Jason Grilli is returning to the Blue Jays on a $3 million team option in 2017
With 2017 creeping around the corner, it looks like the Blue Jays’ bullpen construction will be based more on competition than name-brand signings. So far, at least.
Jason Grilli is the lone lock outside of Roberto Osuna — perhaps Joe Biagini if you believe in the recent rotation depth added by the Blue Jays on minor-league deals — and given the current market for relievers, he’s coming back at a bargain price.
Grilli’s $3 million team option for the coming season was a no-brainer, which wasn’t the case when he was acquired in late May as part of a dollars-and-cents move with the Atlanta Braves. If the 3.64 ERA and 12.4 strikeouts per nine innings that Grilli posted after his arrival in Toronto represent who he’ll be in 2017, he’s arguably playing for half of what the Jays would have needed to pay on the open market for one year of his services
This doesn’t come without risk, of course, in a high-velocity reliever that just turned 40. Grilli’s PITCHf/x data from last season indicates that his average fastball velocity dropped 1.6 MPH from 2015 and his average slider velocity dropped 2.0 MPH. He made is work — and it’s important to note that his velocity sustained throughout the season without a late-season dip — but it’s worth monitoring nonetheless.
Maintaining that velocity, especially in regards to his strikeout totals, is critical for a pitcher who has hovered around a 30% ground ball rate the past four seasons.
The real intrigue with Grilli comes in how deeply and undeniably important his performance is to the Blue Jays’ bullpen… and chances… in 2017. If a pitcher from the “competition” group of Danny Barnes, Bo Schultz, Ryan Tepera, or several others missteps, there will surely be another warm body to step in. If Grilli falters, however, that causes the five bullpen arms behind him to bump up one spot in importance.
Perhaps the most important argument to consider here is that of Toronto’s 2016 opening day roster. Right-handers Arnold Leon, Jesse Chavez, and Drew Storen started the year in the bullpen but didn’t last. Grilli, like Joaquin Benoit, was picked up at the lowest point of his value and shored up the holes better than anyone could have reasonably expected. Hoping to repeat the same trick is not the safest strategy, but a least there is a blueprint.
Until then, there will be a great deal of pressure put on Grilli and his well-earned setup role.