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2011 Blue Jays’ Preview: The Bullpen

Posted By Ben Fisher On Mar 30 2011 @ 10:06 am In Toronto Blue Jays | No Comments

The only thing clear about the Jays’ relief situation at this point is how murky it is. Everything else is settling into place, for better or for worse – Brandon Morrow’s trip to the DL means Jo-Jo Reyes starts the season as the fifth starter, the newly acquired Jayson Nix takes over for the injured Corey Patterson as the team’s fourth outfielder and Jose Bautista’s surprise move back to RF means Edwin Encarnacion makes a dubious return to third base and Juan Rivera is saddled with DH duty.

With three days to go until Opening Day, no such clarity exists for the bullpen. Injuries look as though they will keep Frank Francisco and Octavio Dotel on the shelf and award Jon Rauch with the closer’s job, although how long he holds the position and who sets him up remain very much in limbo. John Farrell still has work left to do.

The relief situation could very well fluctuate early and often, but here is a breakdown of the individuals whom I feel will be significant in late inning appearances for the Jays this summer.

Jon Rauch

I’m still not sure why Rauch wasn’t tabbed for the closing job right off the bat. Because his velocity doesn’t measure up to his 6’10” frame? That didn’t seem to be a problem for the AL Central champion Minnesota Twins, for whom Rauch saved 21 games in place of Joe Nathan last season. The Morehead State alum is precisely the type of reliable, consistent end-of-the-bullpen stopper that this team needs and could be a much-welcome departure from the erratic Kevin Gregg.

Jason Frasor

Frasor seems to be rapidly becoming the John McDonald of the pitching staff, a seemingly perennial afterthought who is often predicted to be done in Toronto but finds a way to stick around. This year, Frasor was one of a group of free agent relievers (along with Scott Downs and Gregg) widely thought to be on the way out, but he not only found his way back but now looks like a key late inning weapon for the club. While his role will change as the season progresses and Francisco and Dotel return, he gets the chance out of Spring Training to once again come up big as a Jay. As an aside, how much fun will it be if Frasor sets up Rauch, who happens to stand a full foot taller?

Frank Francisco

It sounds encouraging to hear that Francisco’s trip to the disabled list is retroactive to March 22 and, thus, the fireballer could be ready to pitch as early as April 6, but it’s hard to see things working out that way. For one thing, the 31-year old has pitched just two total innings all spring and simply isn’t ready for full-time duty. Secondly, he is dealing with both soreness in his right pectoral muscle and inflammation in his biceps on the same arm. Neither one is particularly dire, but the combination means there is more work to be done in building up strength in his throwing arm. Jays pitching coach Bruce Walton isn’t one to chance injuries among his pitchers, and this should prove to be no exception.

Octavio Dotel

Who knows, maybe Dotel just needs to get past his nagging left hamstring injury and, once healthy, will develop into a key bullpen piece for Toronto. Just don’t expect me to believe it yet, after I wasn’t pleased with signing the 37-year old at the time [1]and have seen nothing since to dissuade me from my original opinion. Before going down to injury, Dotel was a mess, posting a 15.00 ERA and coughing up five earned runs and nine hits in just three innings of preseason work. At a time when pitchers are supposed to be ahead of hitters in terms of preparation, Dotel was struggling with velocity and getting hit hard. He’s going to need to do plenty of work in order to be trusted in late game situations.

Marc Rzepczynski

A long relief job was hardly in Zep’s crosshairs at the beginning of Spring Training. But that’s where he finds himself now in his ultimate bid to join the rotation, and he may not be short on work. With Reyes and Kyle Drabek’s inexperience, mixed with Brett Cecil’s puzzling velocity issues and the club’s cautious approach with young pitchers, the 25-year old may be relied upon regularly to log big innings. And, as the likely heir apparent to starting duty should more injuries flare up, Zep has plenty of motivation to perform well in the role.

David Purcey, Shawn Camp, Casey Janssen, Carlos Villanueva

In their effort to bolster the bullpen with veteran depth, the Blue Jays have de-emphasized the need to develop young arms at the major league level. Sure, having reliable, experienced arms on the back end is necessary when your rotation is so youth-heavy, but it doesn’t help the team’s rebuild to have their relief situation stuck in its present holding pattern. All of Purcey, Camp, Janssen and Villanueva will be in the bullpen mix to start the season, mainly as a result of the Francisco and Dotel injuries, none of whom are under 27. Meanwhile, future relief options like Zach Stewart, Brad Mills, Henderson Alvarez, Luis Perez, Robert Ray and Reider Gonzalez are scattered throughout the team’s farm system. As an aside, an interesting decision will have to be made once Francisco, Dotel and, to a lesser extent, Morrow return from injury. At least one of Purcey, who is out of options and would have to clear waivers in order to be sent down, or  Rzepczynski, who would have little to gain from minor league duty, would likely be the odd man out.

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[1] I wasn’t pleased with signing the 37-year old at the time : http://prosportsblogging.com/mlb-baseball/toronto-blue-jays/catching-up-with-the-jays/

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