108: Success of Jays bullpen anybody’s guess in 2017

Roberta Osuna will lead the bullpen this season, but will the rest follow? (Photo: Peter J. Thompson/National Post)

Roberta Osuna will lead the bullpen this season, but will the rest follow? (Photo: Peter J. Thompson/National Post)

Feb. 9, 2017

By Tyler King

Canadian Baseball Network

With only 15 days (!!) until the first spring training game, it’s just about time for many Blue Jays fans to crawl out from their caves (or ice rinks), having finally awoke from their winter hibernation.

And this year it will be particularly easy to tell who was paying attention during the offseason. If you want to accuse a friend of being part of the villainous BJs “bandwagon”, just say: “Joe Smith and JP Howell”.

Any look of response that suggests “Who in the hell?” and you’ll have your answer.

(Although in fairness “Joe Smith” is about as made up a name as you’ll ever find.)

Regardless of whether you know that Smith and Howell are the Jays newest relief pitchers, if you plan on following the team at all in 2017 you will undoubtedly be hearing a lot about them soon.

Like it or not, with spring training roughly two weeks away, the core of the Jays bullpen appears all but set.

With the young phenom closer Roberto Osuna, the old horse (who always looks as if he’s drank his weight in redbull) Jason Grilli, the complete enigma that is Joe Biagini, and the two new old guys mentioned above, it seems we can prematurely, but confidently, guess the five arms John Gibbons will be calling on most in April.

Now if you’re anything like me, you probably have no idea how to feel when you look at that list of names. There might be a moment of joy (mostly brought on by Osuna), then some fear (you will miss Joaquin Benoit, just like you missed him in the playoffs), and then there has to be some feelings of confusion too - the latter emotion seeming to always win-out in my case.

No matter what you end up feeling, the mystery of the Jays relievers will be a prime source of intrigue as the season approaches, because this year - much more than in others - the bullpen really could go either way.

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It may be hard to recall, but last season the Jays bullpen was, on the whole, actually quite terrible. 

Their collective 4.11 ERA was 12th worst in the AL, and if it weren’t for the sheer dominance of their starting pitching the Encarnacion wild card walk-off never would have made it into memory.

Of course Drew Storen (remember him?) was a colossal disappointment, and his odious numbers might have single-handedly ruined any team’s ERA. But Storen aside, Jays relievers still allowed a whopping 212 earned runs last year in 464 innings. For comparison sake, the Baltimore bullpen allowed six fewer runs despite throwing 88 more frames.

That being said, there were some bright spots ... one really luminous one in particular.

I take no risk in saying the Jays won’t go anywhere this year if the first two seasons of Osuna’s career turn out to be flukes. Thankfully, that isn’t likely given how dominant he’s been as the team’s closer (but when you remember that he’s still only 22-years-old you have to at least pause and wonder).

In his first two years as a big leaguer, Osuna has been remarkably consistent. In 2015 he posted an ERA of 2.58 over 69.2 innings, which he followed up in 2016 with an ERA of 2.68 in 74.0 innings. 

For those keeping score at home, in 143 2/3 innings he has a career ERA of 2.63. 

And if that isn’t comforting enough, his opponents batting average of .199 and WHIP of 0.93 should precipitate you into weeping (tears of joy, in case that wasn’t clear). 

So no matter how you feel about the rest of the bullpen, you can always look to Osuna - aka El Salvador (the saviour) - should you require solace .

Then again, if you needed a boost of confidence you could also look to the Jays No. 1 hype-man Jason Grilli. After he was acquired from the Atlanta Braves last season, he went on to post a 3.64 ERA in 42 innings with the Jays, and even though he struggled at times, lets be honest: his manic fist pumps after every strikeout had you punching the ceiling you were so fired up (which also had the effect of making him impossible not to like).

The concern with Grilli, however, has to be the inconsistency he’s shown throughout his career. He has had six seasons with an ERA below 3.50, but he’s also had five seasons with an ERA over 4.50. 

Oh ya, and there’s the whole “he’s 40-years-old” thing ... but I don’t want to offend my elder audience, so that’s all I will say about that.

The success of Joe Biagini is even more curious. The “Rule 5 pick of the year” (as touted by one SB Nation writer) was a double-A starter for the San Francisco Giants in 2015 before being swiped up by the Jays last year. He then, as you undoubtedly know, turned out to be one of Gibbons’ most trusted arms.

In his first big league season, Biagini threw 67.2 innings and posted an impressive 3.06 ERA. He didn’t give up a home run until SEPTEMBER 3RD - becoming the last reliever to allow a homer in 2016 - and only gave up three long balls all year. 

Unfortunately, unlike Osuna he doesn’t have a follow-up year to ease the fanbases’ mind; the chance of his debut season being a fluke is therefore much more ominous.

The next spots on the depth chart will likely belong to the Jays two new veteran acquisitions. But before you start googling JP Howell, I should warn you that he looks suspiciously like the evil Amish kid who essentially cost the Jays the 2015 ALCS (yes that was fan interference, and yes I’m still bitter about it).

Don’t hold that against Howell though, because the second thing you’ll notice is that he’s left-handed. And good thing too, because he’s going to be the one entrusted to fill the void left by the departure of Brett Cecil.

Thus the 33-year-old Howell may end up being the most important part of the Jays bullpen, seeing as he’s the only bonafide lefty they have (assuming Francisco Liriano is in the rotation) - and don’t you even think about mentioning “Aaron Loup” and “bonafide” in the same breath.

Howell has made 531 appearances in his career, posting a respectable 3.77 ERA. But, much like Grilli, for all his good years there’s almost an equal number of ugly ones. 

Howell posted ERAs of 2.03, 2.39, and 1.43 while with the Dodgers from 2013-2015, but struggled last season, posting a 4.09 ERA.

All told, he’s had five sub-3.00 ERA seasons, coupled with four seasons with ERAs above 5.00.

The most important and exciting prospect about Howell, however, is that throughout his career he has been very effective in silencing left-handed hitters. And every Jays fan knows how much Gibby loves his match-ups .... 

In 969 plate appearances, lefties have hit just .229 off him. In fact, he’s only given up 14 home runs to left handed hitters over his entire career.

The Jays other relief acquisition - 32-year-old Joe Smith - may end up being one of the most underrated moves of the entire off-season. 

Because as underwhelming as his name is, his numbers are anything but.

In his 10 year career, Smith has made 639 appearances (570 innings), posting a stellar 2.93 ERA and 1.19 WHIP in the process. And unlike Grilli and Howell, his success has been incredibly consistent too. He has never had an ERA over 3.83 (although he’s had four under 3.00). 

Perhaps even more remarkable is the fact that he posts these numbers without having to overpower hitters. In 52 innings last season he had just 40 strikeouts.

Regardless of how they get it done, the Jays will likely need a much better collective bullpen this season if they want to make their third straight playoff appearance. It’s unlikely they will be able to rely solely on their starters (and closer) again - because you just know there are going to be “innings controversies” galore given the rotation’s workload last year.

And of course there’s always the possibility of injuries ... 

But at the risk of jinxing anything, I fear I’ve said too much already.

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Follow Tyler and #Section108 on Twitter: @TylerJoseph108