TORONTO — Fast forward a year or two and the conversation surrounding the Toronto Blue Jays’ bullpen group will have changed.
Right now, as the front office attempts to lure impact position players in free agency and focuses on upgrading the rotation, the bullpen is left on the backburner.
There will be additions, but the philosophy of this Ross Atkins-led front office regime will never be to invest heavily in the most unpredictable area of the roster until the time is right.
Currently, Rafael Dolis, Jordan Romano, Ryan Borucki and potentially A.J. Cole, who’s arbitration eligible, are the group of high-leverage options on the November depth chart, leaving room for a handful of additions who don’t break the bank.
It’s a philosophy that has worked well for Atkins over the past couple of years, evidenced by successful low-budget pen additions like Dolis, Cole, Daniel Hudson, David Phelps, Tyler Clippard, Seunghwan Oh, Joe Smith, Dominic Leone, Jason Grilli and Joaquin Benoit.
They certainly haven’t built dominant bullpens, but have definitely been able to find capable relievers at almost zero cost.
“We feel as though we’ve been able to successfully build bullpens in creative ways and in different ways and at the same time you have to factor in where you could be spending resources and what the opportunity costs were,” Atkins explained. “But by no means does that mean we’re not interested in very successful, available relievers that could cost more than $2- $3 million a year.”
A deep reliever market and the expectation that pandemic cost savings may occur in this area of the roster across baseball may conspire to give the Jays an opportunity to add bullpen arms for a much more reasonable price this winter.
Now former Cleveland Indians closer Brad Hand passing through waivers with a 2.05 ERA because of his $10 million salary for 2021 to kickstart the off-season was evidence there could be bargains.
Even if the Jays end up signing a veteran with closing experience, that pitcher may not automatically be handed the ninth inning.
The Tampa Bay Rays are the bullpen blueprint the Jays are emulating and Kevin Cash’s maneuvering allowed 12 different pitchers to record saves in their 40 wins, with five guys registering multiple saves. Nick Anderson, the presumptive closer heading into the season, ended up leading the Rays with six saves in 19 appearances.
In other words, the role is far less important than the skills, and there are certain skills Atkins seeks.
“First and foremost, durability is everything,” he said. “The ability to execute fastball strikes, having secondary weapons, two pitches that are on the plate consistently with swing-and-miss ability. Guys that are pitching the 55 to 70 innings year in and year out, and consistently are able to get very good hitters out in leverage situations are the things we’re looking for.”
If you’re handicapping the race to lead the Jays in saves next summer, Romano and Dolis are the clear favourites and both pitched very well in 2020.
“It’s interesting in how that role has evolved over the years,” Atkins said of closers. “I do believe strongly, we do believe strongly, in the importance of having at least one individual and ideally you have several individuals who have the mindset to handle extremely high leverage and being the individual on the mound that is out there when you win or lose.
“We feel that Jordan Romano has those attributes. We feel that we have several individuals that could potentially handle that type of leverage and that type of situation, but we will be looking for other individuals who have those character traits and also could potentially be in that role.”
There will come a time when one of the top relievers in baseball is available, either in free agency or via trade, and the Jays will be interested.
It just may not be this winter as they focus on other, more important areas of the roster.
“As you look across the industry and you look at different teams, those are oftentimes the finishing touches when you see larger investments in the bullpen,” Atkins said.
The Jays aren’t in finishing touch mode with this roster just yet, but they’re trending in that direction.
The all-in target: RHP Liam Hendriks
The clear-cut top reliever on the market, Hendriks is familiar to Jays fans for his solid work for the club back in 2015 when he was shifted to the bullpen for the first time, but the Australian righty has taken off over the past two years.
A serviceable reliever through 2018, Hendriks blossomed a year ago, posting a 3.9 fWAR season on the strength of a 1.80 ERA across a monster 85-inning workload.
Hendriks kept that up during the shortened season, setting himself up for a big payday and a multi-year deal.
The best target: LHP Jake McGee
Let go by the Rockies after a mostly disappointing tenure, the pitching-rich L.A. Dodgers took a flier on the lefty and it paid off handsomely.
After being worth minus-0.6 fWAR and registering a 5.54 ERA across the 2019 and ’19 seasons, McGee turned things around with a 2.66 mark and three walks and 33 strikeouts in 20.1 frames.
The most attractive aspect of McGee is he’s not your traditional lefty specialist, holding right-handed hitters to a .222/.281/.378 slash line over his career.
The likely target: LHP Brad Hand
Hand, like McGee, makes a logical target of Atkins for a couple of reasons.
The first is his handedness, and while nobody needs a lefty in the bullpen these days as long as you have right-handers who can get left-handed batters out, but it doesn’t hurt to offer up a different look. Hand would provide that.
Unlike McGee, Hand dominates lefties and struggles to neutralize righties from time to time, but he gets by.
Secondly, the price is going to be reasonable after not one team in baseball was interested in Hand for $10 million, which isn’t an outrageous price.
The buy-low target: RHP Ken Giles
This one is pretty simple.
Giles, who pitched to a 2.83 ERA and saved 38 games for the Jays after being acquired from Houston at the 2018 trade deadline, is down for the year with Tommy John surgery and won’t pitch in 2021.
That leaves an easy blueprint for a two-year deal, giving Giles some certainty next year while he rehabs and, in turn, giving the Jays a potential high-leverage bullpen option in 2022 for a fraction of the price.
The pandemic uncertainty could also put these types of deals on the backburner.
The off-the-radar target: RHP Kirby Yates
Like Giles, Yates suffered through an injury-plagued 2020 season as one of the top closers in the game previously, but unlike Giles, the 33-year-old right-hander avoided TJ surgery.
Instead, bone chips in his right elbow ended Yates’ season, but he’s expected to be ready to go for spring training and the 1.19 ERA, 3.4 fWAR season from 2019 will not be forgotten.
If healthy, Yates and his devastating splitter are an upgrade for any club’s group of high-leverage relievers.
If teams are confident in the elbow, Yates will be in high demand.