It's no secret that the Blue Jays have had their share of bullpen struggles the last couple years. It's also no secret that as 2016 winds up, the 2017 bullpen looks thin with a lot of question marks. The situation is far from hopeless, as between Roberto Osuna, Jason Grilli and Joe Biagini they've got an elite closer, effective arm against righties, and a sophomore who should be somewhere between middle reliever and setup man.
A few years back, I saw a comment from Mitchel Lichtman (one of The Book co-authors) suggesting that 80% of the difference in bullpens at the team level was attributable to luck/random variation, with only 20% attributable to real, enduring differences in skill. The precise breakdown might not be quite so imbalanced, but I think the general thrust is correct. Bullpen performance is just really volatile. With that in mind, below is a six-point plan for how I'd look to fill out the rest of the bullpen this winter.
Primum non nocere
If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. Last winter, the Jays were faced with a similar dilemma, and yet one of the first things they did was subtract Liam Hendriks for Jesse Chavez and his last control year. Hendriks had a very rough start for 2016, but after coming off the DL in mid-June he threw 48 innings with a 2.23 ERA (2.88 FIP). Needless to say, that production would have been nice to have last season. Or for the next three years.
But it's not just limited to Hendriks or last year. In the past couple years. In November 2012, the Blue Jays acquired the out-of-options Jeremy Jeffress, carrying him on the 40-man roster over the winter. After one very bad April outing, his time was up (DFA'd for Dave Bush, who was himself DFA'd a mere two days later). Fortunately, he cleared waivers and went to Buffalo where he was very effective (1.65 ERA, 2.58 FIP) and earned a September call-up. He pitched 9.1 scoreless innings (1.65 FIP) and looked like he might have figured things out.
So once again, a 40-man spot was dedicated to him over the winter. Once again, he made the opening day roster. And once again, he was gone before the end of the first week of April, this time after three outings. He cleared waivers again but could and did elect free agency, signing with Milwaukee. After a couple dominant months in AAA< he was back in the majors and hasn't looked back. Since 2014, Jeffress ranks 24th among qualified relievers with a 63 ERA- and 38th with a 77 FIP-. Do you know who ranks slightly ahead at 23rd/27th? Roberto Osuna.
Then there's Sam Dyson, who was rushed to big leagues in 2012 (his first professional season) to make appearances 12 days apart, then was lost on waivers to make room for Mark DeRosa when the Jays ran out of 40-man spots in that winter of 2013. He struggled in 2013 but since 2014 has been an elite reliever.
It's too much to demand perfection in assessments, but in each case the process here was highly questionable. Even having one or two of the above would hugely bolster the 2017 bullpen at very little cost.
So first, do no harm. We probably don't have to worry about a situation like the above, but for 2017, that means leaving Osuna and Biagini in the bullpen. There has been talk about stretching Biagini out as a starter (in the minors), but beyond concerns about whether he'd be nearly as effective, the Jays simply cannot afford to subtract him from the pen in 2017. Perhaps longer term both could deliver more value as starters; 2017 is not the year to find out.
Just avoiding unforced errors would be a major improvement.
No multi-year contracts for free agents
There are few sure things in life: death, taxes, and free agent relievers delivering poor return on investment. Granted, teams have become a lot more judicious in recent years when it comes to multi-year deals, so it's not quite the bloodbath it used to be. But a thin market this offseason is ramping up the guaranteed years. Three years for Marc Rzepcynski, Mike Dunn or the like? May as well
extend Smoak for a couple more years light the money on fire.
The Blue Jays have been connected to some of the better remaining arms on the market, especially lefties like Jerry Blevins and Boone Logan who should be line for 2-3 year guarantees. They ought to pass. If some decent, established relievers fall through the cracks and can be signed for a modest dollars to single year deal (perhaps with team or vesting options) in the New Year as their options dwindle, great. Otherwise, forget it.
Run up the margin early
What's a way to reduce the pressure on a bullpen? Scoring and preventing more runs early to put games away reduces the frequency and magnitude of innings in close games that require above average relief arms. With the starting pitching in relatively strong shape, the remaining budget room should be allocated on the position side, in particular to the corner OF/1B/DH situation. Fortuitously, this also happens to be where there's plenty of supply in the market. There's far better value and more upside to be had deploying resources here than on mediocre middle relievers.
Cast a wide net for interesting arms
While the volatility of relievers means there's a nasty tendency for guaranteed contracts not to work out, the flip side is there's also the potential to find lightning in a bottle for a year or two, as well as undervalued assets cast off by other organizations. The prime target here would be pitchers with plus raw stuff but lacking command/control, who might benefit from a change of scenery and new coaching, or mechanical tinkering. The other target I'd be looking for is more polished pitchers whose stuff ticks up in relief (the Hendriks/Biagini mold)
The Jays have already taken some steps here. Domonic Leone (waivers) had a strong year in 2014, as well as intriguing stuff. Leonel Campos (waivers) averages 94, so there's some stuff there. Glenn Sparkman (Rule 5) has strong peripherals. T.J. House (minor league FA) could be an interesting lefty out of the bullpen). And the coming six weeks can be the best time of year to bring in these types in minor league deals. Just having one of these guys pan out would go a long way to filling out the bullpen.
See what sticks
In addition to those brought in externally, there's no shortage of internal candidates. Danny Barnes has a great minor league track record, and flashed some good stuff in his MLB stint. Bo Schultz and Ryan Tepera need to polish their secondary stuff, but being able to run their fastballs up at 95+ is a great foundational building block. Chris Smith was a2016 minor league performer who could be a very dark horse candidate.
Spring Training then becomes a big audition to fill the backend of the bullpen, likely with some of the usual bias towards those out-of-options, at least to break camp. There's some risk of making a bad decision based on small samples (ie, Jeffress), but that's always going to be the risk of a numbers game.
A couple of the more effective 2016 bullpen performers were Grilli and Joaquin Benoit, struggling veterans with longer term records of effectiveness. While it is overly optimistic to expect a similar contribution in 2017 from reclamation projects, there will inevitably to similar situations next year that will represent a chance to plug holes or catch lightning in a bottle. And there's always the trade deadline if they're in the hunt with a poor bullpen.