The “will he or won’t he” Darren Oliver saga that had stretched on since September has finally drawn to a conclusion, and in a way most Blue Jays watchers never expected.
The 42-year-old lefty will return for a final season with the Blue Jays, having eschewed retirement for at least one more year. He’ll make the very same $3-million salary that is stated on the contract he signed a year ago, not a penny more.
Oliver was dominant in 2012, his first season as a Blue Jay, posting a WHIP of 0.94 with 49 strikeouts in 50 innings and allowing opponents to hit just .191/.263/.277 before hitting a bit of a bump in the road in mid-September.
“Black Magic” and his late-inning running mate, Casey Janssen, were the lone season-long bright spots in the Blue Jays’ relief corps, and the Jays were obviously very interested in having him back for another go-round. For Oliver, who had pitched in the playoffs each of his last six years before coming to Toronto, the grind of being on a team that was struggling to stay out of last place wore on him as the summer moved along, and in a conference call with the media, he blamed that fact on his seeming to be leaning much more toward retirement than continuing his career when he spoke late in the season.
Most of us figured he would be hanging up his spikes, given both his answers to the retirement question in September and the fact he hadn’t made up his mind once the calendar flipped to 2013, despite the Blue Jays picking up his option back in November and then drastically reshaping their team into a legitimate championship contender over the course of the next few weeks.
Then came the bombshell earlier this month, when Oliver’s agent (and former Blue Jay) Jeff Frye stated that Oliver would retire unless the Blue Jays either gave him more money or traded him to the Texas Rangers. It was a demand that didn’t sit well with many Blue Jays fans, for good reason, and one that wasn’t to the liking of Alex Anthopoulos, either.
In Wednesday’s conference call, Oliver couldn’t back away from Frye’s statements quickly enough. The lefty said that he was out of the country when the story about Frye’s comments came out (though in this internet/social media age, I’m not sure what that has to do with anything anymore), adding: “I didn’t say those things…I’m not one to demand anything.”
Oliver went on to say that after thinking about how to react to Frye’s comments for a while, he reached out to Anthopoulos and told him that the demands didn’t come from him. Oliver said that he wants to play until the jersey is ripped off his back, but — as he’s said for months — his wife and two sons are a major consideration, and it has to be okay with them for him to keep going. For one more year, at least, it is.
There’s no reason not to take Oliver at his word — that Frye acted alone in an effort to serve his client by using his leverage to try to get Oliver some extra money or a chance to play at home — but even if it’s not true, even if it was an orchestrated attempt by the two of them that wound up blowing up in Oliver’s face, does it even matter?
He gave the perfect answer to a controversial question, came out smelling like a rose, and really did put the matter to bed. Now he can concentrate on getting back in shape and starting to throw, since he has to report to Spring Training in less than a month.
Oliver’s return gives the Blue Jays some serious competition for the last few spots in the bullpen. Assuming good health, he joins Janssen, Sergio Santos and the out-of-options Esmil Rogers as locks for spots, leaving three openings for the likes of Steve Delabar, Brad Lincoln, Aaron Loup, J.A. Happ and the out-of-options pair of Brett Cecil and Jeremy Jeffress. Not to mention guys like Chad Beck, Joel Careeno and Evan Crawford, who we won’t mention.
For that reason, Anthopoulos said that Lincoln will be stretched out to start in Spring Training and if he doesn’t make the team (as a reliever), then he’ll go down to Buffalo and be a starting pitcher there until such time as he’s needed in the majors. It’s obviously easier to move from the rotation to the bullpen if a need arises than vice-versa.
Even given as reluctant as Anthopoulos has been since his tenure began to lose assets for nothing on the waiver wire, it’s hard to imagine that both Cecil and Jeffress make the team. Then again, Cecil has shown he can dominate left-handed hitters (they’re hitting .232/.288/.369 against him lifetime) and if Jeffress is lights-out in the spring it would be hard to expose that kind of arm to waivers, even though they got him for nothing.
There’s no true long reliever in the group, but with the rotation the Blue Jays have, you don’t really need one.