Cecil ready for anything in walk year with Blue Jays

Jeff Blair and Hazel Mae discuss the pitching of Aaron Sanchez and whether or not he’s a starter or member of the bullpen.

DUNEDIN, Fla. — He is the forgotten Toronto Blue Jays free agent, but Brett Cecil figures he has guys to deal with that and given the premium teams are putting on middle relief these days, another year like 2015 and he will be comfortably rewarded by somebody.

And in case you’re wondering about whether he’s worried that the increasingly crowded bullpen might limit his responsibilities in 2016 and, by extension, hurt him economically? Nah. Cecil’s too busy enjoying feeling healthy to wonder about the impact of the addition of Drew Storen and, possibly, Aaron Sanchez.

“I expect as many outings and innings as I’ve had in the past,” said Cecil, who added that there have been no negotiations between his agents Sam and Seth Levinson on an extension to buy-out free agency “at least, not as far as I’m aware.

“I’m just taking the approach that it’s a luxury to have as many guys as we have,” Cecil said. “Gibby’s going to use me whatever way he wants, and that’s fine. It wasn’t that I wasn’t comfortable in the closer’s role last season; I just wasn’t ready because of the shoulder to pitch in the season, whether it was in a set-up role or relief role or whatever. This season’s different.”

Few members of the Blue Jays have seen their careers have as many twists and turns. Starter, closer, set-up guy; one foot on the trade block or even waiver wire; soft-bodied thumber; chiseled but with decreased velocity … irreplaceable. The Blue Jays lost in six games to the Kansas City Royals in the American League Championship Series last season but I’m going to tell you this: if Cecil -- described by manager John Gibbons as being "the most important pitcher in our bullpen" on the eve of the playoffs -- doesn’t tear his calf muscle making a play in Game 2 of the AL Division Series against the Texas Rangers, the Blue Jays go to the World Series.

"There were countless times when I knew the phone was ringing in the bullpen and there was a good chance it would have been me getting up, especially with Kansas City and all the lefty hitters they have," said Cecil. "It was tough. It was hard to just sit there and watch."

Cecil agreed to a $3.8-million deal in January and avoided salary arbitration with the Blue Jays after a remarkable 2015, when he registered a 0.957 WHIP and chain-sawed his walk rate from 11.5 to 6.1 en route to finding a niche that has turned into a money-maker for some pitchers given the manner in which analytics has seen teams take a more studied approach to bullpen construction. Cecil, who along with Sanchez (who will start), Storen, Steve Delabar and Randy Choate is scheduled to pitch Friday against the Houston Astros, is clear that he’d prefer to stay with the Blue Jays, but the contractual issue front of mind these days is that of Edwin Encarnacion.

According to Enrique Rojas of ESPN Deportes – and verified by a Spanish-language interview with the slugger – recent negotiations between the team and his agent Paul Kinzer have yielded few results, with the player's deadline for a deal just two weeks away. Encarnacion said that financial figures have not been exchanged, and it has been reported that he and his agent have asked for a five-year contract – which makes sense in light of contracts signed this past winter, especially given the fact next winter’s free-agent crop is weak. Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro declined comment, but industry speculation is that the Blue Jays are more interested in two or three-year deals for Encarnacion and Bautista structured along the lines of the contract signed with the New York Mets by Yoenis Cespedes: three years, $75 million, with an opt out after the first year.

Speaking on my show on Thursday, Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins said the Blue Jays have no self-imposed deadline for either Encarnacion or Bautista, but that they respect Encarnacion’s desire. "We’ll let Edwin drive that," Atkins said. "We never burn bridges or close doors and always respect parameters and boundaries."

Ten years after the Blue Jays raised eyebrows by giving free agent A.J. Burnett an opt-out clause after three years as part of a five-year contract, those clauses have become the flavour of the month. Eight big-money free-agent deals signed this past winter included opt out clauses, including the contracts inked by David Price and Zack Greinke – the latter of whom reached free agency by virtue of exercising an opt-out clause in his deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Blue Jays under Shapiro appear to be fans of the opt-out clause, especially in the case of older players, since it stands to reason that if a player decides to exercise the clause and go back into free agency he has likely been productive. And while there are strategic considerations for the player and agent -- specifically the strength of the free-agent market that particular winter -- if the player hasn’t been productive and doesn’t utilize it? The team is on hook for the deal, which it would have been, anyhow, without the opt-out clause.

The Blue Jays faced the New York Yankees Wednesday night in Tampa, and the Yankees ran out their ‘Wipeout Three’ bullpen of Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller – all of whom can throw 100 mph, all of whom can close. Chapman will be suspended for the first 30 games of the regular season under terms of baseball's domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse policy, but according to YES Yankees analyst Ken Singleton, manager Joe Girardi has hinted that he will be loathe to use all three arms in the same game, with Chasen Shreve expected to carry the load in the seventh inning and one arm rested per game.

Whether that is a plan that Gibbons follows with his loaded bullpen remains to be seen. But Gibbons is hardly a doctrinaire guy, and the guess here is he won’t have any hard and fast rules should he start the season with Storen, Roberto Osuna, Sanchez and Cecil. Publicly, at least, Cecil’s fine with that – and he made clear that if Gibbons needs him to close out the odd game, he’s cool with that, too. "Basically," he said, "I’m ready for anything."

Smart, that.