In a sense, the current state of the Toronto Blue Jays’ bullpen is not unlike having a pants pocket overflowing with coins: it’s a nice problem to have, but no one should confuse it with being rich.
With the news that Casey Janssen’s rehabilitation process has been slowed to a crawl, it’s certainly a relief for Jays fans to know that there are multiple options to fill the gap if the incumbent closer is unable to regain his form in the near term. It also adds some credibility to the work that GM Alex Anthopoulos has done in recent years to shore up this part of the roster without over-spending for past performance.
It wasn’t so long ago that the Jays attempted to address weaknesses in their relief corps by signing veterans with a track record. Pitchers like Scott Schoeneweis, Terry Adams and Kerry Ligtenberg had short and ignominious stints in Toronto a decade ago as teams with some level of talent were undone by awful late inning relief pitching.
The Blue Jays’ path out of that predicament before the 2006 season was to go all in, throwing as much money as was bearable at the best available closer on the market. Thus began the B.J. Ryan era.
I still believe that Ryan provided the franchise with some semblance of value for that contract, and his 2006 campaign (1.37 ERA, 31.9% K rate) ranks among the best ever for a Jays reliever. Even given my own rosy view of the hulking lefty, the rest of that contract should have provided a fundamental lesson for us all.
Even if some Jays fans didn’t necessarily heed that warning – and you still get the odd duck asking why the team doesn’t pursue a big, proven bullpen arm - at least Anthopoulos seemingly learned his lesson. After all, it was on his watch that the final $12 million paycheque was cut to Ryan, long after the dulcet strains of Slipknot had ceased to announce his entry into Major League ballgames.
And if Ryan’s contract wasn’t enough of a primer, then certainly taking the wrong end of the Mike Napoli-Frank Francisco deal would have reinforced the notion.
Indeed, over the past two-plus seasons, Anthopoulos has helped the Jays amass a surplus of big, raw, cheap and controllable arms, and while the results haven’t always been optimal, there is rarely a substantial downside in the cost to acquire them. Moreover, it has provided the team with a bounty of late inning options, such that one can almost fathom the team doing away with set bullpen roles altogether.
This last thought might be a flight of fancy, but I don’t think I’ve been made happier by a pitching change recently than when manager John Gibbons pulled putative closer Sergio Santos with two outs in the ninth in favour of lefty Brett Cecil in order to retire mangy scoundrel and Blue Jay killer Matt Joyce. It was the perfect call in that moment, and one could hope that more unorthodox bullpen management would follow.
All of this is to preface three essential bullpen questions that have been raised to me in the past few days.
1) Why do the Jays need an eight-man bullpen?
They don’t. But they are caught with a weak and unstable rotation which may require the assistance of J.A. Happ and his $5 million contract or Esmil Rogers. Moreover, they have collected these marginal arms by scooping up guys on the verge of running out of options or on the cusp of arbitration.
It’s an off-field management decision that has had too much of an impact on what can be done on the field, and I think Anthopoulos has to swallow hard and let some of those arms go. It’s not as though he’s releasing the next Chris Carpenter.
2) What do the Jays do with this surplus of bullpen arms?
The nice thing about this bullpen is that it is cheap. The downside is that it is not worth that much.
It would be nice to think that an excess of relievers would be worth something to someone, and could be turned into a second baseman, or a starting pitcher. But even quality relief arms don’t really return much in trade, and certainly not at this early juncture.
Given the likelihood of injuries to some of those arms, it’s probably worth the Jays’ while to sit on them for the time being and ride this group through until after the All-Star break. At that point, as races tighten and teams attempt fortify for the stretch run and playoffs, a good reliever might net you a decent prospect in return.
3) Does Casey Janssen get his closer job back when he returns?
The short answer is "no", I wouldn’t necessarily push to have Janssen close games when he recovers from whatever is ailing him. I’m not sure why there is a notion that closers should necessarily slide directly into that role when they return from injury.
Then again, I don’t understand much of the orthodoxy around bullpen roles. I’d prefer to see smarter situational usage, and when Janssen is healthy enough to rejoin the club, I’d consider the fact that he hasn’t faced big leaguers in seven or more months as an aspect of the situation that needs to be considered before slotting him in.
I suppose that managers probably want to seem like the sort of guys who have the best interests of their players at heart, and since Casey Janssen’s future value is almost entirely wrapped up in how many saves he collects, you can understand why Gibbons would be tempted to start giving him those opportunities as soon as he can.
Here’s wishing Janssen a speedy recovery back to full health. In some ways, it would be a pleasure to have to ponder this question further