Buy-low relievers Blue Jays could explore


Ronald Belisario delivers against the Minnesota Twins during the seventh inning of a baseball game Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014, in Chicago. (Andrew A. Nelles/AP)

The Toronto Blue Jays reshaped their roster this off-season, but their relief pitching remains a lingering question mark. The team’s flurry of activity has not addressed the bullpen, which is multiple arms away from being a solid unit.

Unfortunately for the Blue Jays, the biggest available names — David Robertson, Andrew Miller, etc. — have already found homes. But while true relief aces are now out of reach, the free agent and trade markets are littered with interesting arms.

Relievers are volatile assets, so making heavy investments in star closers the way the Blue Jays did with B.J. Ryan in 2005 rarely ends well. Instead, the wisest course is often to try and buy low on multiple talented arms and hope for bounce-back seasons.

If the Blue Jays choose to go that route, there are a couple of relievers they might take a look at:

Free Agents

Ronald Belisario

Age: 32

Throws: Right

Fastball Velocity: 94.7 mph

Arsenal: Sinker (73.7%), Slider (19.9%), Changeup (2.8%), Four-Seam Fastball (0.9%)

Previous Team: Chicago White Sox

2014 Season: 4-8, 66.1 IP, 5.56 ERA, 18/47 BB/K

Belisario spent years as a reliable cog in the Dodgers’ bullpen before having a borderline disastrous season with the White Sox in 2014.

The 32-year-old’s results may have soured last year, but his core skill set remained intact. He posted a robust 59.3 percent ground ball rate and his heavy sinker maintained the velocity that made him a quality high-leverage reliever in Los Angeles.

Above all else it seems Belisario was a victim of bad luck. His solid 3.54 FIP (a defence-independent ERA estimator) and abnormally high .339 batting average on balls in play allowed suggest many of his woes were beyond his control.

Other teams seem to agree with this assessment. Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press reports that as many as 10 clubs have expressed interest in Belisario.

Mike Adams

Age: 36

Throws: Right

Fastball Velocity: 90.1 mph

Arsenal: Four-Seam Fastball (47.1%), Cutter (32.5%), Curveball (15.6%), Changeup (4.9%)

Previous Team: Philadelphia Phillies

2014 Season: 2-1, 18.2 IP, 2.89 ERA, 8/21 BB/K

While the other pitchers on this list are risky because of poor performances, Adams is almost singularly an injury risk. When healthy the 36-year-old has always been effective.

Between 2008 and 2011 he was one of the best relievers in baseball, posting a 1.71 ERA identical to Mariano Rivera’s ERA over that span. Since then the veteran has struggled with injuries, pitching only 96 innings over the last three years.

The reason that Adams remains appealing, other than a modest price tag, is that even as recently as last year he struck batters out at an impressive rate (10.13 K/9) and maintained an elite ground ball percentage (56.3 percent) in limited action.

While Adams is a very tough pitcher to bank on, he’s a very appealing one to gamble on.

Trade Targets

Casey Fien

Age: 31

Throws: Right

Fastball Velocity: 92.3 mph

Arsenal: Four-Seam Fastball (56.8%), Slider (32.1%), Curveball (7.0%), Two-Seam Fastball (4.2%)

Current Team: Minnesota Twins

2014 Season: 5-6, 63.1 IP, 3.98 ERA, 10/51 BB/K

As a former 20th round pick Fien was something of a longshot to be a major leaguer, let alone a desirable trade target.

However, the 31-year-old’s pinpoint control and ability to miss bats make him a very useful bullpen arm. Over the last two seasons his K/BB ratio of 5.64 ranks fifth among relievers with at least 100 innings pitched.

Fien profiles as a buy-low option because his strikeout rate declined last season and his career ERA of 3.92 has never lived up to his impressive peripherals.

Given that Fien’s velocity improved to an all-time high last season a rebound in the whiff department seems likely. The biggest question is whether his ability to keep runs off the board can catch up with his dominance of the strike zone.

It might be worth finding out if a rebuilding Twins team will part with him.

J.J. Hoover

Age: 27

Throws: Right

Fastball Velocity: 92.9 mph

Arsenal: Four-Seam Fastball (66.3%), Curveball (19.7%), Slider (11.4%), Changeup (1.4%) Two-Seam Fastball (0.1%)

Current Team: Cincinnati Reds

2014 Season: 1-10, 62.2 IP, 4.88 ERA, 31/75 BB/K

Hoover had an appalling 2014 in just about every statistical category. The 27-year-old right hander seriously struggled with his control and was done in by the long ball consistently, giving up 13 home runs.

While Hoover’s 1-10 record was a function of poor luck as much as anything else, it’s absolutely indicative of the kind of year he had. By more advanced metrics the -0.6 Wins Above Replacement he posted ranked 136th among 142 qualified the relievers.

So, what makes Hoover an interesting trade target?

Even during his nightmarish 2014, he demonstrated the ability to miss bats at a remarkable clip with a 10.77 K/9. Those strikeouts, as well as his stable velocity, seem to indicate Hoover’s stuff has not deserted him.

That stuff delivered him two consecutive seasons with an ERA below 3.00 and FIP below 3.50 prior to last year. Hoover’s talent is there, he’s young enough to recover, and coming off an abysmal season it’s hard to imagine the price would be prohibitive.

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