With the disastrous 2013 season behind us, talk has naturally shifted to what the Blue Jays need to do this offseason in order to avoid a similar fate in 2014. While it is pretty much accepted that they need to upgrade in the starting rotation and would like help at catcher (and 2B, LF, DH, etc), the one area that people seem to agree does not need any major improvement is the bullpen. In fact, the pen is so deep that people are suggesting that the Blue Jays should be looking to ship pieces out in order to upgrade the rest of the roster. Unfortunately, fans can’t usually be trusted to use logic when coming up with trade suggestions. Step into any Blue Jays (or Tigers starting pitching) related thread on MLBTradeRumors and you’ll find many commenters suggesting trading relief pitchers for front line starting pitching. Some of these suggestions are reasonable and explore ideas based in reality, but most of them employ the soft “everybody needs relievers” (or the more common “we can trade our surplus for other teams’ stars, right?”) argument to support preposterous trade suggestions. The problem that even the logical people are runnning into is that there is no proper way to gauge the actual trade value of a reliever. At the deadline you can see deals that turn into “Matt Capps for Wilson Ramos” style disasters, but for the most part you don’t see top players being dealt for relievers in the offseason. So rather than attempting to predict what sort of return the Blue Jays could get on their many relievers, I’m going to try to assess which players have the most value to the Jays in talent as well as which hold the most value in trade.
In order to properly examine the value of the Jays’ relievers, we first need to look at them individually and what each one brings to the table (*denotes player still has options remaining):
Casey Janssen – $4M in 2014, FA after season
2013 stats: 52.2 IP, 2.56 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 23.8 K%, 6.2 BB%
On the surface, what you see with Janssen is what you get. He’s a strike thrower who doesn’t throw overly hard, but gets a lot of strikeouts by getting ahead of hitters with his fastball and cutter before finishing them with his slow curve. He has been arguably the most reliable reliever in the Blue Jays organization for the last 3 seasons. But when you look a little deeper some red flags begin to show up. For starters, Casey Janssen has had issues with his surgically repaired throwing shoulder in each of the last two seasons. This manifested itself in 2013 with a large drop in fastball velocity from 91.7 mph in 2011 and 2012 to 89.9 mph in 2013. He also posted the lowest chase percentage he has shown in the last 3 years (though not a precipitous drop as he doesn’t get many chases to begin with) which could be a direct result of the hitters having extra time to determine if pitches are balls or strikes.
All of that notwithstanding, he still managed to once again put up excellent numbers and can probably be relied upon to put up similar numbers in 2014 provided his velocity doesn’t dip any further. Though if that does happen, expect a sharp decline.
Sergio Santos – $3.75M in 2014, $6M club option in 2015, $8M club option in 2016, $8.75M club option in 2017 (buyouts of $0.75M for each option). Eligible for FA after 2015 if options declined
2013 stats: 25.2 IP, 1.75 ERA, 0.58 WHIP, 31.1 K%, 4.4 BB%
Santos is a tough nut to crack. On one hand he has missed the vast majority of the last two seasons with injury. On the other, he was so dominant at the end of last year that it’s easy to believe that he is finally healthy. Going on the assumption that Santos’ shoulder is indeed at full strength, he provides the type of power late inning relief that teams covet. His K% was top 25 in baseball among pitchers who threw more than 20 innings, and his BB% would put him in the top 15. If he can put up numbers like that over the course of a full season, he’s a top 10 reliever in all of baseball. Of course, a healthy amount of regression could be coming from Santos. The strikeouts have always been his calling card with that vicious slider (which he threw 48% of the time), but he has never shown anything close to the walk rate that he possessed in 2013, even in such a limited sample. And while his history suggests that he will be closer to his career 10.3% than last year’s 4.4%, it is not a given that he will regress fully. The percentage of pitches he threw in the strike zone was actually right in line with his career numbers. Instead, the biggest difference shows up in the chase percentages (42.3% up from 31.9% in 2011). If he can maintain the ability to get hitters to offer at his pitches outside of the zone, he could finally turn into exactly what the Blue Jays thought they were getting when they traded for him in December 2011. Small sample size notwithstanding, I am betting that he does take that step and becomes a shut down late inning reliever.
Brett Cecil – Eligible for Arbitration in 2014
2013 stats: 60.2 IP, 2.82 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 28 K%, 9.2 BB%
Of all the Blue Jays pitchers, nobody took a bigger step forward in 2013 than Brett Cecil. He went from being on the bubble to make the opening day roster (and possibly a healthy Brett Lawrie away from not making it at all) to being the go to guy in high leverage, late game situations by mid-season. He made his first All-Star team and finished the year with 70 strikeouts in only 60.2 innings and was on track to potentially top 65 innings for the first time since 2011 until some mild elbow inflammation ended his season early.
It’s pretty easy to see what caused the massive upswing in Cecil’s numbers. His average fastball velocity jumped from 89.3 mph in 2012 to 91.8 mph in 2013. The increased fastball speed along with the added separation from his breaking pitches led to hitters making contact on only 49.6% of swings, down 15 percentage points from 2012 (64.9%). In addition to affecting the rate of contact, the uptick in Cecil’s stuff also had a profound effect on the type of contact that hitters were making. Cecil hadn’t posted a GB% higher than 38.2% since 2010 (44.2%), but managed to generate groundballs at a well above average clip of 51.3%. This combined with his HR/FB rate falling back to a more standard 9.6% led to Cecil allowing only 0.59 HR/9 IP, down from 1.6 from 2011-2012.
These numbers would be elite for any reliever, but Cecil is also left-handed. He predictably dominated LHBs in 2013, allowing a line of .186/.223/.235, but he also held his own against RHBs. While not quite as overpowering, RHBs only hit .208/.341/.394. The command against RHBs was less than ideal, but he was still clearly better than a LOOGY.
Cecil’s improvements, which were caused by a new training regimen, should carry over into 2014 and though the team may want to be more careful with letting him face elite RHBs, he should once again be counted on to provide good, high leverage relief.
Steve Delabar* – Not eligible for arbitration until 2015
2013 stats: 58.2 IP 3.22 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 32.4 K%, 11.5 BB%
The second All-star reliever for the Toronto Blue Jays, Steve Delabar followed up his very successful run in 2012 with another great season in 2013. His strikeout rates were almost identical and his walk rates, while higher in 2013, were also very close.
So is it safe to say that Delabar is the elite reliever that he has been for the last two years? Not quite. While his overall numbers were quite similar from year to year, the ways in which he compiled them were very different. Quite simply, he was a completely different pitcher last year. In 2012, Delabar posted a GB% of 42.9% and a very low LD rate of 15.6%. In 2013, Delabar posted a miniscule 29.4 GB% and a much higher line drive rate of 22.8%. That would normally lead to much worse numbers, but he also increased his popup rate (which is supposed to be one of the most controllable forms of contact a pitcher can create) from 3.3% to 10.8% and dropped his HR/FB rate from 19.7% to 6.2% (though the first number is skewed by his HR happy days in Seattle). So it sounds like Delabar was giving up a lot more flyballs and line drives, but that they weren’t hit all that hard (oh to have access to hit/fx data…). So what caused the change? Delabar completely changed the frequency of use of his off-speed pitches. In 2012, he threw his slider 3% of the time and his change-up 29.3% of the time. In 2013, he threw the slider 10.9% of the time and the change-up 12.5% of the time. He also threw his fastball 75.1% of the time, up from 67.5 in 2012. There seems to be a reason for the switch as well.
Hitters were anemic against Delabar’s change-up in 2012, posting a line of .174/250/.293. That number jumped to .200/.275/.371 in 2013, which of course it still definitely acceptable. However, the biggest sign of decline shows up when looking at how hitters reacted to the pitch from year to year. In 2012, hitters offered at his change-ups out of the zone 48.8% of the time, only making contact on 36.9% of those swings. In 2013, hitters only chased the change-up 34.2% of the time and made contact a whopping 60.7% of the time. Quite simply, it wasn’t close to the strikeout pitch that it was in 2012.
While the change-up took a clear step back, the slider took a similar step forwards in 2013. The sample size is very small due to its limited usage, , but in 2012 Delabar’s slider was extremely hittable with a contact rate of 92.3% and a chase rate of 15.8%. So either the predictive value of those small samples was extremely limited, or as reported, Delaber made real strides with the slider in 2013. This past year hitters chased Delabar’s slider 51.7% of the time and only made contact on 30% of those swings (58.1% of all swings).
So if this holds, what does this all mean? Most importantly, it means that Steve Delabar is no longer a reverse platoon righty. RHP wOBAs dropped from .344 to .290 against Delabar while lefties went up from .244 to .307. So while the step back in the change-up ended the pure domination of LHBs, he still held them to a below-average level while also striking them out at a 33.6% clip. It is obviously tough to predict exactly how these trends will hold, but given Delabar’s limited experience, I expect him to continue to focus more on his power arsenal to post high strikeout rates and be a valuable late-inning reliever.
Aaron Loup* – Not eligible for arbitration until 2016
2013 stats: 69.1 IP, 2.47 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 18.8 K%, 4.6 BB%
It’s easy to say Aaron Loup was a surprise, but if you look at what he did last year there really is no change. His strikeout rate was nearly identical and his walk rate fell back to human levels while still remaining excellent. Basically, he kept up his role as a strike-throwing, groundball inducing, left-handed reliever. He did drastically increase the use of his change up, but that is likely a consequence of facing RHBs 56 more times than lefties. This was probably not the optimal use for Loup, as righties hit him to the tune of .286/.321/.455. While not awful, those numbers aren’t exactly elite and certainly don’t reflect the incredible overall numbers put up by the second-year lefty. Those numbers are heavily driven by his complete dominance of same-sided batters. Lefties only managed to hit a paltry .198/.286/.220 against the sidewinder. As long as the Blue Jays recognize this platoon split and deploy him properly, Loup should once again be a valuable piece in the middle innings.
Dustin McGowan – $1.5M in 2014, $4M club option in 2015 ($0.5M buyout)
2013 stats: 25.2 IP, 2.45 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 22.8 K%, 10.5 BB%
Oh Dusty. It almost feels cruel to even talk about him, as it always boils down to health. When he’s on, McGowan possesses a three pitch mix (four if he goes back into the rotation) that works well against hitters on both sides of the plate. Unfortunately, McGowan’s ongoing health concerns also make it very hard to predict what exactly the Jays will get from him. Even in his short stint off the DL last year, McGowan was wildly inconsistent. In some games he would pound the zone and have that wipeout slider and Bugs Bunny change-up while in others he would come out completely flat and nowhere near the strike zone. Is this just the type of inconsistency that we can expect from McGowan, or is this something that will improve the further away he gets from his shoulder surgeries? Even with that inconsistency, the overall numbers are definitely fine for a 1-2 inning reliever as he gets plenty of strikeouts to help mitigate the walks and has historically given up very few line drives. We’ll call this one a coin flip with a hope for the best.
Esmil Rogers – Eligible for arbitration 1 in 2014
2013 stats: 31 IP, 4.35 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 11.3 K%, 7.5 BB% (as reliever only)
Rogers is a tough case. He posted almost identical slash lines as a starter and a reliever (he was hit for more power as a starter), but he was so miscast that a good read on his abilities as a reliever is tough to get. He has been good (Cleveland), bad (Toronto) and ugly (Colorado) while working in short relief, but the track record tends to lean-to the bad. He started off as a rather extreme groundball pitcher, but by the time his time in the bullpen ended in Toronto, he had turned into a heavy flyball reliever (only 34.6% GB). But when he was put into the rotation, everything changed. On the advice of the bullpen coach, Pat Hentgen, Rogers mostly abandoned his straight, mid-90s four-seam fastball and began throwing a heavy-sinking two seam fastball. This bumped his GB% all the way to 51%, essentially turning him into a completely different pitcher. Even with the change, he still doesn’t generate nearly enough swings and misses (only 16.8%) for a late-inning reliever, and thus can only really be counted on in low-leverage situations. This isn’t likely to change going forward.
Luis Perez – Not eligible for arbitration until 2015
2012 stats: 42 IP, 3.43 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 22.3 K%, 9.1 BB%
Coming off Tommy John surgery, Perez made only six appearances in 2013. In the previous two seasons, he has shown the ability to dominate lefties, while struggling to varying degrees against righties (.392 wOBA in 2011, .324 in 2012). His big slider makes him ideally suited for LOOGY work, but he also possess the stamina to go multiple innings should the need arise which, let’s be honest, is going to happen a few times with the Toronto Blue Jays and their starters.
Brad Lincoln – Not eligible for arbitration until 2015
2013 stats: 31.2 IP, 3.98 ERA, 1.58 WHIP, 16.9 K%, 14.9 BB%
What is there to say about Brad Lincoln other than “at least he didn’t stink as badly in Toronto as Travis Snider did in Pittsburgh?” Lincoln possesses a hard fastball and a power curveball, but at his height gets very little plane on his fastball. This causes him to be very homer-prone (1.43 HR/9 in 2012, 1.14 in 2013). As such, he needs to limit the baserunners he allows, but even that was a disaster in 2013. His career walk rate would have suggested something in the 6-7% range, but 14.9% was simply unacceptable. He doesn’t get nearly enough chases (22.8%) to get away with poor control, making him a huge risk. A bounce back in control is likely, though that could also mean more pitches in the zone to go flying over the fence. Lincoln’s 2012 half season in Pittsburgh is definitely looking like the outlier in his career, and he is at best a low-leverage reliever. His only saving grace is that his background as a starter allows him to go deep into games in a pinch.
Jeremy Jeffress – Not eligible for arbitration until 2016
2013 stats: 10.1 IP, 0.87 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 27.9 K%, 11.6 BB%
Jeffress is the true enigma of the bullpen (which, if you’ve read the other capsules is saying a lot). He possesses an elite power arm, with sinking fastballs that routinely touch triple digits which he compliments with a low-80s curve with decent depth. The issue with him is that his marijuana suspensions really cut into his development time, leaving him struggling with command and out of options entering 2013. Luckily, he was able to pass through waivers which allowed the Jays to overhaul his command, while also diagnosing and treating him for epilepsy. When he came back to the bigs late in the year, Jeffress was dominant. He overpowered hitters with his fastball while walking people at an acceptable rate given his strikeouts. He also came back as an extreme groundball pitcher, getting groundballs on 69.2% of balls in play and posting a GB/FB of 9.00. That number is obviously skewed by the extremely small sample and thus unsustainable, but his career groundball rate is 55.3%, which is still excellent.
There has been talk of turning Jeffress into a starter, but with him being out of options and unlikely to once again pass through waivers, that seems like a very difficult task. There just aren’t enough innings in spring training to get a true sense of whether Jeffress can handle the job. The most likely scenario is that he is in the mix as the long reliever. If they get the 2013 Jeffress, he’ll quickly move into a more prominent role. If they get the 2012 Jeffress with his K:BB of 1.00, then he’ll likely be waived by the end of April.
Neil Wagner* – Not eligible for arbitration until 2017 (at earliest)
2013 stats: 38 IP, 3.79 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 20.5 K%, 8.1 BB%
Wagner burst onto the scene in 2013 armed with a big fastball (average velocity of 95.8 mph), decent change-up and mediocre slider and allowed only 1 run in his first 12 appearances. He came back to the pack after that, showing the sort of inconsistency and lack of a developed breaking ball that led to him only getting his first real big league chance at 29 years old after his fastball ticked up a grade. Still, he showed enough that he absolutely has a place in the organization. As the only full-time reliever with options remaining (other than Delabar, who will not be sent down), Wagner is a guarantee to start the year in AAA. Some improvement in his secondary pitches could make him a decent piece in a crowded bullpen. He is likely to be among the first call ups if a reliever struggles or is injured.
Notes on Unlikely Candidates
J.A. Happ – 5.2M in 2014, $6.7M club option 2015 ($0.2M buyout)
2013 stats: 92.2 IP, 4.56 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, 18.6 K%, 10.8 BB%
Happ is very likely to either hold down the 5th starter job or be traded. A team with as many holes and as little payroll room as the Blue Jays have cannot afford to have a long reliever making $5.2M.
Kyle Drabek* – Not eligible for arbitration until 2015 (or 2016 if fewer than 86 days spent on big league roster)
2013 stats: N/A
Drabek will almost certainly begin the season in the AAA rotation. He is still building up stamina following Tommy John surgery in 2012 and will be counted on for starting depth. His ceiling is still far too high to turn him into a full-time reliever at this stage.
Chad Jenkins* – Not eligible for arbitration until 2017 (at earliest)
2013 stats: 33.1 IP, 2.70 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 11.4 K%, 4.6 BB%
Like Drabek, Jenkins will be counted on for starting pitching depth in AAA. He has shown at least some ability to get big league hitters out, and will likely be one of the first called upon if the team needs help in long relief.
Todd Redmond – Not eligible for arbitration until 2017
2013 stats: 4.32 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 23.5 K%, 7.1 BB%
Longshot to make the bullpen. Redmond is out of options, but his lack of track record suggests the Blue Jays will try to sneak him through waivers and hold him as AAA starting depth along with some combination of Drabek, Jenkins, Drew Hutchison, Sean Nolin and Marcus Stroman.
So what does this all mean? If the Jays had infinite roster spots, every member of that first group of pitchers would be in the big leagues. But since we deal in reality, there are some decisions to be made. Of the 11 pitchers listed, only Wagner, Loup and Delabar have options – and Loup/Delabar are definitely not going to the minor leagues – so Wagner goes down. Now while it’s true that this team has often employed eight (and sometimes nine or ten) relievers on its big league roster, the assumption is that they will break camp with only seven. That means three relievers need to be traded or released. Given the breakdown above, the top seven would probably be Janssen, Santos, Delabar, Cecil, Loup, McGowan and one of Perez, Jeffress or Rogers with Wagner staying in AAA for depth. But if you’re looking to trade you’re not likely to get much in return if the only guys on the market are Perez, Rogers, Jeffress and Lincoln, so some other mix needs to be considered that weighs both trade value and value to the Jays. So what trade value do these guys have?
We can probably eliminate McGowan immediately from serious trade speculation. His upside value to the Jays is far greater than he would return in trade, given his injury history. But other than him, everybody else seems likely to draw at least some level of interest, with a wide range of pitching types and styles.
The Blue Jays certainly have their share of power arms, but as Jeff Sullivan recently pointed out, such power arms are becoming more and more common across the game. In fact, 14% of relievers across baseball (min. 10 IP) averaged 95 mph or higher on their fastballs. The Royals alone have five such relievers while the Blue Jays actually only have two, Jeremy Jeffress and Neil Wagner (though if we lower the threshold to 94, that number jumps to six). Still, the ability to strike people out (which is highly correlated with velocity) is a valuable skill and these types of pitchers will still be in demand. This would move the likes of Santos, Jeffress and Delabar to the top of the list. Of course, the wild card nature of Jeffress probably knocks him down a peg.
Lefties who can throw full innings are also always in demand, as evidenced by the 3 year, $18MM contract given to Jeremy Affeldt last year. So we’ll have to add Cecil, Loup and Perez to the list. Once again, injury history probably knocks Perez off the top.
Finally, we have the capital-C “Closer” market. There always seems to be some team (and not just the one run by Ruben Amaro Jr.) who values closing experience a bit too highly when making moves. This adds Janssen to the top of our list.
So our main trade target list is Janssen, Santos, Cecil, Delabar and Loup. And given the contracts of the last three, they seem as though they would be in special demand. Of course, that shouldn’t be even remotely a surprise given how last season went and certainly isn’t worth 4000 words to figure out. But the point of this was not just to discuss who has the most trade value; we wanted to figure out who the Jays can trade to maximize value while still preserving the big league roster.
The default call here is to put Brett Cecil on the block but I’m actually going to nix that. While he may pull a decent salary in arbitration, Cecil is still EASILY the best lefty the Jays have against righties and that is extremely valuable in the late innings when you’re dealing with pinch or switch hitters. Instead, I’m going to go with Steve Delabar. The step back in the change-up and the increased use of the slider have him moving more in the direction of a traditional right-handed power reliever, something which the Jays have in abundance. He is still 2 years from arbitration, so he should have tremendous trade value given the exploding FA reliever market. If I’m dealing him, it’s 100% for a big league asset or a prospect I’m going to use as part of a package to acquire an asset from another team.
The next most popular choice is Casey Janssen but I’m actually going to veto that one too. Despite the red flags in his stuff suggesting he should be sent out, the window to move him for an elite return probably already passed at the last trade deadline. If the Jays flounder again a solid closer will still have some value at this deadline, but his value as a pitcher who doesn’t put runners on in the 9th is much higher to the Blue Jays. This allows them to use the big strikeout relievers to squash rallies in the earlier innings then turn to the strike-thrower to close it out. It’s a very nice mix. I’m going to nominate Aaron Loup instead. Once again, I’m trading a pre-arb pitcher on a team that is trying to save money where it can for the rotation. Still, Loup’s production is pretty easily replaced by Perez. As shown, both can dominate lefties but struggle somewhat when facing RHBs. With Juan Perez also back some point later in the year, this makes this call even easier. As a young, pre-arb lefty who dominates same-side batters, Loup is going to have some value. He’s likely only moving for a prospect, but again that could have value if the Jays are forced to dip into their cupboard of prospects to trade for a starter.
With one bullpen spot remaining, the choice here is Esmil Rogers. He has shown JUST enough as a starter that some team is likely to take a chance on him. Almost all the value he provided to the Jays last year was as a slightly below league-average starter when the team needed it desperately. But with Hutchison, Drabek, Stroman, Jenkins and Nolin ACTUALLY ready to step in this time, and no Ramon Ortiz or Chien-Ming Wangs in sight, long relievers who can start aren’t as much of a necessity. As a reliever, he’s entirely superfluous. He will never pitch in high leverage spots and will be making over $1M in arbitration. He’s the final guy. The caveat here is that if the Blue Jays DO get a great offer for Janssen, he absolutely should be the choice. McGowan or Santos can step into the closer role if necessary without killing bullpen depth. Redmond will have to pass through waivers, but I actually think there is a decent chance of that so we’re going with Delabar, Loup and Rogers.
This will leave the Blue Jays with a bullpen of Casey Janssen, Sergio Santos, Brett Cecil, Dustin McGowan, Luis Perez, Jeremy Jeffress and Brad Lincoln. That’s two lefties, one of whom can get righties out in the late innings, 3 power righties, a proven, strike-throwing closer and Brad Lincoln (can we have a 6 man pen?). And when if Lincoln struggles early, the Jays can waive him and reach down and grab Wagner. I don’t know about you, but I’d go to war with that group.
 We’re going to pretend that Yan Gomes is still a guy that doesn’t belong on a big league roster because…ouch.
 Let me have my fantasy, ok? Snider may not be what we thought he was going to be, but this one still stings.