Blue Jays need relief, but know danger of copycat bullpen market

Mark Lowe pitches against the Kansas City Royals. (Jon Blacker/AP)

The Toronto Blue Jays’ goals haven’t changed in the last week, but the market they’re working in certainly has. The once-plentiful relief class has thinned out considerably, and along the way a new market has been set.

When the Blue Jays arrived at the Winter Meetings there was a deep group of relievers available in free agency. What the class lacked in star power it made up for in depth.

In the last week, 11 relievers have signed multi-year year deals: Darren O’Day, Joakim Soria, Ryan Madson, Tony Sipp, Shawn Kelley, Mark Lowe, John Axford, Jason Motte, Jonathan Broxton, Oliver Perez and Chad Qualls. The going rate for quality bullpen arms has been established at $4-8 million per season.

It’s a great time to be a middle reliever, partly because the success of the Kansas City Royals fuelled demand for relief. Realizing that teams might want to copy the Royals’ roster, many agents pointed to the Kansas City template and argued that there’s no such thing as too much quality relief, that the middle innings are worth investing in. The pitches clearly resonated with teams. Of the 11 relievers to obtain multi-year deals in the last week only Motte projects as a closer.

So far the Blue Jays have checked in on the likes of Soria and Lowe without landing any free agents. They’ve talked trades without spending prospect capital for relief the way the Houston Astros and Detroit Tigers did. In effect they’ve remained on the sidelines.

That doesn’t mean they’re content with their bullpen. They’re not. But there’s danger in over-reacting to one team’s success, so team president Mark Shapiro doesn’t intend to follow the latest trends in roster construction without taking a critical look at them first.

“Some of these conversations are cyclical. A lot of them are more looking at where the value might be in the marketplace,” Shapiro said at the Winter Meetings in Nashville. “People always look to follow a team that built it with a certain model and was very successful and they say ‘that’s the model we’re going to take on.’ If you’re following those trends, you’re probably too late, because you’re probably going to overpay for doing it that way.”

Instead, Shapiro intends to look at what the Blue Jays have and supplement that. Considering that R.A. Dickey’s Toronto’s only starter with a 200-inning season, it should be no surprise that the Blue Jays appear to value pitchers capable of pitching multiple innings of relief or even starting if necessary.

The Blue Jays’ quiet pursuit of Yusmeiro Petit reflected Toronto’s interest in adding a capable, versatile arm at a reasonable price. Based on the deals signed so far, the top remaining relievers like Joe Blanton and Antonio Bastardo are well-positioned for multi-year deals much like the contracts we’ve seen already. So far that price range appears to have had limited appeal to the Blue Jays.

“We know we’ve got to find some alternatives and we know we’ve got to play in that market,” Shapiro said. “To play in the upper ends of that market it’s a dangerous place to play. You’d better have a lot of flexibility and your threshold for risk had better be very high.”

Thankfully for the Blue Jays, bargains emerge every January and February when some relievers are left with few suitors and limited leverage. At that point teams don’t have to take on nearly as much risk. Having already added to the rotation, the Blue Jays are willing to be patient in their search for relief, perhaps in anticipation of those deals.

The trade market could be just as fruitful for the Blue Jays, who have “opportunities in both arenas,” according to GM Ross Atkins. In fact, the Blue Jays have made progress on a couple of moves Atkins considers “really close.” One of those moves became official Friday when the Blue Jays announced the signing of Darwin Barney. The next move is anybody’s guess, though it stands to reason that the bullpen will remain a priority.

Just don’t be surprised if the Blue Jays remain patient instead of overreacting to a thinned-out relief market with a splashy move of their own.

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