Jays have plenty of relief jobs available

DUNEDIN -

You didn’t have to be a baseball lifer to discern that one of the Blue Jays’ most desperate off-season needs was an improved bullpen.

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The 2014 relief corps was supposed to be a strength of the team, coming off a strong 2013 season. It featured all-stars Brett Cecil and Steve Delabar, a proven closer in Casey Janssen and plenty of versatility in Aaron Loup, Sergio Santos, Todd Redmond, Esmil Rogers and Neil Wagner.

Instead, they were a major letdown. And when Alex Anthopoulos didn’t move on any of the big-name relievers that were on the free agent or trade markets, a lot of people were left scratching their heads.

Now, as camp is beginning to unfold, it’s becoming clear that the bullpen cupboard was not quite as empty as we thought. There are, perhaps, a dozen arms that have impressed so far in the first week of Grapefruit League action and that’s important because there are as many as five jobs up for grabs, including that of closer.

“It is way too early to make any definite judgments, but we like strike-throwers,” said manager John Gibbons. “We’ve had a lot of guys who have impressed us so far. Sometimes all a guy needs is an opportunity and we’re offering that.”

Here is a list, very subjective in nature, of the most likely candidates to end up fighting for a job in the Toronto bullpen.

— Brett Cecil

He is one of two holdovers who are automatic opening day relievers. Currently working through some shoulder inflammation, he’s not likely to appear in a game until at least next weekend and perhaps not even then. There is no real concern that this will affect his opening day status, though it might impact his bid to be the closer.

— Steve Delabar

An all-star two years ago, Delabar had a star-crossed season that saw him spend more time in Bufffalo than in Toronto. So far this spring, his velocity is back in the mid-90’s and his split-finger pitch has some of its old bite. He could be an important component as a set-up man if he can maintain the command he has shown early.

— Marco Estrada

Currently engaged in the battle for the fifth starter’s position along with Aaron Sanchez and Daniel Norris, he’s likely to end up in the bullpen, given that the job is probably Norris’s to lose. He’s a strike thrower with an outstanding changeup that makes his 90-mph fastball sneaky fast. His best work as a pro has been in a relief role.

— Chad Jenkins

Jenkins has been working hard to perfect useful pitches to complement his best pitch, a heavy sinker. He has been a useful reliever in tough times over the past three seasons yet he can’t quite earn himself a solid spot. The fact that he still has an option that allows him to be sent to the minors will influence whether he makes the team.

— Aaron Loup

Loup is the other holdover who is all but guaranteed a role in 2015. He’s been a workhorse over his first three seasons, a lefty who can be used in just about any situation. He’s a strike-thrower who has allowed just nine home runs iover 138 innings in the last two seasons.

— Rob Rasmussen

Rasmussen might earn himself a job, especially if Cecil becomes the closer. The Jays are going to need a situational lefty to complement Loup and be available to face a tough left-handed hitter during the middle innings. In limited action last year, Rsmussen struck out 13 men over 11 innings.

— Todd Redmond

Redmond has been a jack-of-all-trades for the Jays since they claimed him off the waiver wire two years ago. He has started some games but his main role has been as a long man in the bullpen and that’s a likely role for him this year. He is out of options and can’t be sent down without clearing waivers

— Aaron Sanchez

Sanchez is competing for a rotation spot but he’s also aware that there is a hole to be filled at the back end of the bullpen and that closer’s job could be his. Pitching largely in high-leverage situations late in games, Sanchez worked 33 innings, allowing just 14 hits and one home run. It’s a reasonable assumption he’ll be the closer.

— Wilton Lopez

Lopez was a stalwart with Houston, appearing in 205 games from 2010-12, compiling a 2.52 ERA. He was traded to hitter-friendly Colorado and his numbers were ugly in 2013. He missed part of 2014 with an elbow problem. Jays are hoping the last two years are a function of Colorado’s thin air and are hoping he can bounce back.

— Miguel Castro

Just turned 21, Castro has created quite a buzz in camp, to the point that a lot of people in the organization are suggesting that he could jump from short-season A-ball, all the way to the majors this year. He routinely hits 98 on the gun with gusts up to 100. What has the Jays excited is that he combines that with a killer changeup and an ability to throw everything in the strike zone.

— Roberto Osuna

Now almost two years removed from Tommy John surgery, Osuna has turned a lot of heads in camp so far. he’s a four-pitch pitcher with impeccable command and a real head for pitching. He is destined to be a front of the rotation starter but nobody in the organization is ruling him out from starting the year in the Blue Jays bullpen.

The two youngsters — Castro and Osuna — are way ahead of schedule. Osuna just turned 20 in February and that makes him six weeks younger than Castro.

“What makes Castro so unique,” said Gibbons, “is his control. That’s kind of a rare thing in kids who throw that hard that young. The other thing is that he already has a changeup and that is rare as well. Most guys who throw that hard wouldn’t even consider learning a changeup so young when they can blow people away with that 98. So he’s kind of ahead of the game.

“With Osuna, we’re just waiting to see him refine everything just a little bit more. I think Castro’s a little more polished, command, things like that. They’ve both got big-time arms. Both should pitch here for a lot of years.”

Both pitchers could benefit from a change in attitude by the Blue Jays developmental people who have always been cautious, sometimes to a fault, about their top prospects

“Let’s face it, I can’t say it was necessarily a change of philosophy. But last year, we started pushing some younger guys through the system a little bit quicker and even brought some of them up in September. So if he’s really, really good this spring, there’s an outside shot they could be on the team.”

However it all plays out, the decisions are not going to be easy and they’re probably going to all come together in the last week of training camp.

“I think it’s probably going to run down to the end,” said Gibbons.

“Ideally, you’d like to know a little bit sooner than that, midway through, at least. But there’s too many opportunities. I think guys will compete to the end. And the guys that don’t make the team, it doesn’t mean they’re not going to be a big part of the team throughout the year. They all know that.”

ON WITH HIS OFF-SPEED

DUNEDIN — When all is said and done, Aaron Sanchez is probably going to be in the Blue Jays bullpen this year.

Until that opinion gets written in stone, however, the young right-hander is planning to make life tough on the decision-makers.

Right now, Sanchez is a candidate for a role in the Jays starting rotation and on Sunday he set the bar a tiny bit higher for his chief competitors — Daniel Norris and Marco Estrada — by tossing three hitless, scoreless innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Even though the Pirates eventually won the game 1-0, Sanchez’s strong outing made it a good day for the Jays. In his first outing of the spring last Tuesday, Sanchez was only so-so, allowing five runs (two earned) in 1.1 innings.

On Sunday, he was dramatically sharper.

“I was so inconsistent in my first start with my off-speed stuff, so this time that was an emphasis,” said Sanchez. “I need more mound time and experience throwing all the pitches. I threw a ton of off-speed pitches. Navvy (catcher Dioner Navarro) did a great job back there incorporating all my pitches.”

The last time Sanchez started a game prior to the beginning of this camp, was on July 10 of 2014 when he was in the rotation for triple-A Buffalo against the Durham Bulls. That was almost eight months and several big-league relief appearances ago.

“I felt good,” he said of his 41-pitch outing. “Leaving at the end of the third inning, I could have said one or two more, but it’s about gradually getting stronger. It’s the first time I’ve started since July of last year, so we’re working our way back into it.”

It’s hard coming out of the pen,” said Navarro. “You’re in a do-or-die situation most of the time and when pitchers are in that situation, they’re going to go to their strength. So we used his fastball a lot. Today, he really mixed things up.”

Sanchez has, for the most part, completely divorced himself from thinking about the decision that the Jays will be making in a couple of weeks regarding his role.

“At the end of the day, they’re still going to make decisions,” said Sanchez. “It’s a decision that’s probably not a tough one. But at the end of the day, they’re the ones making the decisions. Whether it’s starting or closing, I’m going to be happy. To me it doesn’t matter.

“I want to be in the big leagues. We’ve got a chance to win a lot of games this year. Look at the guys we picked up. It’s no secret who we’ve got in our lineup. These guys can hit the ball. For me, I just want to be a part of it.”



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