Two seasons ago, the Toronto Blue Jays had one of the best bullpens in the entire American League (4th in the AL with a 3.37 ERA). Last season, they had one of the worst (4.09 ERA, 12th in the AL); nearly three-quarters of a run’s difference year over year.
How is it possible that one area of the club which was so utterly dominant in 2013 suddenly be flipped on its end and perform so poorly in 2014? Fans can somewhat seek solace in the fact that this is actually a quite common occurrence in Major League Baseball.
After the recent success of the Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco Giants’ bullpens, there might be a tendency for baseball executives to put a great deal of focus and spend a lot of resources on assembling a relief corps.
In Kansas City alone, the back-end of their bullpen comprised of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland were nearly untouchable throughout the regular season and the playoffs.
But because their unprecedented run set the bar so incredibly high in Kansas City, those relievers and the Royals’ bullpen in general will be hard pressed to duplicate those results in 2015. In fact, I’m willing to bet they won’t be anywhere as good this season, not just because of attrition, but because it’s an ever-revolving door with relievers.
In actuality, building a bullpen kind of seems like an inexact science. That’s because relievers by nature are a volatile bunch; one week they could be lights out, the next, they could be pitching their way to the minor leagues.
But every once in a while, it seems like a ragtag group of guys is assembled and appears to be nearly unhittable, as evidenced by the Royals and the Giants. And their respective bullpens helped propel them through the playoffs and into the World Series.
Now Alex Anthopoulos and the Toronto Blue Jays are in a precarious and yet familiar position; being tasked with rebuilding a bullpen this offseason.
It’s not as though they only need a reliever or two, they arguably need three really good back-end pitchers to fill a void that was there for a better part of a season. But how exactly do they find stability in a position that’s inherently unstable?
The Blue Jays could’ve gone the route of the Yankees, White Sox or Astros, which was spend top dollar for one of the best relief pitchers on the market. That’s about the safest way to give your team a sure thing in the relief department.
But here’s where the ghost of B.J. Ryan’s contract may loom like a dark cloud and serve as a memory of what can happen when you overpay for a relief pitcher. The club ate nearly $15 million dollars in salary, and Ryan never even pitched in the final year of his deal.
So while the prospect of bringing in an elite late-inning reliever is one that any team would be interested in, the asking prices on Miller and Robertson were simply too high for the Toronto Blue Jays.
From the Blue Jays’ perspective, why would they pay top dollar for only one reliever when they could get two or three for the same price?
In that sense, you can almost hedge your bets with three relievers in the hopes one or two of them will pan out rather than placing all your money on the back of one high-priced horse.
What’s the alternative for a team like Toronto that appears to be hitting their maximum when it comes to payroll? They could definitely afford to take a flier on a couple of relievers; Jason Motte, Jason Grilli and heck, even Casey Janssen come to mind.
If the Blue Jays could get an established reliever like Sergio Romo and couple that with a high risk/high reward reliever, that could provide an adequate makeover for the back end of the Blue Jays bullpen.
There are also a few in-house candidates who could reemerge as favourites; Steve Delabar is definitely one guy many are hoping will return to a semblance of his 2013 dominant self. Kyle Drabek is another dark horse candidate that could find new life as a reliever.
There also could be a potential ace in the hole when it comes to Aaron Sanchez and Daniel Norris; the argument could be made that whoever doesn’t win the fifth starter spot should immediately be slotted into the bullpen rather than start in Buffalo.
So if Brett Cecil and Aaron Loup are mainstays in the Blue Jays bullpen and John Gibbons opts to employ a seven-man bullpen, that leaves five spots up for grabs.
A combination of Redmond/Estrada/Jenkins/Delabar/Sanchez/Norris might not be ideal or appear to be elite on paper, but then again, neither did Kansas City’s at the beginning of the 2014 season.
And if there’s the potential to add one or potentially even two impact relief pitchers, it will go that much further to bolstering the Blue Jays’ bullpen.
There are absolutely no guarantees in baseball, and that’s especially true when it comes to constructing a bullpen. The only consistent thing about a bullpen is that there will be turnover year after year, and this year was no different for the Blue Jays.
But if club decides to take a flier on a free agent reliever and even one of their own internal candidates, that could very well be enough to provide a noticeable improvement in their relief department.