was traded to the Diamondbacks in 2011. This past July, Arizona dealt him to the Boston Red Sox in exchange for Jose Almonte and Luis Alejandro Basabe.
Ziegler, who throws submarine-style, succeeded as the Diamondbacks’ closer for the majority of the past two seasons. That success translated directly to the Red Sox and the American League East playoff race, too, where the veteran posted a tidy 1.52 ERA over 29.2 innings.
The Blue Jays and Ziegler align especially well due to his pitching style, which produces a very high rate of ground balls. Toronto’s left side of Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki is defensively elite, while Devon Travis provides an underrated glove at second. In full innings, or when used situationally with a runner on base, Ziegler’s ability to keep the ball on the ground could be even more valuable in Toronto than on the average team.
Ziegler forced ground balls at a rate of 63.3% in 2016, down from 72.8% the year prior but still a very strong number. That number does tend to fluctuate slightly in line with his strikeout rate. Over the past four seasons, Ziegler has posted a ground ball rate over 70% with a strikeout rate under 5.00 per nine innings twice. The other two seasons, that strikeout rate climbed over 5-per-9 which limited his grounders.
His sinking fastball averages just 84 miles-per-hour, but Ziegler’s combination of movement and release point leads to success. Ziegler also throws a curveball and changeup, which is a very rare pitch to see from a submarine-style reliever.
Age is a question with Ziegler, as it is with any relief pitcher over 30. His pitching style makes it a far lesser issue, of course, but a two-year deal would take him through his age-39 season. Expect Ziegler to earn something in the neighbourhood of $6.5-8.5 million annually.
Likelihood: Fairly reasonable, given that most contending teams will view Ziegler as a seventh or eighth-inning option.
Next Up: The market’s third-best closer still offers top-level value