A new bullpen or same old bull?

Since we last checked in, two significant things have happened in Blue Jay land. On the plus side, they did pick up a former Cy Young-winning pitcher. That’s good news, although the sobering part is that Johan Santana won his last Cy in 2006 and last pitched an entire season in 2010. Still, it can’t hurt to take a chance on the once-dominant lefty who only three years back became the first Met ever to toss a no-hitter; especially when it comes at the cost of only a minor league contract with a shot at making the big team.

On the negative side, newly acquired outfielder Michael Saunders tore up his knee while exercising and will be out, optimistically, until the All-star break. Although in a new report yesterday the team suggested he might be able to return sooner, knowing how often “best case scenarios” come true in baseball, a more realistic outlook is that he won’t be seen in 2015. Kevin Pillar’s chance of making the team just got that much better and the chances of Toronto winning the division that much worse. Still, it could be worse– at least the world’s most notorious terrorist wasn’t shown wearing a Blue Jays cap. Bet Russ Martin is even happier to have left Pittsburgh now!

The only other notable news since they through open the gates at Dunedin is that Dioner Navarro reiterated his desire to be traded, which with the injury to Saunders will perhaps motivate the front office to turn him over to a team in need of a good everyday catcher in return for a decent outfielder. Tampa and David Dejesus have come up several times in trade rumors, and that might be a decent fit.

Even if that does occur, it still fails to address the bullpen situation, the one Alex Anthopoulos “identified as an area of concern” in a National Post interview last September and told fans to “expect significant turnover” in. In subsequent talks he laid more blame for the team’s failed year at their doorstep , an opinion not necessarily agreed with here but one that had the ear of more accomplished scribe Richard Griffin. The Toronto Star baseball writer in his year-end column stated that the team could add all the Russell Martins or Josh Donaldsons in the world but it still was “all about upgrading the bullpen.” Yet, as we know opening day is only a few short weeks away and all they’ve done in that area is add middling Milwaukee pitcher Marco Estrada (a man who’s primarily been a starter not a reliever thus far in his career) while watching Casey Janssen and Dustin McGowan, not to mention Brandon Morrow walk away.

I certainly don’t lament Morrow and McGowan’s relocation in SoCal (Morrow with SD , McGowan with the Dodgers) and given the contract options the Jays would have had to post to keep them around in ’15, it makes sense. The problem is letting them go without any real replacements coming in, let alone upgrades. Janssen is a different story, but the bottom line is that rather than improving the apparent weakness they’ve opened training camp with an even worse one. That doesn’t bode well for the season or make a great statement about the young GM who now claims to be happy with all the “flexibility” he has with the relief corps.

For the record, it’s a debatable point about how terrible the ’14 bullpen was. Granted the ERA , variously listed at 4.09 or 4.11 in different sources, was near the bottom of Major League Baseball. There is undeniably room for improvement, but all things considered, there weren’t all that many games that they threw away. The team had 64 games with saves possible; 45 times they completed the save successfully. Not a great ratio, but 13 teams in baseball blew more saves and in the AL East, only Boston did any better- and even they missed 18 games that could have been “saved.” Room for improvement, no question, but also a category where “it could be worse.” Which really is rather like every aspect of the Jays team last year.

Anyhow, ordinary or terrible, you can decide but as it stands, the bullpen stands to be worse this season unless the team pulls some rabbits from a hat. While they were out signing a dominant catcher, dominant relievers like David Robertson and Andrew Miller were relocating to Toronto’s competitors. By January, the best remaining relief pitcher on the free agent market was– umm, well, Casey Janssen. When it became obvious that the world wasn’t beating a path to his door to offer a multi-year deal and also that the Jays needed bullpen help, one might have expected the two to talk and Casey to return. Instead he signed a bargain-basement deal with Washington, something his friend and former teammate Adam Lind told the Toronto Sun recently that he didn’t want to do. Janssen had a bit of a blip mid-season last year, but finished strong and still posted respectable numbers in ’14: 25 saves, 3.94 ERA, only 7 walks in about 45 innings. Over the past three seasons, he’s saved 81 games for the Jays while posting an earned run under 3… a little off the numbers of Fernando Rodney or Greg Holland, but comparable if not better than Joe Nathan who makes approximately triple the money. One has to think that the team could have made an offer for $4 million or so, to match or slightly up the Nats, and had him return for ’15 given the lack of other options for closer. But they didn’t.

Instead, the general line of thought is that Brett Cecil can take over the role. And he likes that idea. “Absolutely, I want it “ he recently told reporters about the closer spot. He might be able to handle it, too. At 29, he’s more mature than the young firebrand who came up five or six years back and seems more focused pitching for short stretches out of the ‘pen than he was going long as a starting pitcher. He made the AL All-star team in ’13 and last year went out for a career high 66 games and a career low 2.70 ERA. The problem isn’t Cecil, it’s more one of a domino effect. If Cecil is closer now, who replaces Cecil as the go-to guy against left-handed hitters? Aaron Loup?

Again, young Loup might be able to handle more pressure. The side-winding southpaw’s been very durable and quite effective since he came out of nowhere in 2012. Over the last two years, he’s tossed 137 innings out of the bullpen, largely effectively. However, there the dominos fall off the table. If Cecil is the new Janssen and Loup the new Cecil, just who is the new Loup? The Jays have no other noteworthy left-handed relievers in the system that could handle the jobs Aaron has recently. And the right-handed side of the ‘pen is less stable: Steve Delabar was an All-star in ’13, languishing in Buffalo most of last year. Todd Redmond’s been good as the “long man”, last year giving 75 innings of long relief, but there are no real standout righties other than maybe Aaron Sanchez. Sanchez is widely rated as one of the AL’s best pitching prospects and was lights out in his late season appearance, holding opponents to a .128 average and posting three saves and a stunning 1.09 ERA. However, in his brief minor league career, Sanchez has been a starter and that’s where the Jays project him to end up, even if not this April. They should have time to work that out since he will only turn 23 on this coming Canada Day.

All the while a stockyard of middle relievers have signed elsewhere. Most notable is John Axford, who was at least contacted by the Jays. The Ontario native expressed a desire to play in Toronto, has family nearby and seems like a healthy, reliable reliever even if one who has a tendency to be a bit wild and have difficulty locating his pitches. One might think that would be correctible with the right coach, and he did work exceptionally well with the Brewers in ’11-12, collecting 81 saves between those two years. He split last year between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, appearing in 66 games, saving ten games and posting an ERA of 4.00, which while not stellar, is right on par with the Jays average anyway. One could understand the team not offering him a gigantic contract, but giving him a decent offer with the prospect of him being a valuable middle reliever seems a no-brainer. Instead, he recently settled for signing a minor league deal with Colorado. Explain how Axford wasn’t worth risking $30 000 or so, Alex?!

As I said, Anthopoulos again lacks a game plan for the season and that’s likely going to bite the fans, if not him, on the butt. If the idea was to win now, while Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion are still in their prime and the Red Sox and Yankees are rebuilding, getting Donaldson and Martin are good moves but doing nothing of note to improve the pitching looks ridiculous. If the plan is to concentrate on young talent, aka the likes of Daniel Norris and Aaron Sanchez, why did they give up their third and fourth best pitching prospects in the Oakland deal to upgrade at third base? Kendall Graveman was one of the few players Anthopoulos mentioned by name as a happy surprise last year. His future is now with the Athletics,not the Jays. If the idea was for some reason not to improve the existing starting rotation, why did they trade away budget-priced JA Happ? Michael Saunders, Russell Martin, annointing Dalton Pompey who grew up within sight of the Rogers’ Centre as the new center fielder, signing Jeff Francis to a minor league deal… maybe the plan would be to showcase as many Canadian players as possible and really show themselves as the Canadian team. Not a sound way of winning, but it would be at least a way to market them. But, if that was the thinking, again, why in the world isn’t John Axford a part of the equation when he wanted to be and was available to help the team’s weakest link?

The 2015 Blue Jays, when all is said and done, are still a pretty decent squad in a rather lacklustre division. They still have a shot at making the playoffs and exciting the fans. If they do however, it will be despite their General Manager, not because of him. A new GM should top their list of “musts” for 2016.

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