Identifying six breakout candidates Blue Jays should target for bullpen

Even after trading Brad Hand, the Padres have an impressive left-hander in Jose Castillo. The 21-year-old's exactly the kind of reliever the Blue Jays could look to acquire this off-season (David-Zalubowski/AP)

If we had to describe the Toronto Blue Jays as buyers or sellers, the choice would be easy. They’d be sellers, willing to exchange some 2019 wins for long-term success.

More realistically, though, that buy or sell decision isn’t binary. Contenders like Cleveland can sell pieces, and just as easily the Blue Jays can buy.

Naturally, there are certain types of players the Blue Jays would prefer to add this winter. They’re relatively deep in position players with more on the way, so there’s less urgency on that front. When it comes to pitching, though, the Blue Jays have a clear need.

Under those circumstances, it’s worth asking how the Blue Jays will search for arms. Earlier in the month I took a look at some starting pitching options worth pursuing, but now let’s turn to the relief market.

Dozens of established relievers are available in free agency, and I expect the Blue Jays to slow-play the market before signing bullpen help in the New Year, much like they did last winter. In the meantime, the trade market is more interesting since it offers players who have yet to establish themselves – potentially at bargain prices.

Here’s where the challenge begins. Relievers’ roles are changing rapidly, so what exactly are the traits of a coveted big-league reliever in 2018? With assistance from a handful of scouts and front office executives, here’s what I came up with:

• Swing-and-miss breaking ball
• Hard thrower
• Controllable
• Durable
• Experience in leverage

Those traits correspond closely to the ones Eno Sarris prioritized when trying to find the perfect MLB starter at The Athletic a few weeks ago, so this search for relievers will mirror Eno’s search for starters in those ways.

Of course, results factor in to a degree but teams aren’t going to pay for track record alone, nor will they be impressed by pitchers who have fluked their way into low ERAs. The stuff has to be there.

So if the Blue Jays are looking to trade for pitchers with elite reliever potential, where should they begin their search?

Finding an Out Pitch

There’s no better place to start than with breaking balls. Some observers point to the 2018 playoffs as evidence that the game’s biggest moments demand swing-and-miss stuff. At least that’s what managers suggested this October when they kept calling on relievers with elite breaking balls. The best of the best have a swing-and-miss secondary pitch, so the Blue Jays should seek arms of that calibre.

To identify pitchers with quality breaking pitches, I searched Baseball Savant for the sliders, curves, splitters and changeups that generated whiffs in 2018. Initially I kept the search broad, beginning with every MLB pitcher who generated a swing and miss with a breaking ball to be sure I didn’t miss someone who pitched just a handful of innings.

While the likes of Max Scherzer generate swinging strikes with everything they throw, the Blue Jays don’t need relievers with four plus pitches. To zero in on the pitchers who get the most out of a single off-speed pitch, I narrowed the search, creating a list of the 100 pitches that generated swings and misses most frequently (e.g. Edwin Diaz’s slider).

Relievers made up most of the list by this point, along with some slider-heavy starters like Patrick Corbin. Since the goal here is to find under-the-radar relievers, I eliminated all starters, established bullpen arms and current Blue Jays, bringing the list down to 65.

Hard Throwers Needed

On average, major-league fastballs travelled 92.8 m.p.h. in 2018. Fastballs from relievers went 93.4 m.p.h. And fastballs from elite relievers went faster still.

By eliminating all pitchers whose fastballs average less than 93.4 m.p.h., the list shrinks to 28.

Control Issues
Next, let’s look at two types of control: years of team control and control of the strike zone. Ideally, the Blue Jays would acquire someone who can stick around a while, so veterans Neil Ramirez and Bruce Rondon are off the list.

There’s a cost to looking past these established players, since teams are sometimes hesitant to surrender as much in trades for players with limited track records. As one exec put it, “pop-up guys are scary.” Plus, until a pitcher has succeeded in big-league leverage, potential suitors won’t be entirely sure he’s ready for that mental challenge. Still, the Blue Jays have time on their side here, so they can afford to build new acquisitions up by easing them into leverage.

Then there’s the question of throwing strikes. While the likes of Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman walk hitters and get away with it, they have truly exceptional stuff that creates wider margins for error. Considering that the MLB reliever walk rate was 9.3 per cent in 2018, we’ll eliminate anyone who walked more than 10 per cent of hitters. With that, the list shrinks to 13 players.

Durability a Priority

The ability to stay on the field matters to teams, and it should considering that the biggest predictor of future pitching injuries is past injuries.

Of course, every pitcher gets hurt, so we’re talking about health in relative terms here, but those with the scariest injury histories have to go. In this case, past or present injuries remove the likes of Edgar Santana and Luiz Gohara from the list despite otherwise appealing profiles. Now only seven names remain.

Finalizing the List
Given the Phillies’ interest in upgrading their bullpen and contending in 2019, it’s hard to see them trading Seranthony Dominguez, the hardest thrower of the remaining group.

That leaves six pitchers: Yency Almonte of the Rockies, Adam Conley of the Marlins, Amir Garrett of the Reds, Jose Castillo of the Padres, Austen Williams of the Nationals and Caleb Frare of the White Sox.

None of these pitchers are big names, but then that was the whole point – to identify pitchers with breakout potential. Their experience in leverage is light, so the Blue Jays would be hoping that those skills are easier to teach than health or velocity.

All six of these pitchers have an out pitch that generates swings and misses, and they all throw harder than most relievers. They’re all controllable through 2022 or beyond and, relatively speaking at least, they’re healthy. As a bonus for a team that could use flexibility, everyone here except Conley has minor-league options remaining. Without knowing their character or detailed injury history, these look like ideal candidates for the Toronto bullpen. The Blue Jays should ask about all of them.

Granted, the very skills that make them appealing trade candidates might make their current teams hesitant to talk trade. Good luck prying Castillo away from the Padres, for example. At the same time, the White Sox acquired Frare for international bonus slot money earlier in the year – a potentially encouraging comparable for the Blue Jays.

If they identify the right arm, the Blue Jays could help the bullpen of their next contending team. Eventually they’ll need those elite bullpen pieces.

Plus, impact relievers are the most consistently in-demand type of player every summer. A few months ago, the Padres converted Brad Hand and fellow reliever Adam Cimber into Francisco Mejia, a top-20 prospect in baseball. Along those lines, the Yankees accelerated their turnaround by trading both Chapman and Andrew Miller in the summer of 2016.

The point isn’t whether the Blue Jays eventually flip the relievers or keep them, it’s to add hard-throwing, swing-and-miss pitchers who offer control and durability. Every team wants that combination, and if the Blue Jays have it, they’ll have the flexibility to buy, sell or hold as they choose.

Sounds like a good place to be, which should offer plenty of motivation to start the search for these arms now.

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