Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Toronto Blue Jays: The Bullpen 2012

Yesterday I posted about the Toronto Blue Jays starting rotation, today we look to the other end of the pitching spectrum: the bullpen.

Shall we look at the opening day bullpen from last season? (2011 stats with the Blue Jays in brackets [note that final stat is saves/opportunities])

Shawn Camp (67G, 6-3, 4.21 ERA, 1.52 WHIP, 1/4)
Jason Frasor (44G, 2-1, 2.98 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 0/2)
Casey Janssen (55G, 6-0, 2.26 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 2/4)
David Purcey (5G, 0-0 11.57 ERA, 3.00 WHIP, 0/0)
Jon Rauch (53G, 5-4, 4.85 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 11/16)
Marc Rzepczynski (43G, 2-3, 2.97 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 0/3)
Carlos Villanueva (33G [13 starts], 6-4, 4.04 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 0/1)

One must also remember that Octavio Dotel (36G, 2-1, 3.68 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 1/1) and Frank Francisco (54G, 1-4, 3.55 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 17/21) both started the season on the disabled list.  Of these nine pitchers, only Frason, Janssen, and Villanueva remain on the team (Frasor after a brief stint with the White Sox).

Villanueva was by far the best pitcher out of the bullpen over the first two months of the season, which won him a role as a starter before an injury sent him back to the 'pen.  Over 13 relief appearances from April 1 to May 18, he posted a 1.48 ERA and a 0.82 WHIP.  While his pitching in the rotation was not quite as stellar, he had a confidence on the mound that few of the other pitchers had.  He will have a chance to compete for a spot in the rotation next year, but it is more probable that he will end up in the bullpen as a long man/middle innings eater.

Jason Frasor, who was traded along with Zach Stewart to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for Edwin Jackson mid-season, was reacquired on Sunday for two minor league pitchers.  Frasor holds the Blue Jays franchise record for most appearances by a pitcher (career) and he will get a chance to add to this total in 2012.  As a solid back-end reliever, who can step in as a temporary closer if need be, he is one of four players assured a spot in the bullpen next season.

Casey Janssen, perhaps the biggest surprise of the 2011 campaign, is another lock for next year.  The injuries to Dotel and Francisco were the only reasons why he even made the team last year, and he made the most of his opportunity.  In spite of being sent down early in the year (more because the team could than that they wanted to) he did not falter and showed no signs of anger or disappointment upon his recall a few days later.  It was not a particularly close competition in which Janssen proved that he was the best reliever on the team last year.  He won the Blue Jays Most Improved Player Award at the end of the season.

The remainder of the pitchers competing for roles next season started 2011 somewhere else.  To begin, the other two certain locks for next year.

Although he has not yet officially been signed, Darren Oliver will be part of the Jays organization as soon as he passes his physical.  The 41-year old southpaw posted a 2.29 ERA last season (2.08 against lefties and 2.45 against righties).  He slots in as the best left-hander on the team and, as a result, the certain lefty-specialist.  He was 2/6 in save opportunities and put up a 1.14 WHIP.  So far, he is the Jays' biggest free agent signing.  Oliver is one of those pitchers who seems to get better with age.  His last four seasons have been the best of his career.  Look for him to pitch primarily against lefties, but he may spot Janssen or Frasor in the seventh or eighth from time to time.

And then there is Sergio Santos, the closer who GM Alex Anthopolous plucked from the White Sox in exchange for well-regarded pitching prospect Nestor Molina.  Santos is under team control for six years and gives the Blue Jays the closer they have sought after since BJ Ryan's last good season in 2008.  Santos picked up 30 saves in 36 opportunities and posted a 3.55 ERA and 1.11 WHIP last season.  His most significant statistics were his .181 batting average against and his 92 strikeouts in 63.1 innings.  With Frasor, Janssen, and (sometimes) Oliver, the Jays have the seventh, eighth, and ninth settled for next year.

This only leaves three (maybe four) spots left in the bullpen.  Who is competing for these roles?  Chad Beck, Joel Carreno, Danny Farquhar Jim Hoey, Aaron Laffey, Jesse Litsch, Trystan Magnuson, Luis Perez, Carlos Villanueva, and even Garrett Mock are possibilities.

Beck, Carreno, Laffey, Litsch, Perez, and Villanueva have all been starters in the past.  All of them, save for Beck, will likely be given a chance to make the rotation next season, although Villanueva seems to be the only one with a legitimate shot at this position.

Chad Beck was called up in September last year after going 9-8 with a 4.50 ERA over three minor league levels.  The PCL was not good to him, but is it really good for any pitcher?  He started 23 of his 31 games with all of his relief appearances coming in double-A.  After the season's completion he pitched for the Phoenix Desert Dogs of the Arizona Fall League, appearing in five games and surrendering no runs on two hits and a walk.  Beck has an outside shot at making the team, an opportunity which is helped by his solid performances in the 2.1 innings he pitched for the Jays at the end of 2011.

Joel Carreno was unbelievable in his 15.2 innings in August and September with the Blue Jays.  He surrendered only two runs on eleven hits and four walks.  He also struck out 14 batters.  These numbers were an improvement on his minor league stats as a starter: 7-9, 3.41 ERA, 1.25 WHIP.  Carreno was used well by John Farrell and, in the words of MLB.com writer Gregor Chisholm, he "became a favourite" of the manager.  His stellar performance gives him an advantage going in to spring training, but if he can only find a spot as a middle-reliever, the Jays may prefer that he start in the minors.

Danny Farquhar was traded for Rajai Davis prior to the 2011 season before being reacquired in exchange for David Pursey.  The submariner was terrible in his first Major League performance (he surrendered 4 runs--3 earned--over 0.2 of an inning).  He settled down and was solid in his next two appearances.  Farquhar is the type of pitcher suited for the later innings.  He was a closer in triple-A and it is probable that--with the Jays' back-end being fairly solid--this is the position he will take at the beginning of the 2012 season.

Jim Hoey was claimed off waivers from the Minnesota Twins last month.  The hard-throwing reliever has not been impressive at the Major League level and was acquired more likely for his potential than for 2012.  It is highly improbable that he will make the team out of Spring Training, but he may be called up in the case of an injury.

Aaron Laffey wants to be a starter--that is why he signed with Toronto--but this may not be the most likely place for him.  He will compete with Jesse Litsch, Luis Perez, and Carlos Villanueva for a long-relief job, but as the Jays have the ability to send him to the minors without repercussion, they may choose to do so.  Villanueva is assured a spot on the team in one position or another, so it is going to be difficult for Laffey to find a spot--especially because Alex Anthopolous has first-hand experience with Litsch and Perez that he does not have with Laffey.

Litsch has been up and down throughout his Major League career, but he was very good out of the bullpen at the end of last season.  His chances of ever being a starter again are slim, but he seems to have found his niche in the 'pen.  He finished off 2012 6-3 with a 4.44 ERA, but it is important to note that his ERA did go down after he became a reliever.  Although he had a few bad games near the end of the year, he was one of the more consistent pitchers out of the bullpen in August and September.  He has a good shot at making the team, particularly if Villanueva makes it as a starter, leaving the team without a long-man.

Trystan Magnuson was traded along with Farquhar for Rajai Davis prior to 2011, but was reacquired after the season's completion in exchange for cash.  The 26-year old Canadian was not very good for the Athletics, posting a 6.14 ERA over 9 appearances.  He was solid in the minors, however, putting up a 2.98 ERA over 45.1 innings in the always-difficult PCL.  He will have to prove himself in Spring Training, but he may be able to make the team.  He is more likely to start in triple-A, but his minor league numbers were too good last year for him to stay down there for long.

Luis Perez had an up and down year.  He was not spectacular as a starter and his relief numbers were average.  It seemed as if his statistics were better than his abilities last season, and it was not until a late-season breakdown that his ERA rose to 5.12 and his WHIP to 1.55.  The team seemed to like him at the beginning of the year and forgot about him at the end.  Being a lefty, he has a good shot at making the team, but he has Aaron Laffey with whom he must now contend.  This should create healthy competition for one of the final bullpen spots.  The fact that he can double as a long-man would help his case more if Laffey, Litsch, and Villanueva were not already vying for the same position as he.

Garrett Mock would need to rely on either substantial numbers of injuries to other relievers or a miraculous Spring Training in order to make the team.  Over 55 Major League games, 19 starts, he has an ERA of 5.17 and a record of 4-13.  Mock did not pitch in the Majors last season and did not make the most of his opportunity in the minors.  In 49.1 innings over four levels of the minors, he put up an ERA of 6.39 with a 1.62 WHIP and a 1-5 record.  Mock is a non-roster invitee and is likely to remain off the roster.

An interesting question will be whether or not the Blue Jays intend on carrying seven or eight relief pitchers in 2012.  With Mock, Farquhar, Magnuson, and Beck as unlikely candidates to make the team, it looks like Carreno, Laffey, Litsch, Perez, and Villanueva will be competing for those last three or four spots.  Of course, if Villanueva does the improbable and makes the rotation next year, one of Dustin McGowan or Brett Cecil could also enter the mix.  Perez and Laffey have the advantage of being lefties, so one of them is likely to make the team.  After that Carreno and Litsch will have to compete for the final spot--unless Anthopolous chooses to go with an eight man 'pen.

The probable bullpen of 2012 if only seven players are taken:

Closer: Sergio Santos
Eighth Inning: Casey Janssen
Seventh Inning: Jason Frasor
Lefty-Specialist (seventh inning fill in): Darren Oliver
Long Reliever: Carlos Villanueva
Middle Reliever: Luis Perez
Middle Reliever: Jesse Litsch

This leaves Laffey and Carreno in the minors.  Carreno has proven that he is Major League ready, but it is better for his development if he starts in the minors than if he throws one inning every fourth day--often when down two or three runs.

Expect to see Aaron Laffey, Joel Carreno, Danny Farquhar, and Trystan Magnuson in the big leagues at some point during the season--it is just not likely that that is where they will start.  Remember to always expect the unexpected.  Anyone could be the next Casey Janssen.

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