In 2012, the Toronto Blue Jays’ bullpen proved two things: the closer job is, as always, subject to change; and it’s not especially difficult to protect a three-run lead for three outs.
When the Jays dealt prospect Nestor Molina to the Chicago White Sox for Sergio Santos in the offseason, the closer job looked to belong to the former Blue Jays’ minor league shortstop. Five innings and two blown saves later and Santos was done for the year due to shoulder surgery. Enter Casey Janssen, a perfectly adequate but unsensational reliever to that point in his career (he was coming off a 2.26 ERA/2.45 FIP season in 2011 but had been merely league average across four seasons prior to that).
Janssen cruised to a 2.54 ERA (3.08 FIP) and 22 saves in 25 opportunities for the Jays, posting career bests in K% (27.7%) and BB% (4.6%). However, he was aided a bit by a .240 BABIP and the fact that he was gifted pretty easy save chances – of any closer with at least 20 saves, he had the lowest average leverage index when he entered a game (gmLI of 1.30). But with the command metrics moving in the right direction and the DIPS not showing any glaring corrections, Janssen looks like a fine closer candidate for 2013.
Except that the roles have now been reversed, and its Janssen who appears at risk of losing his job due to injury. See, Janssen is yet to pitch in spring due to a right shoulder injury. With his status for opening day in doubt, Santos looks to once again be in the driver seat, if his recent triceps setback can get out of his way.
If Santos can wrestle the job from Janssen, he’s a pretty strong bet for saves and strikeouts. When he was vaulted to the White Sox’ closer chair in 2011, he posed a 2.55 ERA with a 2.87 FIP and had an obscene 35.4% strikeout rate. He also shut the door in 30 of 36 save opportunities. The Jays dealt a well-regarded prospect for Santos and are committed to him financially for two more years with three option years, so it makes sense for them to give him every opportunity to steal the role back.
In my drafts, I’m circling both righties as potential reliever grabs, since both are likely to provide decent ERAs and solid K-rates. However, if I’m only in it for the save chase, Santos is the guy I’m identifying as the most likely to lead the team in that category. If neither is healthy to start the year, it’s possible that ancient left-hander Darren Oliver could receive a few save chances in the short-term, with Steve Delabar or Esmil Rogers dark horses to nab saves in a short committee situation. Delabar and Rogers are nice targets in deeper leagues, too, since they both promise strong strikeout rates (Delabar struck out 33.6% of batters last year while Rogers struck out 23.9% and improved significantly after moving to Cleveland).
The bullpen is likely rounded out with a LOOGY in Aaron Loup or Brett Cecil, who has struggled but is out of options, and then probably Jeremy Jeffress, who is one of many righty candidates but the only one who is out of options. None of these late options are particularly enticing, but overall it should be a much improved bullpen compared to 2012’s unit that ranked 25th in bullpen ERA and 29th in saves.
Closer: Janssen, Santos
Dark Horse: Delabar, Rogers
Blake Murphy is a freelance sportswriter based out of Toronto. Formerly of the Score, he's the managing editor at Raptors Republic and frequently pops up at Sportsnet, Vice, and around here. Follow him on Twitter @BlakeMurphyODC.