With rotation boosted, Blue Jays must find a way to augment bullpen

The Toronto Blue Jays did a little Black Friday shopping, picking up J.A. Happ on a three-year deal. But Happ's signing is a strong indicator that the Blue Jays will not be bringing back David Price as well according to Shi Davidi.

The Toronto Blue Jays aren’t commenting publicly about their chances of re-signing David Price, but their moves are telling.

The additions of Marco Estrada, Jesse Chavez and J.A. Happ mean there’s no glaring hole in Toronto’s rotation. That allows the Blue Jays to sidestep elite free agent arms like Price, Zack Greinke and Jordan Zimmermann.

“We still have conversations with various free agents and their agents and also with other teams looking at the trade market,” interim GM Tony LaCava said. “I wouldn’t rule anything out right now, but certainly we did address some of the bigger needs that we had.”

In a slow-moving off-season, the Blue Jays moved quickly to address a pitching staff in need of major reinforcements. Estrada, Chavez and Happ join holdovers R.A. Dickey, Marcus Stroman and Drew Hutchison to form a group that projects as steady if unspectacular.

Even so, they could still use more pitching, particularly in the bullpen.

Estrada averaged slightly more than six innings per start in 2015, while Chavez and Happ averaged less than six innings per outing. All three pitchers set career highs in innings last year, and none of them has ever pitched more than 181 regular season innings. That means Dickey’s the lone Blue Jays starter with a 200-inning season to his name.

In theory, that puts additional pressure on the Blue Jays to add quality relievers, particularly after trading Liam Hendriks to obtain Chavez. One way or another, it’s pitching, not offence, that the Blue Jays would most like to obtain.

“We’re going to continue to look at everything and certainly there may be opportunities in the bullpen,” LaCava said. “We’ll continue to look at opportunities for starters. We do think the offence is one of the best in the game, so we’re not really interested in looking too much at improving that.

“I’m not sure how much we could improve that with the players we have and what we could bring back, but that being said, maybe something opens up and we do reallocate those kind of strengths for an upgrade.”

The Blue Jays have now committed approximately $130 million to next year’s team, based on MLB Trade Rumors’ arbitration projections. Even if they don’t spend big on free agent relievers, they could add bullpen depth by acquiring optionable arms in trades. At the very least, they can turn to minor league free agency and the waiver wire.

Happ, who started for the Blue Jays from 2012-14, appealed to LaCava partly because of the way he finished the 2015 season with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The left-hander showed improved command while relying heavily on an effective fastball and using a higher release point that created more angle and deception. Those adjustments led to a strong finish: A 1.85 ERA with 69 strikeouts in 63.1 innings.

“I felt like I had a little better angle on the ball and it was coming out a little bit more freely,” Happ said. “That, mixed with some success, helps the confidence.”

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As a bonus, Happ wasn’t tied to draft pick compensation because he was traded from the Seattle Mariners to the Pirates mid-season.

“We felt strongly that J.A. fit what we were trying to do this off-season,” LaCava said. “J.A. was a priority for us.”

The feeling was mutual.

Happ considers himself a baseball fan, so he noticed the crowd’s energy at Rogers Centre during the stretch run and the post-season.

“When I played in Toronto the whole time I was there I was like ‘if we can make it to the playoffs this city would just be nuts.’ Watching that from afar it was awesome to see from those guys,” Happ said. “That’s kind of what we’re trying to hopefully do these next few years is repeat that.”

The Blue Jays like their chances in future seasons in large part because they’ve added without subtracting.

“We haven’t lessened our offence, which we think is elite,” LaCava said. “We haven’t given up any draft picks and we haven’t traded any prospects, so we feel like we’re off to a good start this off-season in terms of addressing our needs.”

A year ago this time the Kansas City Royals successfully replaced James Shields by adding starters Chris Young, Edinson Volquez and Kris Medlen in free agency. That wasn’t all, though. They also added relievers like Ryan Madson and Franklin Morales to supplement a rotation that projected to be light on innings.

The Blue Jays have done some heavy lifting adding Estrada, Chavez and Happ to a rotation that seriously needed depth, but realistically the starters they’ve added aren’t workhorses like Shields and Price.

An important step for the Blue Jays will be finding ways to augment a bullpen that figures to pitch plenty of innings in 2016.

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