TORONTO – The thought of the Toronto Blue Jays standing pat in the bullpen and largely relying on internal improvements to build a better relief corps would have been unfathomable a month ago.
Yet with the arrival of 2015, spring training visible in the distance and a free-agent market thinned of its most appealing options, expect Alex Anthopoulos to be particularly judicious with the $5-$7 million he’s thought to still have available, and not just spend for the sake of it (a la Francisco Cordero, 2012).
The Blue Jays remain focused on the trade market for relievers, although with much of their young organizational surplus already shipped out (Anthony Gose, Kendall Graveman, Sean Nolin, Franklin Barreto) and no one, apparently, anteing up for Dioner Navarro, pulling that off won’t be easy.
Anthopoulos could try to squeeze a couple of remaining free agents into the low-risk price range, allowing cost to provide the separation that talent and recent performance is not, and hope to bet on the right reclamation projects.
But there’s no guarantee that happens, and the Blue Jays may very well keep their money for the spring or the regular season, when better options might emerge, and give it a go with what they already have.
While taking such an approach to a bullpen that finished 12th in the American League with a 4.09 ERA is risky, it worked for them in the rotation last year, when Drew Hutchison and Marcus Stroman joined R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and J.A. Happ on a solid staff.
This year Aaron Sanchez, tentatively slated to be the rotation’s fifth starter with Happ dealt, offers some protection in following a similar path, as he showed closer ability in collecting three saves in 24 relief appearances in the majors, with a 1.09 ERA and a silly WHIP of 0.697.
The Blue Jays will stretch him out during spring training regardless of what happens, and if they can’t form a bullpen they’re confident in without him, Sanchez can be switched back with one of Marco Estrada or Daniel Norris starting in his place.
Estrada and Norris are both options for a bullpen in which the only certain incumbents are Brett Cecil, Aaron Loup and Todd Redmond. Chad Jenkins and Rob Rasmussen both showed promise, former all-star Steve Delabar might be in line for a bounceback now that he’s healthier, as Sportsnet’s Barry Davis recently detailed, Kyle Drabek is both out of options and a wild-card, while 40-man roster addition Ryan Tepera opened eyes last year.
Beyond them, minor-league free agents Gregory Infante, who drew praise for his work with Tiburones de La Guaira in Venezuela’s winter league, and Wilton Lopez, who struggled the past two years in Colorado after three strong years with Houston, are worth keeping an eye on. Then there are waiver claims like Scott Barnes, Preston Guilmet, Colt Hynes and Cory Burns.
So the Blue Jays have plenty of inventory, the question is whether they can find enough quality amid the quantity, especially given the high rate of volatility among relievers.
One lesson Anthopoulos is likely drawing upon came from the experience with Cordero in 2012. The veteran right-hander, lingering on the market, was signed to a $4.5-million, one-year deal on Feb. 1 despite the club’s concerns over his declining strikeout rate, among other things.
The Blue Jays only decided to roll the dice on Cordero after a trade with Texas to acquire Koji Uehara for catching prospect Carlos Perez was nixed when the Japanese right-hander decided not to waive his no-trade clause.
It backfired when Cordero got crushed – his WHIP, hits per nine and homers per nine all doubled en route to a 5.77 ERA in 41 games – before he was eventually traded to Houston in the package that landed Happ.
That’s not to say the same thing would happen with the relievers still on the free-agent market, but the pattern under Anthopoulos is that when he wants a free agent, he pursues him early and aggressively. The courtship of Russ Martin this winter demonstrated that.
With only a limited amount of money remaining – the suspected $5-$7 million range is linked to where the club’s arbitration-eligible players land – the Blue Jays need to feel good about what they’re spending it on, keeping in mind it could be used more effectively down the road, too.
NOTES: The Blue Jays continue to have interest in free-agent infielder Takashi Toritani, but given their limited resources, they’d likely need to get him on a low-risk, one-year deal. Toritani’s agent, Scott Boras, is sure to aim higher. … The Blue Jays could dump Navarro’s salary to create additional spending room, but they continue to want an asset in return. Navarro provides depth and protection at catcher and DH, and if Martin can catch Dickey, definitely improves the roster.