Free agent relief would help Jays but create risk

David-Roberston-Andrew-Miller

David Roberston (left) and Andrew Miller (right) are the top relief pitchers available in free agency (AP).

Alex Anthopoulos has repeatedly said the struggles of the Toronto Blue Jays’ bullpen might have prevented the team from making the playoffs in 2014. Not coincidentally, relief pitching is a priority as the Blue Jays look for ways to improve upon their 83-win season.

If history is any indication, the Blue Jays will seek bargains. After all, they’ve never spent more than $4.5 million per year on a reliever under Anthopoulos.

But Anthopoulos has already surprised many by signing Russell Martin for $82 million. And by keeping tabs on Andrew Miller, the Blue Jays are showing an interest in the top lefty reliever available. He won’t come cheap and could require a four-year commitment.

Deciding whether to meet that kind of asking price won’t be easy, especially for a team whose last long-term deal with a reliever backfired…

The case for committing to a top reliever

Miller dominated last year. So did David Robertson, who appears to be seeking a Jonathan Papelbon-like $50 million commitment. It’s not clear if the Blue Jays have interest in Robertson, but he and Miller would both represent substantial upgrades over Casey Janssen — or at least the 2014 version of Janssen who struggled in the second half after a bout with food poisoning following a trip to the Dominican Republic.

Miller struck out 42.6 percent of batters he faced, which is to say he generated whiffs three times as often as Janssen (14.6 percent). Robertson (37.1 percent) wasn’t far behind. And while some closers generate swings and misses by avoiding the strike zone altogether, Miller and Robertson both kept their walks in check.

Neither Miller nor Robertson has turned 30, so they’re still in their prime seasons. It’s easy to envision continued dominance from both pitchers for three or four more years.

A reliever of that calibre would be a welcome addition to a Blue Jays bullpen that ranked 25th in MLB with a 4.09 ERA last year. Janssen, Dustin McGowan, Sergio Santos and Brandon Morrow have since hit free agency, further weakening the team’s relief corps. A top reliever would give manager John Gibbons a weapon for high-leverage moments late in games, and there would be a trickle-down effect to others in the bullpen, as the weakest reliever would be pushed off the roster.

One way or another, the Blue Jays are going to have to give something up to acquire a top reliever. They could make a trade, but doing so would mean weakening the farm system or big league team. Spending on a free agent keeps the roster strong.

While Anthopoulos has avoided long-term commitments to relievers so far, years could be viewed as an asset if the pitcher in question is a relief ace. After all, three or four years of a great pitcher is better than one, right?

The case against committing to a top reliever

Closers are made, not born, as Anthopoulos pointed out on the day the Blue Jays’ 2014 season ended.

“I think there’s some guys out there that might not be quote unquote closers that if given the opportunity can close,” Anthopoulos said. “For the most part every closer in the league, they’re all made. “

A glance at the top relievers from 2014 confirms that the best bullpen arms come from all over the place:

Top Relievers (2014)

Player Acquired Year
Dellin Betances Draft (Yankees) 2006
Wade Davis Trade (Rays) 2012
Aroldis Chapman International Free Agent (Reds) 2010
Jake McGee Draft (Rays) 2004
Sean Doolittle Draft (Athletics) 2007
Andrew Miller Trade (Red Sox) 2014
Greg Holland Draft (Royals) 2007
Craig Kimbrel Draft (Braves) 2008
Steve Cishek Draft (Marlins) 2007
Kenley Jansen Amateur Free Agent (Dodgers) 2004

None of those 10 pitchers were acquired in the domestic free agent market, and at least half of them were considered big-league afterthoughts or longshots as recently as a year or two ago.

Relievers are that volatile, as the Blue Jays found out when they last spent big on one. B.J. Ryan was a relatively young pitcher coming off a dominant season when Anthopoulos’ predecessor, J.P. Ricciardi, signed him for five years and $47 million. Ryan was great for one season before alternating between injured, effective and awful as the deal wound down.

The Ryan deal ended up looking particularly ugly for Blue Jays fans, but it’s just one part of a broader pattern including arms like Heath Bell, Brandon League, Francisco Cordero and Scott Linebrink. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that Anthopoulos has avoided spending big on relief. In recent years, the odds have been stacked against massive relief deals.

Plus, the Blue Jays have other needs in the outfield and on the infield, and spending big on relief could limit the club’s ability to add position players. Every team has a budget, so there’s an opportunity cost to investing in the bullpen. Robertson also declined a qualifying offer, which means he’d require the Blue Jays to give up their second-highest pick next summer.

Lastly, the relief market tends to serve up bargains as spring training approaches, but there’s no guarantee that Toronto could add a left fielder or a second baseman in the same way.

Verdict

Miller and Robertson would make any team better, the Blue Jays included. They’ve proven themselves as elite relievers and earned the lucrative long-term deals they’re sure to receive. Toronto’s interest in top arms is completely understandable.

But spending big on relievers hasn’t historically paid off, so getting creative seems preferable to entering a bidding with the potential to backfire in a big way. Buyer beware.

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