CLEARWATER, Fla. — There are layers to the challenge facing the Toronto Blue Jays as they weigh their options in the bullpen this spring.
They must surround Drew Storen, Roberto Osuna and Brett Cecil with a group of relievers capable of shutting down opponents early in the season. And they must also ensure that there’s a second wave of capable relief options available to reinforce the team mid-season.
Look no further than last year for a reminder of how many relief arms teams need. The Blue Jays used 22 relievers in 2015, so while players are determined to make the opening day roster, the bullpen will evolve constantly throughout the season. Even those who start in Buffalo will be asked to contribute.
That’s partly because of attrition and partly by design. Throughout the industry, teams value optionable relievers. The New York Yankees used 26 relievers last year, choosing to option and recall regularly instead of rolling with the same seven arms.
Unfortunately for the Blue Jays, they don’t have too many relievers with options. There's Aaron Loup, who’s currently sidelined with a flexor strain in his elbow, plus Ryan Tepera, Ben Rowen, Pat Venditte and prospects not yet on the 40-man such as Chad Girodo. Beyond that, it won’t be easy to shuttle players up and down.
"That can present a problem as you go into a season, but I still think you need to take the best team regardless of what that is and make adjustments accordingly," manager John Gibbons said. "It’s a big year."
Relievers Steve Delabar and Arnold Leon are out of options while Rule 5 pick Joe Biagini must be rostered or offered back to the San Francisco Giants.
Others have opt-out clauses. Veteran relievers Rafael Soriano and David Aardsma can opt out, though Soriano has yet to arrive and Aardsma’s out isn’t until the end of May, according to an industry source. While it’s unclear whether left-hander Randy Choate has a similar clause, the first challenge with all veterans is ensuring they have something left. Choate, who signed Friday, says it won’t take long to get into games.
"I'm not a guy who comes out and throws 98 and I'm not a guy who throws two or three innings every time," he said. "I've been pretty fortunate to be able to have, I don't want to say a rubber band arm, but an arm that can get in shape pretty quick. It doesn't take very long."
The bullpen, which will likely consist of seven relievers for most of the season, has three sure things in Storen, Osuna and Cecil. Barring injuries, two of Aaron Sanchez, Jesse Chavez and Gavin Floyd will also pitch in relief, with the other starting. That would leave two spots, one of which begs for a left-hander as long as Loup's elbow issue lingers.
Both relievers would likely be asked to help the Blue Jays get through the middle innings of games, a potentially vital role on a team where R.A. Dickey may be the lone starter with a 200-inning season to his name.
From the left side, Venditte, Girodo and Choate appear to be among those earning serious consideration. Venditte pitched well early in camp, particularly from the left side, which makes him an intriguing option for the role. Left-handed hitters managed a miniscule .447 OPS against Venditte last year, and his ambidextrous skill set allows him to retire right-handers, too (switch-hitters were the issue for him in 2015).
Girodo, a 25-year-old left-hander who earned consideration for a call-up late last season, reached triple-A in 2015. Given that he struggled in four appearances with Buffalo, more seasoning wouldn't hurt.
In that context, adding lefty arms makes sense. Choate, the quintessential lefty specialist, hopes to show the Blue Jays that he’s up to the challenge of retiring big bats like Chris Davis and David Ortiz. "I relish that role," he said.
In the scenario that Venditte, Girodo or Choate makes the team, one bullpen spot would remain. Bo Schultz might have been in the mix for a middle relief role, but his recovery from hip surgery will delay his 2016 debut beyond opening day. At this point, it’s difficult to imagine the Blue Jays breaking camp with Soriano, who has yet to report due to visa issues.
The combination of Biagini’s curve and 95 mph fastball will intrigue the team’s decision makers, even if he’s never pitched above double-A or made more than two relief appearances in a season. The Blue Jays will weigh his potential against the likes of Delabar and Leon, who are both out of options. Delabar, a 2013 All-Star, has always been able to generate strikeouts, while Leon’s potential intrigues the Blue Jays. And don’t count out Tepera, Rowen and Aardsma, even if there’s less urgency to roster them given that they can be sent to Buffalo.
Spring results are all we have right now, but there’s danger in over-emphasizing them. Last year Colt Hynes made the team after allowing zero runs in spring training, only to struggle. On the other hand, Brett Cecil made the 2013 team after a so-so spring and hasn’t looked back since.
"That’s always tough," Gibbons said. "You want to get those decisions right because there’s other teams out there that want some of these guys. But you can’t be right all of the time either."
Even if the Blue Jays don’t necessarily finalize the bullpen on the first attempt, the right contingency plans can help ensure the pitching staff remains strong all season.