Defining Roles in the Toronto Blue Jays Bullpen for 2011

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Defining Roles in the Toronto Blue Jays Bullpen for 2011
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Over at Mop Up Duty, Matthias Koster tells us the eight men expected to start the season in the Toronto Blue Jays' 'pen are slated to make just over $19 million, making it the second most expensive bullpen the team has ever assembled. The group trails only the 2009 version that was heavily influenced by B.J. Ryan's $12 million payout. The cash is spread a bit more evenly with these guys, three of them will earn between $3.5-4 million, and the next four will make between $1 million and $2.75 million; David Purcey brings up the rear at 400k.

Normally, you don't see an eight man bullpen, as it can be tough to get regular work for that many pitchers. But John Farrell and Alex Anthopoulos have both expressed their desire to avoid overworking their young rotation. Ultimately, the need will probably arise very quickly during the season for a fourth bench player at the expense of the bullpen's extra pitcher. All it would take is one position player to go down for something less than a trip to the disabled list, say for two-four games, to reduce the Jays' bench to a meager two men.

For now, though, let's take them at their word and assume they will start the season with an extra reliever, and let's also assume that eight will initially be compromised of the men listed by Koster. The likes of Chad Cordero, Josh Roenicke and lefty Jesse Carlson aren't on the list but could be possibilities down the road, if not to open the season. Carlson in particular should be in the running for a spot, which was covered more in-depthly here.

Farrell stated recently that he plans on going with a designated closer to open the season and is not considering a bullpen by committee. Everyone else would then fall in line behind the closer into the typical roles of setup man, mop up man, long reliever, first lefty option (only lefty in this case) and so on.

For the sake of the pitchers, that's the best way to go because it makes their lives easier if they know what to expect each night in terms of when they'll be called upon. But the Jays should steal a page from Moneyball and deploy their best reliever in a true fireman role while using their second best pitcher in the closer's role. Also, to avoid fan and media backlash, they should never mention this approach if they choose to use it.

Last season, whether intentional or not, the Boston Red Sox used their best reliever, Daniel Bard, as a pretty close representation of a fireman often bringing him in at the most crucial moments of the game while saving their second best reliever, Jonathan Papelbon, to close out games. Of course, Papelbon was the incumbent closer, but by mid-season, at the latest, it was clear Bard was out-pitching Papelbon. It's possible the switch of roles never came out of respect for Papelbon, but it's also possible they decided to stick with Papelbon as the closer because Bard was being thrown into the fire and having success while Papelbon was less than stellar.

In a bullpen operating with a defined closer and defined fireman, the other six relievers, or five, would still have all the traditional bullpen roles with which to get comfortable. They would only need one guy, their best guy, to be comfortable heading out to the 'pen every night knowing he could be used at almost any point in the game.

The easiest way to find that pitcher is work backwards and settle on everyone else's roles first. First off, Carlos Villanueva, Casey Janssen and Purcey have all made starts in at least one of the last two seasons. With eight guys and a goal of protecting the young starters, the Jays should keep two of these three stretched out for long relief work and spot starts.

It would be easy to rule out Purcey because he's a lefty but his lefty/righty splits aren't that far apart so far as ERA and FIP are concerned. He's also been much better at striking out righties than lefties and walks less righties than lefties as well. Of the three he had the both the highest ERA and FIP between 2009 and 2010 and Bill James projects him to be the worst of the three in 2011. There's your mop up long man.

The other long spot would be the preferred spot/emergency starter and long relief when they're not too far behind or ahead guy. Villanueva has the higher ERA in the last two years at 4.74 to Janssen's 4.47 despite besting Janssen in tERA, FIP and xFIP. Villanueva is also two years younger than Janssen and will be 27 next season, leaving him with a bit more upside than Janssen. James' projections don't agree, however he projects their ERAs to be close but Janssen is slotted for a 3.83 FIP to Villanueva's 4.36.

It's all about the youth right now with the Jays, though, and Villanueva's youth nudges him into the primary long man/spot starter role. Janssen now gets lumped in with Shawn Camp and Octavio Dotel to fill up the team's middle relief spots. Dotel and Camp are a distant fourth and fifth amongst the eight in their 2009-2010 FIPs with Janssen not far behind.

Now we're down to three roles and three pitchers left to fill them with. All three of Jon Rauch, Jason Frasor and Frank Francisco have previous closing experience. All three also yielded the role to others in 2009 or 2010, too. It would be easy to dismiss Frasor from closer consideration considering last season's abbreviated stint in April in which he went three for five in save opportunities before having the role taken from him and given to Kevin Gregg. Frasor wound up going four for eight in save chances on the season.

The fact is, though, he's been better than both Rauch and Francisco the last two years in ERA (3.12) and FIP (3.16) and second in tERA (3.25) to Rauch and second in xFIP (3.76) to Francisco. Rauch's 3.46 FIP in '09-'10 is the worst of the bunch and James projects him as such for 2011. So we'll give the setup role to Rauch.

Despite Frasor being half a run better in ERA than Francisco in '09-'10, they're much closer in FIP with Francisco checking in at 3.22. James projects Francisco for a 3.09 ERA and a 3.28 FIP, a good deal better than Frasor's projected 3.49 ERA and 3.54 FIP. It's a tough call whether to buy Frasor continuing to be better than Francisco based on the last two seasons of data or to take James' projections, which are at least somewhat influenced by Frasor being two years further into his supposed decline years than Francisco.

Turning to one final piece of data, since the Jays lack a lefthander among their better relievers, Francisco's FIP against lefties is just 2.80 over the last three seasons, easily trumping Frasor's 4.08 FIP in the same sample size. If we consider their overall ability to be about even, Francisco's dominance against lefties makes him the more ideal fireman. When the game has reached it's perceived highest point of importance, the Jays need to be able to summon a reliever who can take on either a lefty or a righty and get out of the jam.

The Frasor as closer experience was too short last season to serve as a concrete reason to keep him from the closer role this year. Francisco looks to be the best pitcher in the 'pen and hopefully the Blue Jays will use him when the game is on the line, whether it's the seventh, eight or ninth inning. When there's a fire to be put out Francisco is the man.

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