Quibbling about the state of the Toronto Blue Jays’ bullpen seems a tad rich, especially as the team prepares for the 12th different starting pitcher to take the bump this weekend.
Moreover, the fact that Blue Jays starters rank 26th in innings pitched means that the Jays’ bullpen has been required to pitch the third-most innings in baseball thus far. That workload has resulted in a relief corps of semi-anonymous, itinerant pitchers arriving for short periods just long enough to spell off whoever has just been asked to throw too many innings in too few days.
With that as context, it will seem like aspiring towards foolish luxury to dream about stacking multiple closers into the back of the bullpen in the coming years. Yet, seeing legitimate contenders roll through the Jays’ schedule with multiple late inning options at the same time that we observe Roberto Osuna struggle as the team’s only reliable high-leverage arm leaves you to pause and consider what could be, and what should be.
It had become a part of the new orthodoxy to recognize the “fungible” nature of bullpens, and to diminish the importance of late-inning pitchers with “closer mentalities.” Spending big money on the bullpen was what you could expect from dumb teams.
Except that in the past few years, where there are no stubbornly dumb teams remaining, the smart and successful franchises have leaned towards building super bullpens with multiple late-inning options.
Maybe it’s watching David Robertson enter the game for the Yankees in the seventh inning that brings this notion into stark relief (pardon the pun), or maybe it’s the knowledge that the Jays have lost five times this season when leading with two outs in the ninth.
It might even be the fact that the wild card race is now filled with mediocre teams having not-great seasons, which makes you ask “what if?” and “why not us?” Convert those five losses into wins, and the Jays are suddenly holding down a wild card spot and a game and a half back of the Yankees for the privilege of hosting the play-in game.
This is the stuff of fantasy, of course, but it underlines the thin line between what has been a bad season with bad luck and bad performances and bad breaks and bad health into something not only salvageable, but worthy of excitement down the stretch.
As noted from the outset, this doesn’t completely fall to the bullpen, but if the margin between “lost season” and “meaningful baseball” is this slim, it behooves the front office to go into their planning for next season with the high-leverage roles in the bullpen as a priority.
What’s more, the Blue Jays shouldn’t necessarily expect that Roberto Osuna alone can shoulder as much of the responsibility for these spots as he has this year. There’s still a line of thinking that a young pitcher of such outstanding talent should probably be considered for the starting rotation rather than the bullpen, and the Blue Jays shouldn’t place organizational shortcomings or needs ahead of what is optimal for the player’s development and ability to contribute going forward.
And if we are indulging in “what ifs”, what if Osuna is unable to answer the bell next season? As much as Ryan Tepera has had some level of success this season, his high walk rate (3.7 per nine innings) and low batting average on balls in play (.248) should give pause to anyone viewing his season with unbridled optimism for the future. It’s not to say he won’t be a contributor, but he may be best suited to a role just below that of the bullpen aces.
There are plenty of cases where loading up on bullpen arms at significant expense – either in salary or prospects – doesn’t immediately pay dividends. The Red Sox expected to have former closers Carson Smith and Tyler Thornburg complementing Craig Kimbrel, but injuries have sideswiped those plans.
In Houston, the outstanding year of Chris Devenski has likely papered over the iffy seasons of Ken Giles and Luke Gregerson, but those three plus Will Harris could be a significant factor in putting the Astros over the top this season.
And closer to home, the memory of what the stacked Kansas City and Cleveland bullpens did to the Jays in the postseason shouldn’t be lost.
There will be many priorities this off-season, but with the bullpen making up a third of the active roster, it may be time for the Blue Jays to throw some caution to the wind when looking at this year’s free agent class.
It could be beyond the team’s comfort to give too much money and too many years to Wade Davis, or Addison Reed, or Anthony Swarzak, or Tony Watson. There’s wisdom to such a stance. But if you’re not spending on those players for those roles, where’s it going? And who is going to take the load off Osuna?