Anthopoulos Building Something Unusual

Based on the scary claw thing going on with Steve's hand I'm going to guess that's a splitter - Tom Szczerbowski

In an era where relievers are considered fairly disposable short term assets the Blue Jays seem to be building a bullpen that could be around for the long haul.

In a year that has not gone right for the Toronto Blue Jays the bullpen has been the strength of this team. You really don't want the bullpen to be the best part of your team given its minimal importance compared to position players and the starting rotation but in a tough year you take what you can get. Blue Jays relievers rank third in the league in ERA (2.90) and fifth in WAR (3.5). Though there are warning signs in terms of regression, the 3.79 FIP and an abnormally low .263 BABIP against spring to mind, this is a quality group. The fact that both Brett Cecil and Steve Delabar were named All-Stars is a testament to that. What is particularly interesting about this group is not that it has been so effective thus far but rather that it might be here to stay.

Reliever performance is notoriously volatile and for that reason signing relievers to big money deals in free agency is usually considered to be a pretty poor idea. More often than not closers and set up men signed for big money wind up injured or ineffective before their deals expire. Fill in your own bitter comment about B.J. Ryan here. As a result of this phenomenon, the conventional wisdom is that the best way to build a bullpen is with inexpensive guys on very short term deals. The Tampa Bay Rays are an excellent example of this method of bullpen construction. They have gotten excellent production out of guys like Fernando Rodney, Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta who other teams didn't show a great deal of interest in and they have done so on the cheap.

Alex Anthopoulos is smart enough to know that paying a premium for relievers isn't advisable but he decided he was going to do something a little bit different than the Rays' method. There was quite a little push back last season when he traded Travis Snider for Brad Lincoln and Eric Thames for Steve Delabar because he seemed to be overvaluing relief pitching, but as usual AA had a plan. By prioritizing relievers under team control he was not only saving himself free agent dollars down the line he was also building towards something that's almost unheard of in modern baseball: bullpen continuity. Below is a chart of the current bullpen for the Jays along with how long they will be under team control:

Player

Year of Arbitration Eligibility

Free Agent Year

2013 WAR

Steve Delabar

2015

2018

1.2

Brett Cecil

2014

2017

1.1

Casey Janssen

N/A

2014 (assuming option is picked up)

0.8

Juan Perez

2016

2019

0.7

Aaron Loup

2016

2019

0.4

Neil Wagner

2016

2019

0.2

Darren Oliver

N/A

2013

0.1

Dustin McGowan

N/A

2014 or 2015 depending on option

0.0

The WAR was essentially just thrown in there for fun but it does show that the core of this group, minus Janssen, is locked up for a long time. Darren Oliver's role on this team is fairly minimal and he's unlikely to be missed much after 2013 and trying to predict what will happen with McGowan is borderline impossible. It's also hard to say if Wagner and Perez have a future with this team but the trio of Delabar, Cecil and Loup look like they could stick around. As I mentioned before, relievers are very volatile and hard to project over time so it's not like you can pencil this in as your bullpen for the future. It probably won't be. What's interesting is that it theoretically could be. Instead of stacking the bullpen with low priced journeymen like other GM's, Anthopoulos has made a conscious effort, beginning with the trades of Snider and Thames last year, to put together a bullpen that is both affordable and under team control for the foreseeable future.

The Jays aren't relying on this unit to stick together, but they are giving them the opportunity to do so, an opportunity most bullpens never get. Even if attrition goes to work on this group there is are more cheap internal options to replace them. Brad Lincoln (free agent in 2018) could still emerge as a viable candidate for a role down the line, Jeremy Jeffress is still in AAA and fellow Bison John Stilson is a quality relief prospect in his own right. Also, as former starters Cecil, Janssen and even Darren Oliver could tell you, any failed starter could be a conversion possibility. Kyle Drabek and Esmil Rogers, if he ever plummets to earth, are a couple of examples. Neither one is a free agent until 2017. There are backup plans aplenty.

Having relievers under team control is not inherently unusual, but the way Anthopoulos has gone after them is. While many teams rely on young talent to fill their bullpen, AA has gone out of his way to acquire Lincoln, Delabar, Jeffress and Rogers (who he probably only saw as a relief pitcher at the time) in the last calendar year at the cost of real, if not immensely valuable, players like Travis Snider, Eric Thames, Yan Gomes and Mike Aviles. You could also count the acquisition of Michael Schwimer for minor prospect Art Charles in that group of trades even though it has yet to yield any results for the Jays. The Jays front office clearly wants to avoid paying a premium for relievers in free agency but they would also rather avoid signing veteran journeyman retreads at this point either, especially given that there is no longer draft pick compensation attached to those players. Instead they have aggressively pursued relievers that they can have long term. Given the short shelf life of relievers it seems like a bit of a bizarre strategy, but it is a lot more logical than it seems. The Jays have control of these players for a long time but they are not committed to them long term. If any of these relievers ceases to be effective the Jays can simply non-tender or release them because they haven't sunk any guaranteed money into them. Given the unpredictability of relievers this strategy combines the flexibility of going year to year with the luxury of keeping consistent performers around for a lengthy term. Time will tell if this strategy will be effective but other than losing an unreasonably productive Yan Gomes the results look pretty good so far.

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