This is one part of an off-season series that reviews how the Blue Jays did position-by-position in 2017 and how they look heading into 2018.
While the Blue Jays starting rotation was a bit of a disappointment in 2017, the bullpen was a pleasant surprise. We watched breakout performances from guys like Danny Barnes, Ryan Tepera, and Dominic Leone who all took advantage of the opportunities presented to them when the team was decimated by injuries and struggling veterans.
With a collection of arms who throw hard and pound the strike zone, there seems to be a foundation here for future success. But as we’ve seen in the past, when it comes to relievers, success one year doesn’t mean success next year.
What went down last season
The Blue Jays came out of spring training with a seven-man bullpen consisting of Jason Grilli, Joe Smith, J.P. Howell, Dominic Leone, Ryan Tepera, Aaron Loup, and Joe Biagini as Roberto Osuna began the season on the 10-day disabled list. It was assumed that Osuna would close, Grilli would take the eighth, Smith would have the seventh, Biagini would take multi-inning tasks, while Howell would be the top lefty option, with the others rounding out depth and mop-up.
Not much of that went according to plan. Despite that, the bullpen was largely very effective as some unexpected names enjoyed breakout performances.
Grilli burned out and was eventually designated for assignment and dealt to the Texas Rangers in late June. He was given quite a few opportunities to figure things out in the Jays bullpen, but had a 6.97 ERA through 20 2/3 innings by the time he was let go and was allowing a whopping 3.9 homers per nine. Howell went on the disabled list with left arm shittiness a couple of times and basically turned into an afterthought. He was released in mid-August and only ended up pitching 11 innings for the Jays while surrendering nine runs. Biagini was his usual solid self out of the ‘pen for the first month of the season, but injuries in the starting rotation forced him into a new role.
With veterans Grilli and Howell failing to play a key role in the ‘pen and Biagini thrusted into the starting rotation, the Jays bullpen looked to unexpected sources to fill the holes. Ryan Tepera, who was expected to be a mop up depth pitcher after spending 2016 as the options guy who took the bus back and forth from Buffalo, ended up in a high-leverage role behind Osuna and Joe Smith. After Smith was traded to Cleveland at the trade deadline, Tepera started to take on the eighth inning. Danny Barnes, who started the season in Triple-A, was recalled amidst injuries and ran with it, becoming Toronto’s reliable multi-innings guy. Leone began the season in the Tepera’s old and down situation because he had options, but he pitched so well that the Jays simply couldn’t send him back down anymore. Aaron Loup, though ridiculously stressful to watch, was the only effectively lefty the Jays had coming out of the ‘pen and ultimately had his best season since 2014.
While the team plowed through a whole bunch of random starters to fill the voids left by Aaron Sanchez’s injury and Francisco Liriano’s trade to Houston, the bullpen, though it didn’t feature the names we expected, remained fairly stable. Osuna, Tepera, Barnes, Leone, and Loup were all solid and munched a lot of innings, which was a necessity due to the volume of bad starters the Jays used.
For the season, Toronto’s bullpen was worth 4.7 wins above replacement, which was sixth in the American League behind the Yankees, Cleveland, Red Sox, Astros, and Orioles. At the top of that was Osuna, who, despite blowing a career-high 10 saves and navigating through personal issues during the season, was very effective. Tepera, Barnes, Leone, and Loup all provided positive value too and likely would have better numbers had it not have been for the burn out they dealt with ultimately having to chew so many innings.
Also, in September when the rosters expanded, we witnessed a few interesting performances out of the bullpen.
Carlos Ramirez, a converted outfielder, didn’t allow a single run in the minors in 2017 across 37 2/3 innings. In the majors, he was untouchable save for one outing where he got pounded for four runs by Kansas City. All told, the righty with a funky delivery allowed just four runs in 16 2/3 innings and looked incredibly calm and poised on the mound.
Tom Koehler, who had a terrible season as a starter with the Marlins, was acquired via trade and put in the ‘pen after making one start with the Jays. As a reliever, Koehler was effective, scattering four runs over 12 innings while striking out 11. Matt Dermody, the lefty who once owned a 135.00 ERA, figured things out in September and put together a stretch in which he didn’t allow a run for 11 innings. Fireballer Tim Mayza, another lefty, showed a lot of promise by striking out 14.3 batters per nine over his stint with the team.
All in all, the bullpen was a pleasant surprise this season. They were impressive despite having to eat an absurd amount of innings in the wake of Toronto’s depth starting pitching disaster, and it featured breakout performances from young arms who could actually have a future with the team.
What to expect next season
While there’s fair reason to be optimistic about the bullpen heading into next season, we must also remember the reality that relievers are notoriously enigmatic. No other baseball players go from as good to as bad as over the course of one year as relievers do. Frequently we witness stellar breakout performances from some wonky delivery random that caught fire during his first real opportunity only to watch him fade into oblivion as quickly as he appeared.
Like in 2013 when we thought the Jays had the makings of an incredible bullpen. Casey Jansen was excellent in the closer role, Aaron Loup and Brett Cecil were very good lefties, and Steve Delabar was striking everyone out and was going to teach everyone else how to be good with his weighted ball program. But Janssen and Delabar fell off a cliff, Loup became much more erratic, and Cecil was the only one that consistently continued to be effective.
The thing to like about Toronto’s bullpen heading into next season is the volume of depth. Osuna is obviously going to remain as the closer, while Tepera, Barnes, Leone, and Loup all did enough last season to warrant spots on the roster. The three young righties don’t boast a large history of success so there’s some risk relying on them all to fill high leverage roles, but they all throw hard and throw strikes, which is something you want from your relievers.
But even if one of them fails, there’s another quality young arm waiting in the wings. Say Tepera can’t handle the seventh or eighth inning, Carlos Ramirez is there to fill in the role. If that doesn’t work, Andrew Case ha a very strong season as a closer in Double-A and could take a step up too. Maybe Aaron Loup becomes even more enigmatic than usual, you can call on lefties Tim Mayza or Matt Dermody. There’s also a fair chance hard-throwing prospects like Conner Greene and Sean Reid-Foley, who didn’t have great seasons in Double-A as starters, could soon be shifted into relief roles.
While there’s a nice foundation of interesting young arms that give the Blue Jays a lot of options in their bullpen, it’s certainly in need of some veteran depth. Last season, they brought in Smith and Howell on one-year, $3 million deals. One was a home run, the other was a strikeout. It was also expected Grilli, who was lightning in a bottle down the stretch in 2016, was going to continue to be an effective bullpen veteran, but that wasn’t the case.
In free agency, the biggest prize available is former Royals closer Wade Davis. As we’ve seen in recent years, Davis is going to command a mammoth contract, likely similar to the five-year, $80 million deal Kenley Jansen signed to stick with the Dodgers. Like I said when I talked about the starting pitching, I really don’t expect this front office to be on that kind of signing. I would expect low-risk Smith and Howell-esque acquisitions rather than a big splash. Tom Koehler, who seems likely to be non-tendered, could be one of those free agent acquisitions. As could Brett Anderson who showed well as a starter in September on his minor league deal.
To me, it seems the Jays will go into the off-season with Osuna, Tepera, Leone, Barnes, and Loup pencilled in as five of their seven relievers. Depending on what happens with their starter situation, Joe Biagini could be another one. But while those young arms were quite good in 2017, they don’t have a big body of experience. The Jays need to add two veterans through free agency or trade, a lefty and a righty, like they did last winter. Hopefully this time they both work out.