After witnessing their club reach the American League Championship Series two years in a row and taking not only the city of Toronto, but all of Canada by storm, the Toronto Blue Jays fan base endured a long, cold winter filled with unease and nervousness about the upcoming season. After bowing out of the 2016 ALCS in five games at the hands of the Cleveland Indians, the Blue Jays had a lot of work to do in order to field a contending team in 2017, and satisfy a fan base that has gotten used to winning.
The Jays seemed to rush into signing power hitter Kendrys Morales, and that came at a cost. Beloved DH Edwin Encarnacion ultimately signed with the Indians for less money than the Jays had previously offered him. Other notable players that left include Michael Saunders, Joaquin Benoit, R.A. Dickey, Dioner Navarro, and Brett Cecil.
Jays Bullpen Could be a Difference Maker in 2017
After signing utility man Steve Pearce in early December, GM Ross Atkins turned his attention to improving the Jays bullpen. Toronto’s starters performed admirably in 2016, ranking fourth in the Majors in ERA (3.64) and first in innings pitched (995.1). However, although the rotation pitched well throughout the season, part of the reason they pitched so much was because the bullpen was extremely inconsistent. Manager John Gibbons often seemed reluctant to hand the ball to the ‘pen. Unless Joe Biagini, Jason Grilli, or Roberto Osuna was warming, fans often trembled when Gibbons strolled out to the mound.
The current Blue Jays bullpen however has a lot of potential, and Atkins did his best to plug as many holes in the roster as possible. Let’s take a closer look at what the bullpen might look like when the Jays open the season against the Baltimore Orioles on April 3 at Camden Yards.
The 40-year-old from Royal Oak, Michigan struggled at the start of the 2016 season with the Atlanta Braves, posting a 5.29 ERA. He turned his season around when he arrived in Toronto at the end of May, pitching 42 innings with an ERA of 3.64. Grilli quickly became a fan favorite in Toronto thanks to his passionate celebrations. Gibbons will rely on some old fashioned “grilled cheese” to eat up some innings this season.
The Jays struck gold when they signed Biagini as a Rule 5 draft pick from the San Francisco Giants in December of 2015. Biagini will most likely become a starter in the not-too-distant future, but his 3.06 ERA last season made him an important piece of the Jays bullpen. On top of that, Biagini gave up only three hits in 7.1 innings pitched during the 2016 postseason. The Jays will be in some very important games and will need reliable players who can be called upon to perform in stressful and tense situations.
The 33-year-old Californian signed a one-year deal with the Jays on February 9, and he could prove to be a low-risk, high-reward acquisition. Prior to 2016, Howell was one of the most consistent and reliable arms out of the Los Angeles Dodgers bullpen. He recorded successful seasons in 2013 and 2014, posting ERA’s south of 2.5, before going 6-1 in 2015 with an ERA of 1.43 and a WAR of 1.6. If Howell’s 2016 season was an outlier, he could end up being a major steal for the Jays and play an important role in their 2017 playoff push.
The sidearmer split the 2016 season between the Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Angels, and struggled with a hamstring strain throughout the summer. Smith has been extremely reliable throughout his career, appearing in 70+ games every year between 2011-2015, and never posting an ERA north of four in a season. His best campaign came in 2014, when he went 7-2 with a 1.18 ERA and a .804 WHIP in 74.2 innings. Smith has the potential to be effective out of the Blue Jays bullpen, and he will hopefully provide some much-needed consistency.
The 22-year-old closer has been invaluable for Toronto since breaking out during his rookie season in 2015. Osuna debuted against the New York Yankees on April 8, 2015, two months and one day after his 20th birthday, and he hasn’t looked back. Osuna’s 97mph fastball and effective slider helped him record 36 saves last year, good enough for 11th in the Majors. Osuna has been consistent for the Jays, and his 1.04 ERA in 17.1 postseason innings shows he can perform in big games as well.
Bolsinger was acquired at the trade deadline last summer from the Dodgers for struggling reliever Jesse Chavez. Bolsinger started six games for the Dodgers in 2016, and gave up nine hits over 2.2 innings pitched in his last Major League appearance for Los Angeles. He wrapped up his 2016 season with a 6.89 ERA. Bolsinger will need to work hard in Spring Training in order to crack the Jays roster, but he could eat up a lot of innings and prove a valuable asset.
Loup could be a solid left-handed option behind Howell. The 29-year-old from Raceland, Louisiana struggled in 2016, appearing in only 21 games for the Blue Jays and posting an ERA north of five. Loup’s first three seasons in a Blue Jays uniform were relatively consistent, and he will be looking for a bounce-back season. Loup appeared in 64 games for the Jays in 2013 and posted an ERA of 2.47, so he definitely has the ability to be a solid reliever.
The Jays bullpen has been fortified (to a certain extent) over the offseason, and it has the potential to be a real difference maker in 2017, barring injuries. In addition to the seven aforementioned relievers, players such as Mat Latos, Glenn Sparkman, Gavin Floyd, Ryan Tepera, Bo Schultz, and Danny Barnes could play valuable roles for Toronto, if they crack the roster and perform well.