A topic that has seemed to fly under the radar so far this offseason with so many other key talking points is that the Blue Jays bullpen is going to look vastly different in 2015 than it did in 2014. This past season saw Casey Janssen and Dustin McGowan have the third and fourth most appearances out of the bullpen, while Sergio Santos was seventh. Those pitchers have all obviously departed and there is very little chance of them coming back in free agency. What remains in the bullpen is two dominant cost-controlled lefties, a few middle of the road righties, and one or two starters who may end up relieving. That might not work out so well. While other holes in the team like second base and left field were talked about ad nauseam in November, the bullpen snuck under the radar a bit and has only emerged as a point of emphasis recently thanks to some of the other holes being filled.
There definitely has been a few examples of patched-together bullpens lacking any big names succeeding in the majors recently but with the window closing on the Blue Jays current group of players, that might not be the best strategy to employ. I originally planned to write about how Brett Cecil should be the player that the Blue Jays promote to their closer position, but John Gibbons decided to steal my fire and state that this was already the team's plan:
Gibbons just said Estrada and Cecil are in the mix for the closer job. Then he called it a "crapshoot."— Eno Sarris (@enosarris) December 8, 2014
What Gibbons says is pretty accurate aside from the obvious question of why the team would consider Marco Estrada as a closer other than to possibly create trade value. Cecil is the clear in-house option for the closer role, although a lot of people (including me) would prefer the team to employ a much more efficient closer by situation setup. Whether the lefty ever ends up being given the closer job really depends on what acquisitions Alex Anthopoulos makes to the bullpen before the team breaks camp in April. With a team full of stars ready to contend for the playoffs, throwing in a first-time closer may be a risk that the front office is not willing to take although it could pay off big-time.
What the team currently does have, is formidable setup guys in Aaron Loup and Brett Cecil along with solid if unspectacular righties in Todd Redmond and Steve Delabar. Assuming Aaron Sanchez is stretched out to become the fifth starter, then Marco Estrada will join Chad Jenkins, Rob Rasmussen, Kyle Drabek, and Liam Hendriks in a competition for the bottom two places in the major league bullpen depth chart. The obvious hole is a right-handed pitcher somewhere in the business end of the bullpen to counter the southpaws Loup and Cecil. Thankfully the option to have Cecil close gives Anthopoulos flexibility when trying to make the necessary additions to the bullpen. The team won't have to throw money at a closer with a bunch of saves to his name as they already have a suitable option in-house that just lacks the star power of the pricey free agents. Casey Janssen was eased into the role as a former setup guy before going on to become one of the best in the league and it wouldn't be a shock if the same thing happened to Cecil.
The situation also has obvious parallels to the Oakland Athletics last offseason who lost their All-Star closer Grant Balfour to the Rays in free agency. They felt the need to replace him with another high-profile closer in Jim Johnson who proceeded to implode in the Bay Area leaving Oakland to pay $10 million to a reliever they couldn't trust. The man who stepped in and saved the day was former setup man and left-handed pitcher Sean Doolittle who went on perform extremely well and also earned an All-Star nod. The A's were still smart enough to recognize the potential of Doolittle before last season though and signed him to an extension avoiding the pay increases that can come with high save totals. If the Blue Jays could learn anything from the mistakes Billy Beane and the A's made last year, it's that sometimes the best closer is right under your nose. In a time when saves still drive arbitration contracts and closers receive too much credit compared to other relievers, it takes guts for a team to throw a setup man into the ninth inning based solely on his *GASP* pitching ability. Cecil has faced tons of high leverage situations in the seventh and eighth innings of games before and the jump to the end of the game shouldn't make his heart beat any faster.
After flaming out as a starter, Cecil saved his career by quickly transitioning into a reliever role and has had two years of 60+ appearances with sub-3.00 ERAs and FIPs. There's no troubling signs in his peripherals either, as even a .344 BABIP last season couldn't slow down the Maryland native who boosted his strikeout rate to a career high. By perfecting his spike curveball he has become a rare pitcher that throws primarily the curve, while his fastball usage lags far behind. In 2014, Cecil threw the curveball 6% more than any other reliever in baseball and over the past two years it has a whiffs/swing rate of more than 50% providing good reason for him to lean on it so heavily. The comparison to Doolittle returns when you consider that the A's closer also led the league in the rate which he threw his primary pitch, the fastball, and yet he still managed to succeed despite his perceived predictability.
Cecil has also seen his velocity greatly with his move to the bullpen, which has made his fastball a dependable second pitch and helped him become slightly less predictable:
It's slightly worrying that the Blue Jays seem so zeroed in on finding a direct replacement to Casey Janssen when they could instead add a reliable right-hander that fits the setup role and promote Cecil to the closer position. As the season rolls along the bullpen usually does become a "crapshoot" and it would be disappointing if the team used their remaining budget space trying to fill a hole that might not exist at all. If the Blue Jays were able to flip Dioner Navarro for a consistent right-hander, the team would solve two problems at once while providing John Gibbons flexibility with the bullpen that he currently doesn't have. Having two lefties setting up a right-handed closer would be a simple case of becoming a slave to the save and would limit the effectiveness of the 'pen. With all of the roster turnover so far this offseason, maybe the closer role is one hole that can actually be solved in-house.