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Photo Credit: © Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

The Blue Jays Should Prioritize Improving the Bullpen This Winter

If you watched the Blue Jays over their truncated 2020 season, you probably came away impressed with the work of their bullpen.

Due to the weird nature of the season, the team took advantage, shoved a bunch of their AAA starters into the bullpen, and relied heavily on them. They eschewed traditional defined roles, yanked starting pitchers from ballgames early on, and had the relievers pitch 269.1 innings compared to the starters’ 255.1. This was working very well for the first five weeks of the season, and when the calendar hit September, the Blue Jays’ bullpen ERA was 3.14, good for fourth best in the league.

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Because of that, I think if you asked the vast majority of Blue Jays fans right now how the bullpen performed this season, they’d say they were great. I thought they were until I started researching for this article! However, that wasn’t really the case. They absolutely melted down in September, with a 6.77 ERA for the month, finishing the season at 4.71 as a corps, 24th in the league. So it’s completely reasonable that this article from Jays From The Couch made the case for the Blue Jays not needing to prioritize improving their bullpen this winter, because they were deceptively bad in the end. But I kind of disagree with the premise of the article. They do need to prioritize the bullpen.

Think back to August. You were stuck inside all day, watching the Blue Jays was exciting, and they were good. Really good. 15-11 for the month, or a .577 winning percentage. 93 win pace over 162. As I said, really good. A major reason why they were so much fun to watch? You guessed it. Their bullpen. Using WAR to evaluate relievers and a bullpen in general isn’t the best tool, but for simplicity sake, it’s easy to say that the Blue Jays led all of baseball in bullpen accumulated fWAR in August this season, at 2.4. Their starters provided 1 fWAR in August (25th in MLB), while their offensive players were worth 3.1 (17th in MLB).

Having good relievers for Charlie Montoyo to use in game situations when in need truly made the team win more often than they would have otherwise. It also made for a much more aesthetically pleasing version of the team, as watching a game and knowing a lead will be protected is just so much more convenient than needing to be stressed about every pitch even if your team is up by a few runs.

Which brings us to this off-season. We know a good bullpen can make all the difference in the world, and as of now, the Blue Jays bullpen in 2021 stands to be composed only of the following players: Jordan Romano, Rafael Dolis, AJ Cole, Shun Yamaguchi, and Ross Stripling. The starters who were turned into relievers in 2020 will presumably be fighting for MLB rotation spots or will end up in the AAA rotation, if the MLB season is of a normal length and a minor league season occurs. That includes Anthony Kay, Jacob Waguespack, Ryan Borucki, Julian Merryweather, Thomas Hatch, and Patrick Murphy. Maybe one or two of those guys will get a shot in the MLB bullpen, but that still leaves a less than inspiring group of players if the team hopes to contend.

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The Blue Jays can take the same approach they have over the past few years, one which they have done a formidable job of, it should be noted. Identifying lesser talented relievers available to them for cheap on minor league or small MLB deals has been their modus operandi. They then insert them into the player development machine, allow them to work with Pete Walker, Matt Buschmann, and the analytics staff, and have reaped large rewards. From Joe Smith to David Phelps to Dolis this year, it has worked wonders. But there is no reason for them to do the same thing this winter.

If the early indications mean anything, it appears as if the free agent market will be flooded with talented arms looking for work. MLB owners as a group are out for blood and are trying to suppress player salaries because of the COVID-19 pandemic, ignoring the years of profits that have for so long lined their gold infused pockets. We saw this first hand on Thursday when Brad Hand was waived by the Cleveland baseball team, in hopes that a team would pick him up and save them the $1 million they will need to pay him if they decline his $10 million club option for 2021. They would only make such a move if they already discussed him with the other 29 clubs and were certain nobody was willing to trade for him while giving up anything more valuable than the $1 million buyout. Cleveland will not be alone. The MLBTR Free Agent list is long, and it will only get longer. There are dozens of relievers out there that have had excellent results in the past and, as much as any reliever, can be counted on for success in the future.

A popular joke in previous years when it looked like the owners would not spend was that the new market inefficiency in baseball was to prioritize winning and actually spend money on good players. It isn’t a joke this year, it’s real. The Blue Jays can be unique and buck the trend of cutting salary. They are owned by Rogers, which has actually had a pretty good financial year given the state of the world. Now is the time to spend big. Last year was nice, when the wallet was opened for Hyun Jin Ryu. This year, the opportunity is much greater. I’m not even mentioning the opportunity to get somebody like George Springer or one of the bevy of #2/3 starting pitchers on the market.

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An easy way to improve this ball club is to just aim for established relievers and pay them what they are worth – or, more than that, if it takes convincing to join the uncertainty of the Blue Jays 2021 plans. Bring back Liam Hendriks. Or put in a claim for Hand. Target Alex Colomé. Maybe Blake Treinen or Shane Green, or Kirby Yates or Trevor Rosenthal. The options are endless. The Blue Jays are rich. They should act like it, and show they are serious about winning. The bullpen is an easy place to start.