On Monday, the Jays spent $4 million on a 41-year old reliever whose rookie season coincided with the club’s last World Series championship. In the same transaction, they also picked up a reliable late inning guy who has reached the postseason in each of the last five years and has seen his ERA drop in each of those previous five.
How you feel about the signing of Darren Oliver depends highly upon which of the above facts stands out more significantly to you. Is the former Ranger an old guy who is duping Alex Anthopoulos into believing in some kind of late-career resurgence, or is he a veteran pitcher who has figured out a way to re-invent himself?
The Jays, obviously, are betting on the former – and it’s a pricey bet. Believe it or not, Oliver represents the most expensive free agent pick-up that Anthopoulos has made since taking on the GM role.
While it’s hard to ignore the fact that the $4 million offer (and to a lesser extent, the $3 million club option for 2013) was made possible by the Jays’ failed attempts at luring higher profile talents this off-season, Oliver will play a significant role. He is the only entrenched left-hander in the bullpen (Luis Perez may also make the team) and owned left-handed bats in 2011 to the tune of a .227 average and a 5.75 SO/BB rate. Even after Texas bolstered its bullpen at last year’s deadline with Mike Adams and Koji Uehara, Oliver continued to hold down a late inning set-up role leading into Neftali Feliz.
How the ‘Pen Shapes Up
Assuming we’re tentatively looking at a seven-man relief corps for next season, Anthopoulos is just about done addressing the bullpen and your 2012 unit is all but finalized.
Unlike 2011, a defined ninth inning guy exists in Sergio Santos. He will be supported by Oliver, but also righties Casey Janssen and Jason “just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in again” Frasor. Jesse Litsch and Carlos Villanueva might get cursory looks as potential starters in training camp, but are far more likely to fit in as long relief options. Perez likely has the inside track on the seventh slot based on being a) left-handed and b) out of minor league options, but will face competition from a group that includes Trystan Magnuson, Joel Carreno, Alan Farina, Danny Farquhar and Aaron Laffey.
The big question: is this unit any better than last season’s 21st-ranked group? Remember, a 2011 group that included Frank Francisco, Jon Rauch and Octavio Dotel was seen as having three closer-calibre relief pitchers in tow. Oliver, for his part, had a very good 2011 (2.29 ERA, 1.14 WHIP over 51 innings), but blew his share of save opportunities (four of six blown) and didn’t exactly solidify Texas’ 26th-ranked unit.
Any hope for improvement will come in the arrival of Santos and the influx of young arms that will likely see action intermittently through 2012 with the hopes that one or two stick. Magnuson has already had a small taste of big league success in Oakland, as have Perez, Carreno and Laffey. They may wind up with some additional competition based on who falls short of the starting rotation in a battle that could see Brett Cecil, Kyle Drabek, Dustin McGowan and others compete for two slots (if no more moves are made). The unit could also see an infusion of talent start knocking on the door, with Drew Hutchinson and Deck McGuire, specifically, expected to make the leap sometime in the coming year.
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Written by Ben Fisher