Monday, August 8, 2011

The 2012 Blue Jays Bullpen

With the non-waiver trade deadline in the rear view mirror, we have a better grasp on what the 2012 Blue Jays pitching staff might look like. Toronto made 2 substantial trades, first acquiring Edwin Jackson from the Chicago White Sox, then subsequently shipping him to the Cardinals in exchange for Colby Rasmus (in a large package deal). To complete those transactions the Blue Jays were forced to move a substantial part of their 2011 bullpen. Jason Frasor and potential 2012 reliever Zach Stewart were sent to Chicago, while Marc Rzepczynski and Octavio Dotel were moved to St. Louis. The Blue Jays did acquire some arms in return in the Cardinals deal -- Trever Miller, Brian Tallet, and PJ Walters, but they are a step down from their predecessors and will have to compete for a bullpen job in 2012, if they're a member of the team at all.

There are a number of candidates within the Blue Jays organization to fill the seven bullpen spots in 2012, and that's without even considering the trades and free agent signings that we know Alex Anthopolous has up his sleeves. Given that those hypothetical transactions are impossible to predict in November, let alone August, for simplicity I will just examine the candidates that we have in the cabinet today.

Currently in the bullpen:

RHP Frank Francisco -- 4.0M (2011). Free agent at end of 2011 (Type B).

Francisco was expected to be Toronto's closer when he was acquired from Texas in exchange for Mike Napoli, but he has not performed as had been hoped. Despite his Type B status, it is unlikely the Blue Jays will offer him arbitration. With his poor season, it is unlikely he could fetch more on the open market than he would with an arbitration salary. Additionally, he burned Texas last season by accepting arbitration. Francisco is likely to walk.

Prediction: Gone

RHP Jon Rauch -- 3.5M (2011). 3.75M Club Option (2012). Free agent at end of 2011 (Type B).

Much like Francisco, Rauch was brought in to stabilize the back end of the bullpen, a mission he has failed. While he has struggled in save opportunities (11/16), he has still been a solid reliever and will likely see his club option picked up. His 2012 role will likely be more middle relief than late inning specialist.

Prediction: Returns, club option picked up

RHP Shawn Camp -- 2.25M (2011). Free agent at end of 2011.

Camp gave the Blue Jays three strong years from 2008 to 2010, but since late May this year he has been lit up like a Christmas tree. Camper has always been known as a rubber arm, but it's possible his age (35) and workload have finally caught up to him. Camp may return to Toronto for another year in 2012, but if so it will likely be with a paycut and a lesser role.

Prediction: Gone

LHP Trever Miller -- 2.0M (2011). Free agent at end of 2011.

The 38 year old Miller was acquired in the Rasmus deal, likely as nothing more than to balance the salaries for the rest of the season. As a lefty specialist, his 0.73 ERA vs lefties looks outstanding, but his 1.62 WHIP vs lefties suggests he has been extremely lucky. Right handers have absolutely destroyed Miller, and it's hard to keep a guy around who can only do one job and can't even do it that well. His salary almost guarantees he won't be retained for 2012.

Prediction: Gone

RHP Casey Janssen -- 1.095M (2011). Controllable through 2013.

Janssen has been an absolute stud out of the bullpen the last 2 years, and with some of the veterans moving on it is likely he will be asked to step up into a major late inning role in 2012. With his option years finally burned up, he shouldn't have to take a business flight to Las Vegas ever again.

Prediction: Returns

RHP Jesse Litsch -- 0.83M (2011). Controllable through 2014.

Litsch started the season in the rotation, but suffered an injury and was forced to the disabled list. After being cleared to resume pitching, he went on a 30 day rehab stint in the minor leagues, at the end of which the front office decided to option him to Triple-A Las Vegas. While he has served exclusively as a starter in his professional career, the Blue Jays recently recalled him to work out of the bullpen. Many people, myself included, thought it was just a temporary stay before he took the injured Carlos Villanueva's turn in the rotation, however with the promotion of heralded prospect Henderson Alvarez, it appears Litsch's relief role could be more permanent.

Prediction: Returns

LHP Luis Perez -- 0.4M (2011). Controllable through 2016.

Perez has been one of the more reliable arms in the 2011 bullpen and, much like Casey Janssen, he could be pushed into a more important role for the 2012 season. If Toronto is looking for a late inning lefty, Perez might be the guy. In 2011 vs lefties, Perez has a 3.20 ERA, 0.76 WHIP, 22/0 K/BB ratio and 15.00 GO/AO ratio while recording 57 outs. Impressive.

Prediction: Returns


RHP Carlos Villanueva -- 1.415M (2011). Controllable through 2013.

Villanueva has been an absolute steal from the Brewers, and it's a shame he's now on the DL with arm soreness due to being overworked (I mentioned 2 weeks ago he needed to be returned to the bullpen if we wanted to avoid Brian Tallet'ing him). Hopefully the injury is nothing too serious and he will be healthy for 2012. Villanueva will need to be a key cog in a 2012 bullpen that could have a lot of inexperience.

Prediction: Returns

LHP Brian Tallet -- 0.75M (2011). Controllable through 2012.

A healthy but overworked Brian Tallet was given his walking papers after 2010, and I expect 2011 to end the same way. Much like Trever Miller, Tallet was moved to Toronto in the Rasmus trade solely to balance things off. Brian recently discovered he suffers from Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD), a serious condition that could cause his kidneys to fail. He was diagnosed early, which should dramatically improve his chances of a recovery. I wish him a full recovery, as he always seemed like a good guy.

Prediction: Gone

RHP Dustin McGowan -- 0.45M (2011). Controllable through 2013.

While the front office has proclaimed McGowan will return as a starter due to a more regulated workload, I don't see how anyone can confidently say he is capable of throwing 200 innings in a season. Therefore I believe McGowan should be considered a darkhorse for the 2012 bullpen. Not because he lacks the arm (he still has his mid 90's heat and devastating slider), but because injuries have taken such a toll on his body. Every pitcher could be 1 pitch away from blowing out their arm, but with McGowan you almost fear the worst with every pitch. Regardless, given all that he has gone through and his refusal to walk away from his passion, it's impossible to root against Dustin.

Prediction: Activated / Called up

In the minors:

RHP PJ Walters -- 0.4M (2011). Controllable through 2016.

Walters has worked nearly exclusively as a starter in his professional career, but he does not appear to have the stuff to start in the AL East. His best chance at the big leagues may be as a reliever, but I'm not sure how well he could flourish in that role either. He should have a fair shot in Spring Training to prove himself, but if I were a betting man I'd expect him to be back in Triple-A.

Prediction: Assigned to minor leagues

RHP Joel Carreno -- MiLB salary (2011). Controllable through 2017+.

A true darkhorse for a bullpen role, Carreno features a fastball/slider combo that could translate well in relief. Carreno has been overshadowed by Toronto's wealth of bigger profile, higher upside arms, and as such his best shot at making the big leagues may be in the bullpen. He has future setup guy potential, and if the bullpen isn't addressed through free agency, he could very well have a role.

Prediction: Called up

Of the 12 candidates I mentioned, I have identified 7 as strong possibilities for the Blue Jays 2012 bullpen. It would be an inexpensive group, with only Jon Rauch making "free agent dollars". The remaining 6 -- Villanueva, Janssen, Litsch, Perez, McGowan, and Carreno -- would all be cost controlled for atleast the next 2 years. While it may seem perfect to have 7 candidates for 7 roles in the bullpen, relievers are so volatile by nature that it is unwise to enter a season with such a small reserve. Alex Anthopolous has shown a willingness to scour the market in January and February for cheap relief pitching on short term deals (typically with the potential for Type status), and it is very likely he'll do the same again this winter. Regardless, of the 7 I mentioned, I believe only Perez and Carreno would have options next year. Luis Perez has shown himself as a valuable member of the relief corps, so barring a complete meltdown it would be difficult to justify a demotion. Carreno, if he is even converted to a reliever at all, could very well be the 8th man in the bullpen if another veteran (Jason Frasor?) is brought into the fold.

The bullpen has been a bit of a black eye for Toronto this season, but many of the problems can be resolved within the organization without too much money being spent (no more BJ Ryan's, please). Many of the meltdowns have been related to Francisco, Rauch, and Camp, and with 2 of the 3 gone (and the 3rd in a non-closing role) hopefully some stability could be achieved. I am in full support of Chops McGowan getting a shot to be the closer, but if not him, there are a number of other options, particularly if Jason Frasor is brought back.

Outside of second base, the pitching rotation and starting lineup are relatively set for 2012, so the bullpen may be the area that Anthopolous chooses to tinker with over the winter months. What the 2012 staff looks like exactly we won't know until April 1st, but with some of the fat being trimmed, I expect there will be a substantial improvement.

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