Blue Jays must balance quantity vs. quality in bullpen search

The Toronto Blue Jays have to address their bullpen and starting rotation, and as Barry Davis, Mike Wilner, and Ben Nicholson-Smith explain, the GM meetings are the first place to start.

BOCA RATON, Fla. – Now’s the time for big league front offices to dream. This early in the off-season every free agent is available, no trade possibility is too far-fetched.

Even the likes of Aroldis Chapman are available for the right combination of controllable talent at or near the big league level.

“We’re listening on everybody,” Cincinnati Reds president of baseball operations Walt Jocketty said Wednesday. “We’re in a position where we have to be open-minded.”

The Reds say they’re not actively seeking trade partners, but interest will surely be strong.

“We’ll let the market dictate what we do. If people have enough interest in our guys, we’ll move them,” Jocketty added. “We have to take a little step back — not too far — a little step back to go forward.”

All of this applies to any team involved in the relief market, the Toronto Blue Jays included. Once Mark Lowe and LaTroy Hawkins hit free agency, the Blue Jays started looking to bolster their bullpen. If Aaron Sanchez or Roberto Osuna moves to the rotation, the need for relievers only increases.

Realistically the Blue Jays are focused on their remaining two rotation spots. But at the same time, they aren’t ruling out spending on the right reliever.

“We’re open to all the solutions that are out there,” interim GM Tony LaCava said. “We can’t be too stuck in our ways and miss out on (an opportunity). We’re just going to keep weighing things and see how it plays out.”

In theory that creates the possibility that the Blue Jays could pursue Chapman, Craig Kimbrel, Mark Melancon or any of the expensive and elite relievers who appear to be available in trades. There are no indications the Blue Jays are currently in on those players, as LaCava says the trade market’s just starting to take shape, but any mid-to-large market team seeking bullpen help would have to consider them.

There’s also a free agent market that includes Lowe, Darren O’Day, Joakim Soria, Shawn Kelley, and Tony Sipp, among others. Spending on bullpen pieces comes with risk, but large market teams such as the New York Yankees have benefitted from adding relievers in free agency.

“You’re getting people that have been through the wars,” GM Brian Cashman said. “They’re pros. They’ve established themselves in their careers, so they’re safe bets so to speak compared to the uncertainty of the youth.”

But any team that fixates on one arm can miss the real challenge: assembling a bullpen filled with talent. Given the unpredictability of relievers and the injuries that take place over the course of a long season, Seattle Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto tries to begin each year with 12 quality bullpen arms. Ideally that group includes pitchers who throw from both sides, an unusual arm angle and a mix of established and unproven players.

“You’re looking for bat-missing potential probably first and foremost,” Dipoto told Sportsnet. “What you might not be able to find in one purchase, you can find in tandem once you put seven or nine or 12 guys together and create a rotational group.”

Dipoto likes acquiring players with minor league options, since they can be sent down if necessary and they often earn less than $2 million, creating payroll flexibility. It’s something he keeps in mind whenever he’s negotiating deals.

“In every trade, always ask for that extra bullpen piece,” he said. “We’ll pass on the A-ball flyer who has a chance to be an everyday guy and we’re going to take that 25-year-old reliever who’s ready to plug and play and has two options.”

If any team has succeeded at assembling an effective bullpen affordably, it’s the Pittsburgh Pirates, who led MLB with a 2.67 bullpen ERA in 2015. So what’s the secret to finding unexpected contributors like Joe Blanton and Arquimedes Caminero?

“There isn’t a model,” GM Neal Huntington admitted. “There isn’t a key.”

Not only do the Pirates pull together information from scouts, analytics and coaches, they work to build players’ trust before mandating new approaches, even if the need for change seems obvious. That doesn’t sound so different from the process the Blue Jays are looking to kickstart at the GM Meetings, where assistant GM Andrew Tinnish and executives Perry Minasian and Joe Sheehan are all involved in the hunt for unheralded arms.

“We try to combine the scouting and the analytics and see if there’s some undervalued guys out there,” LaCava said.

With a pool of close to 600 minor league free agents plus a nearly inexhaustible supply of trade candidates, there’s plenty of choice. That said, minor league free agents and waiver arms are typically available for a reason, so teams have to keep expectations realistic.

Aiming high makes all kinds of sense this time of year, and if an elite reliever’s available at a reasonable price, the Blue Jays should call. But they have just 14 pitchers on their 40-man roster, so there’s reason to dream big in terms of quantity as well as quality.

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