Toronto Blue Jays: Projecting the Opening Day Bullpen
Considered a weakness for the Toronto Blue Jays going into last season, the team’s bullpen ironically turned out to be its biggest strength.
With the starting rotation struggling to pitch deep into games and often leaving in the early innings, the Blue Jays’ relievers ended up taking on that extra load and kept the team in most games.
Despite pitching the second-highest number of innings in the American League, Toronto’s bullpen finished the season with a 3.37 ERA, fourth lowest in the AL.
Going into the 2014 season, the Blue Jays will be looking for more of the same from their bullpen as nearly all of the relievers from last year are set to return.
Both general manager Alex Anthopoulos and manager John Gibbons have suggested that the team might use an eight-man bullpen to start off the season.
This seems like a good plan considering that the team has quite a few pitchers who are out of options and could possibly be claimed by other teams if left off the bullpen roster.
Despite the extra spot, there should still be a couple of players such as Neil Wagner who will likely start the season in the minors despite being good enough to be in a major league bullpen. This is a testament to the depth the team has in this area and leaves the bullpen in good shape in case an injury occurs.
That being said, here is the projected Opening Day bullpen with an outlook on each reliever.
All player stats are from baseball-reference.com
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Closer: Casey Janssen, Right-Hander
After earning the closer’s role in 2012, Janssen has never looked back.
Despite dealing with shoulder soreness following offseason surgery, the 32-year-old had a terrific season last year as he saved 34 games. He also had a 2.56 ERA and a very good 0.98 WHIP.
What’s surprising about Janssen is that he puts up excellent numbers in the closer’s role despite not having the ideal stuff typically expected from a closer.
With a fastball that tops out at 91-92 mph, Janssen relies on pinpoint command and an aggressive strike-throwing approach. In 52 and two-thirds innings pitched last season, the right-hander walked just 13 batters while striking out 50.
He was also especially devastating against right-handed batters, who hit just .135/.188/.270 off him.
Having been a starting pitcher in the past, Janssen brings that same mentality to the mound as a reliever. He’s effective at mixing up his pitches and changing speeds and locations in the strike zone.
Going into the 2014 season following a healthy offseason, Janssen should pick up where he left off last year and continue to be a top closer in the AL.
Setup Man: Sergio Santos, Right-Hander
The Blue Jays originally acquired Santos in a trade from the Chicago White Sox in order to be the team’s closer.
But injuries caused the 30-year-old to miss most of the 2012 season and nearly half of last season. During that time, Janssen emerged as a top closer, which cost Santos his job.
Pitching in a late relief role after coming back from injury last season, Santos dominated the opposition. He put up a miniscule 1.75 ERA in 25 and two-thirds innings pitched while walking just four batters and striking out 28.
Santos has the stuff to be considered an ideal shutdown arm in the bullpen. He possesses a mid-90s fastball and combines that with a devastating slider which generates a ton of strikeouts.
Despite those ridiculous numbers that Santos posted last season, it appears that Janssen will retain the closer’s role for now.
Going into the 2014 season, Santos will be looking for his first full healthy season with the Blue Jays. He should act as the setup man for now and wait for a chance to close again in the event that Janssen struggles or is injured.
In any case, having two players who have the ability to be closers will only be beneficial to the team.
Brett Cecil, Left-Hander
Cecil was one of the best feel-good stories in baseball last season.
After having a rocky 2012 season as a starting pitcher during which he battled a mysterious lack of velocity, Cecil came into spring training last year not even guaranteed a spot on the team. It was only during the last week of spring training when he won a job in the bullpen as a lefty specialist.
Once the season started, however, Cecil looked like a completely different pitcher than he had in 2012. His lost velocity was back and his pitches stayed low in the zone while breaking away from hitters.
To say that Cecil was good in 2013 would be a massive understatement. Even saying that he had an overall 2.82 ERA and 70 strikeouts in 60 innings pitched wouldn’t do justice to how dominant he was because he battled shoulder fatigue in the second half of the season and was hit hard in a few appearances.
Consider this: In the first half of the season during which he pitched 46 innings, Cecil put up a 1.94 ERA and had a 10.7 K/9 ratio. Opposing batters hit just .173 against him.
That dominating stretch earned Cecil his first All-Star nod and removed any doubts of him belonging on the team.
Cecil credited his success last season to a weighted-ball training program that restored his velocity. This is the same program that Steve Delabar used in his own comeback to the major leagues.
Guaranteed a spot on the team heading into the 2014 season, Cecil will be looking to carefully manage his workload so he can avoid the shoulder fatigue that he faced last year. He should be one of the team’s go-to relievers during late-game situations.
Steve Delabar, Right-Hander
Ever since his trade to the Blue Jays in 2012, Delabar has been one of the most reliable relievers in the American League East.
Last season, the 30-year-old continued that success as he posted a 3.22 ERA along with a nasty 12.6 K/9 ratio in 58 innings pitched. He also made his first All-Star team.
Because of the starting rotation’s woes, Delabar was one of the relievers frequently called upon to pitch on short rest.
The extra work led to fatigue and eventually caused him to pitch with a sore shoulder in the second half of the season. This severely compromised his performance, as was shown by the 7.02 ERA he posted in 16 innings pitched during the second half of the season compared to the 1.71 ERA in 42 innings pitched that he posted in the first half.
Delabar’s arsenal consists of a mid-90s fastball and a heavy splitter with late movement which he uses to generate a ton of strikeouts.
Going into the 2014 season, Delabar should one of the team’s top options out of the bullpen. Gibbons needs to give the right-hander more time to rest between outings, though. This should ensure that Delabar doesn’t have a sore shoulder by the second half of the season again.
Aaron Loup, Left-Hander
Loup has been a revelation ever since he was called up by the Blue Jays to pitch during the 2012 season.
Though he didn’t garner as much attention as some of the other members of the bullpen last season, Loup was arguably one of the most valuable relievers on the team.
The 26-year-old posted an impressive 2.47 ERA last year. That stat was made even more impressive by the fact that he led all relievers on the team in innings pitched with 69.
Loup’s three-quarters sidearm delivery is one of the more unique pitching styles in baseball. The deception created by the delivery allows him to be successful without having the overpowering stuff like some other members of the bullpen.
Loup primarily relies on ground-ball outs since he doesn’t strike too many batters out. As a result, he was often the go-to reliever for Gibbons when the opposing team had runners on base and a double play was needed.
A concern for Loup going into the 2014 season is that he still has options on his contract. This could potentially make him a victim of the numbers game as the team could decide to carry a reliever who is out of options and send Loup down to the minors without exposing him to waivers.
But considering the way Loup pitched last season, the chances of this happening should be unlikely, and he should be in the bullpen on Opening Day.
Dustin McGowan, Right-Hander
McGowan’s battles against various injuries that have limited his career since 2008 have been well-documented. Heading into the 2013 season, the right-hander had pitched just 21 innings in the major leagues since 2008.
While he wasn’t completely injury-free last year, McGowan was finally able to finish the season on the team and not on the DL. He ended up with 25 innings pitched coming out of the bullpen and posted a very good 2.45 ERA with a 9.1 K/9 ratio.
McGowan showed that all his stuff was still there despite the injuries, throwing a mid-90s fastball and having nasty movement on his off-speed pitches.
After the season ended, the 31-year-old expressed his desire to become a starting pitcher again like he was in 2008 before those major injuries.
While the Blue Jays gave him the go-ahead to stretch out and are looking at him as a candidate for the No. 5 spot in the rotation this spring, McGowan’s health concerns make it unlikely that he’ll return to a starting pitcher role, at least this soon.
Going into 2014, it’s much more likely that McGowan will open the season coming out of the bullpen.
Esmil Rogers, Right-Hander
After Toronto acquired him in a trade from the Cleveland Indians last offseason, Rogers opened the season for the Blue Jays as the long reliever out of the bullpen.
That changed quickly as three of the team’s starting pitchers went down with injuries, and Rogers found himself pressed into the rotation.
While his overall stats weren’t very impressive (his ERA was 4.77 and his WHIP was 1.42), the 28-year-old did throw 137 innings, which placed him third on the team.
Also, Rogers’ mediocre numbers were more a result of inconsistency than anything else. In the 20 games that he started last season, 11 of them were quality starts. In the first half of the season, his ERA was 3.64. But it ballooned to 6.00 in the second half, which suggests that the move from the bullpen to the rotation might have caused him to run out of stamina.
Rogers throws a mid-90s fastball and uses a sinker as his primary out pitch. He spent this offseason pitching full-time in the Dominican League and worked on developing his changeup.
Heading into spring training as a long-shot candidate for the No. 5 spot in the rotation, Rogers will likely open the season as the long man out of the bullpen if he loses that competition. The fact that he is out of options and likely to be claimed by another team will also likely ensure that he makes the roster in some capacity.
Jeremy Jeffress, Right-Hander
Despite only pitching 10 major league innings last season, Jeffress makes this list because of two reasons: He is out of options and he has the ability to throw a 100 mph fastball.
Both of those reasons are why it’s likely that Jeffress has a leg up over the competition for the fiercely contested final spot in the bullpen.
Jeffress actually made the team out of spring training last season, but was sent down after making just one appearance.
The knock on Jeffress had always been his control issues. There had also been questions about his behavior and character after he had been suspended twice for the use of a recreational drug in the minor leagues.
But after it was discovered last season that Jeffress had suffered from juvenile epilepsy and that his current medication was ineffective, the team re-diagnosed his condition and gave him new medicine that was much more effective in controlling the affliction.
Once his condition was in check, Jeffress was lights-out in Triple-A Buffalo last season, posting a 1.65 ERA in 27 innings pitched.
He carried that success to the majors when the team called him up again once rosters expanded in September, posting a 0.87 ERA and striking out 12 in 10 innings pitched.
Whether he has really turned a corner or not, the Blue Jays will likely take a chance and find that out for themselves rather than risk losing him for nothing and watching him blossom for another team.
Look for Jeffress to be in the bullpen on Opening Day.