The Blue Jays Bullpen: Uncertainty North of the Border

This post continues our Depth Chart Discussions. In an effort to suss out every team, we’ve divided them into four parts (infield, outfield, bullpen, and rotation) and will continue to break them down for you over the next few weeks. You can find the Depth Chart Discussion posts gathered here.

The Blue Jays bullpen was already in a state of murkiness before the injury to Marcus Stroman cost them Aaron Sanchez earlier this month, and the team’s closer to start the season has all of six career saves to his name. Overall, Toronto’s relief corps posted the fifth-highest FIP last year, though its unheralded leader could have some sleeper potential as a late-round bargain pickup.

The closer
Brett Cecil / 28

Cecil locked up the closer’s role before he even threw a pitch in major league spring training, being tapped for the job by manager John Gibbons on Sunday. The southpaw has been suffering from shoulder inflammation this spring, but made a cameo in a minor league game on Saturday and says he expects to be ready for opening day.

Since becoming a full-time reliever in 2013, Cecil has quietly become one of baseball’s most effective setup men, blending strikeouts and a groundball rate north of 50%. A below average F-Strike% has hiked up his walk rate and consequently his WHIP, as has an eyebrow-raising .344 BABIP last year, which oddly accompanied a sharp drop in his Contact%. Neil Weinberg has already explained the problem: when hitters made contact against Cecil, they typically succeeded, smacking line drives at a high clip to go along with the plentiful grounders. Hopefully, the addition of Josh Donaldson, statistically the AL’s best-fielding third baseman last year, will help the infield defense and aid Cecil as he looks to return his batted ball luck back to his career norm.

But unless we see a disturbing dip in velocity when he takes the mound against big-leaguers this week, Cecil should be a reliable source of strikeouts for owners. His already fine 28% strikeout rate in 2013 jumped to 32.5% last year, and his 16.5% SwStr% was fifth-highest among qualified relievers. Much of the credit goes to his curveball, which generated a loopy 29.3% whiff rate, was worth 9.1 runs above average and accounted for 43.5% of his offerings, easily topping all qualified relievers. Cecil has also seen his velocity tick up from 2013, and he exchanged vertical movement for an additional two mph on his hammer.

It remains to be seen whether Cecil — who, again, has a limited ninth-inning resume — has the moxie to hold down the closer’s job; he has four career blown saves in his 10 save opportunities. He earned his job largely by default, and, of course, we’ll want to keep an eye on the health of his left shoulder. Cecil’s question marks probably keep him out of No. 2 reliever status in standard 12-team leagues, but he could be cheap enough in deeper formats to be a sneaky upside play as drafts wind down.

The setup man
Steve Delabar / 31

An all-star in 2013, Delabar’s 2014 got off to such a rocky start that he was demoted to Triple-A in early June and never returned. He was plagued by lower-body issues last year, however, and the velocity looks like it’s back in what’s been a solid spring so far. Command has long been an issue for Delabar, but he owns an 11.6 K/9 over his career, and if Cecil falters, Delabar would immediately be worth a look as a guy to pick up saves in Toronto’s bullpen.

The lefty setup man
Aaron Loup / 27

Loup served as more than just a LOOGY over his 71 appearances last year, facing right-handers more often than lefties primarily in the seventh and eighth innings. Trouble is, he had trouble throwing strikes against righties, who he walked at a 13.1% clip, and he’s never reached a 20% strikeout rate in any of his three major league seasons. He’s been successful at limiting home runs and generating ground balls at a high rate, but Loup likely has little use in fantasy aside from being an occasional source of holds.

Middle relief
Marco Estrada / 31
Todd Redmond / 29

Estrada came over to the Jays in the Adam Lind trade last November, and is the team’s de facto sixth starter, with greater responsibility possible in case of injury or if Sanchez or Daniel Norris flops. He’s been crushed by the home run ball in recent years, and has seen his K/9 drop from 9.3 two years ago to just 7.6 last year thanks to some declining velocity. He’s also been pushed around this spring, and a minor ankle injury cost him a start on Sunday, though he’s slated to get back on the hill later this week. As Dave Cameron points out, some better luck in the HR/FB department could go a long way towards making Estrada a relevant fantasy arm again, and the Jays’ rotation picture is thin enough where he should get a shot to pick up some starts.

Redmond was OK but unspectacular in his first full season as a reliever in 2014, compiling average strikeout and walk rates while benefiting from a low 4.6% HR/FB rate. Unfortunately, for a guy who yields fly balls at Redmond’s pace and pitches half his games at the Rogers Centre, that number is almost certain to climb, and is thus primed to take his ERA for a ride along with it.

The young guns
Miguel Castro / 20
Roberto Osuna / 20

All things being equal, the team would probably prefer to keep both Castro and Osuna in the minors, as they only played in A-ball last year. But two things happened: Sanchez, who emerged as the bullpen’s most reliable right-hander last year, departed to the rotation, and both Castro and Osuna have been eye-popping so far this spring. To the extent that anyone is willing to put stock in March stats, neither has allowed a run and both have eight strikeouts in their combined 18.2 innings (9 for Castro, 9.2 for Osuna). In Castro, the team is excited about the prospect of having high-90s heat for the late innings, and management is encouraged by his poise. Osuna, meanwhile, nearly missed all of last year coming off TJ surgery, but he shined in a spot start against the Rays on Sunday. Neither pitcher is currently on the 40-man roster, and while Castro would seem to have the edge over Osuna in making the team out of spring, both could be dark horses to assume greater responsibilities in the Jays’ bullpen were they to break camp with the team.

Karl, a journalist living in Washington, D.C., learned about life's disappointments by following the Mets beginning at a young age. His work has appeared in numerous publications, and he has contributed to the 2014 and 2015 editions of The Hardball Times Annual. Follow/harass him on Twitter @Karl_de_Vries.

newest oldest most voted

Any chance they realize that Sanchez doesn’t have the stamina and bring him back as closer around the end of may or after 4-5 starts?