How Blue Jays can bolster bullpen internally, via trade or in free agency

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It may not happen as soon as anyone would like, but eventually MLB’s labour dispute will reach a resolution and the sport will move ahead with the 2022 regular season — or at least what’s left of it. The timeline will be rapid, with shotgun spring training camps in Florida and Arizona likely opening within a week of a new CBA being ratified, and opening day looming sometime three-to-four weeks afterward.

That will leave front offices scrambling to fill big-league roster holes as soon as MLB’s transaction freeze is lifted, likely spurring the kind of wild activity that invigorated the sport last November. And the Toronto Blue Jays will be right in the thick of it, seeking to put the finishing touches on a win-now team being constructed to surpass the 91-win mark it achieved last season.

With that in mind, this is the second of a three-part series looking at the biggest roster needs remaining for the 2022 Blue Jays and how the club’s front office could go about addressing them on the other side of the lockout. Previously, we looked at an infield upgrade. Check back later this week for part three.

All ZIPS projections via FanGraphs.

All arbitration projections via MLB Trade Rumors.

The need: Bullpen reinforcements

Where things stand (ZIPS projections)

In big-bearded, bigger-armed Jordan Romano, the Blue Jays have developed a weapon essential for any team with legitimate designs on contention — a lights-out closer. Romano led all American League relievers in win probability added last season, using a fastball that averaged 97.5-m.p.h. and a slider that generated a 36.5 per cent whiff rate to pile up strikeouts, force soft contact, and leave no question that the ninth inning is his and his alone.

When building a bullpen, that’s a great start. And while they aren’t marquee names, Tim Mayza, Yimi Garcia, and — optimistically — Julian Merryweather give Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo solid options with which to get the ball through leverage spots and into Romano’s glove for the ninth.

Mayza was arguably runner-up to Trey Mancini for 2021’s best comeback story, returning from Tommy John surgery better than he was before and working to a 130 ERA+ with sparkling peripherals over 61 appearances, many of them in leverage spots. Garcia can make baseballs behave in ways most pitchers can’t; he also throws strikes and reliably suppresses hard contact.

The only thing keeping Merryweather from being confidently mentioned in the same breath is health, which has sabotaged the greater part of his past four seasons. But if 2022 is the year he finally puts it all together, we’ve seen flashes of what that could look like in a late-game role.

Mix in Adam Cimber and Trevor Richards, two capable veterans who can clean up messes and carry leads through middle innings, plus Ryan Borucki, an out-of-options left-hander with a mid-90’s fastball and a put-away slider, and the Blue Jays have constructed the chassis of a versatile relief corps that ought to be able to shorten games.

And yet, we know the words certainty and trust cannot be attached to any MLB bullpen — no matter how promising it looks on paper. Relief pitching is the realm of volatility and precariousness; the small sample of small samples where the link between projection and results is tenuous at best.

To wit — the San Francisco Giants led the majors in reliever ERA last season, powered by waiver claims and minor-league signees such as Jarlin Garcia, Zack Littell, and Dominic Leone. Meanwhile, the Washington Nationals bullpen was a tire fire all year long, despite the club having paid up in free agency to acquire established arms with strong track records like Will Harris, Daniel Hudson, and Brad Hand.

Really, the only thing you can reliably predict about relievers is that you’re going to need an awful lot of them. The Blue Jays used 33 pitchers in relief last season. The Tampa Bay Rays, the 2021 AL leader in bullpen ERA (3.24) and vanguards of the modern era’s evolving methods of pitcher deployment, used 34.

Combine that top-end unpredictability with the necessity of ridiculous back-end depth and it’s clear why the Blue Jays ought to continue reinforcing their bullpen on the other side of the lockout. That means pursuing major-league signings, minor-league deals with spring training invites, and waiver claims — anything to continue building out depth and insulating against the inherently erratic nature of MLB bullpening.

No one needs reminding that the Blue Jays missed the postseason by only a game in 2021. But it’s worth remembering how that team dropped a dozen contests it was leading in the seventh inning or later, and that nine of them came in May and June, when a lack of reliable bullpen options submarined a surging offence and solid rotation’s best efforts prior to the stabilizing additions of Cimber and Richards.

The Blue Jays can’t leave themselves exposed to similar catastrophe in 2022, which is why further bullpen additions — in the form of at least one more big-leaguer with swing-and-miss stuff and several lower-end fliers on minor-league deals — are a must.

Internal options (ZIPS projections)

In an era of fungible bullpens and increasingly varied pitcher usage, every club needs a few optionable relievers on the edge of its 26-man roster. That’s a role Trent Thornton, Anthony Castro, Tayler Saucedo, and Kirby Snead are positioned to fill for the Blue Jays this season — just as they did in 2021. If healthy and effective, they’ll likely ride the shuttle up and down from Triple-A throughout the year, living a thankless, unglamorous professional existence that has nevertheless become commonplace in today’s game.

Veteran right-hander David Phelps, meanwhile, will also return to the club, but this time on a minor-league deal after blowing out a lat muscle last May and missing the remainder of the season. Phelps’s injury — and the surgery to correct it — was uncommon, leaving plenty of uncertainty as to what form he’ll be in this spring. Hence the minor-league deal. His path to a roster spot will be difficult, with several bullpen jobs already spoken for and another major-league addition likely on the horizon.

But of Toronto’s current internal options, Phelps boasts the best track record of success in high-leverage work. And if he’s healthy and throwing anything like he was at this time last year — Phelps had a 0.87 ERA over 11 appearances prior to his injury — the 35-year-old has as strong a chance as anyone in this group of winning a job in the Blue Jays opening day bullpen.

Free agent options (ZIPS projections)

As you’d expect a win-now team to do, the Blue Jays have shifted strategy in recent winters and begun flirting with the top end of the free agent relief market. They pursued Liam Hendriks last off-season before signing Kirby Yates to a one-year, $5.5-million deal. This winter, they’ve already dished out $11 million over two for Garcia.

The value of that Garcia deal alone is greater than the Blue Jays collectively spent on free agent relief over the three prior off-seasons, marking a new willingness to accept the inherent risk — how’d that Yates deal work out again? — of signing high-end talent at MLB’s most volatile, unpredictable position. Which is all to say we can’t rule the Blue Jays out from a pursuit of Kenley Jansen, the best remaining free agent reliever on the board.

There’s no questioning Jansen’s resume in both the regular season and playoffs over his stellar, 12-year career. But entering his age-34 season, the risk of steep decline is very real. Jansen’s strikeout and walk rates have been trending in the wrong directions for some time, and his trademark cutter isn’t the elite weapon it once was, reflected in the fact he throws it only 58 per cent of the time nowadays after leaning on it at a clip closer to 90 per cent earlier in his career.

Still, that also speaks to Jansen’s ability to reinvent himself and find new ways to continue producing results. That’s exactly what he did in 2021, pitching to a 2.22 ERA — his best mark since 2017 — before tossing seven scoreless postseason innings in which he struck out a ridiculous 56 per cent of the batters he faced. Point to his .213 BABIP, six per cent HR/FB rate, and soaring walk rate as indicators of results belying process if you must. But that’s the nature of relievers — their small-sample numbers can be sliced up to support a variety of narratives.

The fact remains that Jansen continues to suppress hard contact better than any pitcher in the game — he posted 99th percentile average exit velocity and hard-hit rates in 2021 — while striking out north of 30 per cent of the batters he faces. And if the Blue Jays have budget for the $12-14 million average annual value he’ll likely command over the next two years, they’ll open themselves up to a potentially immense reward in exchange for the risk they’d assume.

With huge horizontal movement on one of the game’s prettiest sliders, and plenty of spin behind a room-service cutter and fastball, Collin McHugh generated some of the most uncomfortable reactions and swings you’ll see from big-leaguers throughout a 2021 season in which he posted a 256 ERA+ with stellar peripherals, minimizing hard contact and getting hitters to expand the zone at elite rates.

Not bad for a guy who struggled to a 4.70 ERA in 2019 and didn’t pitch in 2020 due to injury. But the Rays lead the industry in hits on undervalued reclamation projects like McHugh, who signed with the club for $1.8 million during spring training and went on to give them 64 exceptional innings as a bulk reliever, opener, high-leverage weapon, and everything in between.

McHugh’s in line for a much more sizable guarantee this winter after redefining his career, but the inconsistency of his track record and a history of elbow issues will no doubt be factored into any offers. Still, if he even approaches the effectiveness he flashed last year, McHugh could be a tremendous weapon — and tremendous value on a short-term deal — in a variety of bullpen roles.

If the Blue Jays opt not to shop at the top of the free agent market, or Jansen and McHugh simply prefer to play elsewhere, there remains a secondary tier of good-but-not-great options the club could consider.

Andrew Chafin is coming off a career year in which the left-hander leveraged strong command of a pair of fastballs, plus a biting slider that generated a 54.6 per cent whiff rate, to finish in MLB’s 85th percentile or higher in xERA, xBA, xSLG, xwOBA, and hard-hit rate. That produced an impressive 266 ERA+ over 68.2 innings, although something closer to the 120 mark he held over the half-dozen years prior is likely a more realistic go-forward expectation as Chafin enters his age-32 season.

The ever-entertaining Joe Kelly carries additional risk due to the biceps strain that ended his 2021 season in the NLCS. But the 33-year-old right-hander was pitching as well as ever prior to that, posting a 144 ERA+ with a 27.5 per cent strikeout rate while combining one of the league’s hardest fastballs with one of its highest-spinning curveballs. And he brings a wealth of experience in the ultra-high leverage postseason situations Toronto envisions itself facing come October.

Ryan Tepera, meanwhile, is no stranger to Blue Jays fans and has posted strong results since the club designated him for assignment following the 2019 season, pitching to a 143 ERA+ over 82 innings with strikeout, walk, and home run rates that have all trended in the direction you’d want them to.

Any of those three would be solid late-inning options setting up for Romano, and they ought to be signable for somewhere around the two-year, $17-million value the Houston Astros gave Hector Neris prior to the lockout. If the Blue Jays have the budget, there are worse ways to spend it.

The table above shows the best of the rest. Once the lockout is through, teams will be scrambling to add veteran relievers on minor-league deals to compete for bullpen spots during an abbreviated spring training. And, thanks to their extended track records and serviceable 2021 results, it’s a good bet the representation for every name on that list will be fielding several calls.

If the Blue Jays particularly like any of the above, they could swoop in with a one-year, guaranteed offer in the $1-3 million range to pry someone away from the uncertainty of auditioning on a minor-league deal elsewhere. And it’s worth noting that Brad Boxberger and Adam Ottavino both throw with plenty of spin and feature sneakily effective fastballs that play well in the zone — two traits the Blue Jays have pursued in the past.

Potential trade targets (ZIPS projections)

With the Oakland Athletics widely expected to hit their latest roster reset post-lockout — in what has become a familiar cycle of low-cost competitiveness fueled by young, talented cores followed by cold sell-offs of those players once their earning potential increases to a degree the franchise’s stingy ownership refuses to accept — the vultures are circling.

Just how scorched earth the A’s go this time around remains to be seen. But if the cuts run deep in search of even marginal cost savings, 30-year-old right-hander Lou Trivino — projected to earn just shy of $3-million via arbitration this season — could be on the move.

Working with a trio of mid-90’s fastballs, a changeup for left-handers, and a curveball for righties, Trivino has pitched to a 113 ERA+ over his four big-league seasons, striking out a batter per inning. Those aren’t massive strikeout numbers for a reliever, but Trivino makes up for it by limiting hard contact, annually allowing well-below-average exit velocities. His downfall has been inconsistent control, which has produced an unideal 10.9 per cent walk rate for his career.

Considering the amount of contact and baserunners he allows, Trivino has obviously benefitted from playing for an A’s organization that calls a spacious ballpark home and, not coincidentally, regularly rosters plus defenders behind its pitching staff. The Blue Jays would need to factor that in if they chose to bring him to a comparatively cramped Rogers Centre to pitch in front of a part-uncertain, part-unproven infield.

Still, Trivino’s small salary and three remaining years of club control ought to make him attractive to the Blue Jays, who could certainly find him plenty of work — against right-handed hitting in particular — in the sixth and seventh innings.

After pitching to a 127 ERA+ over his first two seasons in the majors, with a 2016 Rookie of the Year award and 2017 all-star selection already under his belt, Michael Fulmer looked like a lock atop future Detroit Tigers rotations.

But then there were oblique and knee issues in his third season, followed by Tommy John surgery prior to what should have been his fourth, derailing a once-promising career. Back on a major-league mound for the first time in nearly two years in 2020, Fulmer was a shell of his former self, working with vastly diminished velocity while allowing 27 runs over 27.2 innings.

The Tigers gave him one final opportunity as a starter at the beginning of 2021, before ultimately pulling the plug and moving him to the bullpen full time. That’s when something clicked. With his fastball velocity back in shorter stints and his slider coming out harder than ever before, Fulmer put up a 2.25 ERA over 48 innings after being shifted to the relief role, striking out 26 per cent of the batters he faced and finishing the season as Detroit’s closer.

It’s been an incredible and unlikely career turnaround, one that positions Fulmer to cash in as a high-leverage reliever on the right side of 30 when he’s eligible for free agency following the 2022 season. And one that leaves the Tigers with an interesting decision to make.

Detroit is beginning to emerge from a rebuild and splashing money around in free agency on win-now talent such as Javy Baez and Eduardo Rodriguez. And Fulmer could certainly be an important part of a push to the expanded playoffs in 2022. Or the Tigers could deal him ahead of his walk year, not only netting a return that addresses another roster need but protecting against the chance Fulmer’s performance regresses.

What we know is the Tigers fielded plenty of interest in Fulmer at the 2021 trade deadline. And they’ll likely be receiving a few exploratory text messages gauging their willingness to move him on the other side of the lockout. Projected to earn $5.1 million in his final year of arbitration eligibility, Fulmer should fit easily within any contender’s budget. And, who knows, maybe there’s another level he’s yet to unlock in year two of his career reinvention.

Well, here’s an interesting one. Coming off nearly a decade of sustained success as one of the game’s premier closers, Craig Kimbrel signed a three-year, $43-million deal with the Chicago Cubs in 2019 that set off one of the most extreme peak-and-valley runs the sport has seen, leading him to the weird and uncertain future he faces today.

He was ineffective and hurt in ’19; just plain ineffective in ’20; and then one of the game’s best relievers in ’21, pitching to a 0.49 ERA over his first 39 appearances and earning the eighth all-star selection of his career. That’s when the rebuilding Cubs traded him across town to the White Sox, at which point Kimbrel became utterly ineffective yet again, allowing 13 runs over his final 23 innings of the season.

Your guess as to why Kimbrel’s performance has fluctuated so wildly, and what his results could look like going forward, is as good as anyone’s. His control has come and gone, his fastball velocity’s been all over the place, and he’s been giving up a ton of home run damage. And yet, he led all AL relievers in strikeout rate in 2021, generated a whiff nearly 60 per cent of the time hitters offered at his curveball, and was among MLB’s top two per cent in xBA, xSLG, and xwOBA.

One can easily imagine separate worlds in which Kimbrel’s problems are both exacerbated or suddenly resolved. He could become one of the best relievers on the planet again — he literally was six months ago. Or he could be cooked.

All we know is the White Sox paid a high price for Kimbrel at the trade deadline and have since exercised a $16-million club option on his contract for 2022, sinking more cost into an already expensive dilemma. That action not only made it more imperative for the White Sox to return some value on Kimbrel — it made it more difficult to move him.

It’s a real pickle. Any acquiring team would not only need to believe Kimbrel can resuscitate his career once again, but also see a palatable path to absorbing his salary, whether by convincing the White Sox to pay some of it down or shipping a similarly large guarantee in the opposite direction. The Blue Jays could likely satisfy the financial aspect. But whether they believe in Kimbrel’s effectiveness going forward is another matter entirely.

The Blue Jays and Orioles don’t complete too many in-division trades. But with Baltimore mired in a lengthy rebuild, any reliever on their roster ought to be available for the right price.

That includes late-blooming 32-year-old Cole Sulser, who posted high strikeout rates throughout a lengthy minor-league career and generated a 25 per cent whiff rate or higher on four separate pitches in a breakout 2021; left-hander Paul Fry, who’s often struggled with control but consistently generates ground balls and has struck out 28.4 per cent of the batters he’s faced since 2020; Dillon Tate, a busted top prospect as a starter who’s now using his fastball-slider-changeup mix in a versatile bullpen role; and Tanner Scott, an occasionally erratic left-hander with a huge fastball that averaged 96.8-m.p.h. with a 98th percentile spin rate in 2021.

Of course, you could do this with essentially any non-contender, picking out their most interesting bullpen arms who have demonstrated effectiveness against big-leaguers in leverage spots, feature a consistent fastball or whiff-generating secondary, and carry the flexibility of several future seasons under club control. Here, let’s try it with the moribund Pittsburgh Pirates.

Chris Stratton features some of the game’s highest spin rates and has demonstrated the versatility to work in a variety of relief roles while pitching to a 116 ERA+ over 61 appearances with a 26.7 per cent strikeout rate the last two seasons.

During a hardscrabble, injury-hampered 2021, left-hander Sam Howard suppressed hard contact, struck out 30 per cent of the batters he faced, earned an eye-opening 40.8 per cent whiff rate with his go-to slider, and flashed a promising fastball with above-average spin he might benefit from using more often.

And David Bednar is coming off one of the more overlooked relief campaigns across the game, having pitched to a 190 ERA+ with tremendous peripherals and expected stats to back it up thanks to a dominant, 97-m.p.h. heater, big-breaking curveball, and sneakily effective splitter.

Rinse and repeat with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Washington Nationals, or Colorado Rockies. It’s a big world of relievers out there, and the job of Toronto’s front office is to find the intersection of availability, effectiveness, affordability, and fit that will reveal the potential additions worth pursuing. It’s not sexy work. But it’s how you build a winner.

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