Overhauled Blue Jays bullpen means business

Sergio Santos should help the Toronto Blue Jays recover from an MLB-worst 25 blown saves in 2011. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

It was April 11, just the 10th game of the 2011 season, when the mettle (or lack thereof) of the Toronto Blue Jays bullpen was on full, disappointing display. Just under two weeks into the campaign, the Jays managed to blow a seven-run, seventh inning lead to the Seattle Mariners in what could politely be called a complete pitching disaster. Carlos Villanueva, David Purcey, Octavio Dotel, Mark Rzepczynski, and Shawn Camp gave up a combined eight runs, allowing the Mariners to walk off with the win.

The 2011 regular season statistics show that this was not a one-time fluke: The Blue Birds blew a total of 25 saves last season, which was no more than worst in the majors. It could be argued if the Blue Jays had a stronger back-end of the pen, they could have snuck into a wildcard spot. Maybe.

These statistics have not escaped Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos this offseason, as he has adopted an aggressive mindset in overhauling the 2012 Blue Jays bullpen. It’s hard to argue with this logic since the team’s lineup found moderate success last year on the back of Jose Bautista, and the young rotation is coming into its own. The bullpen is undoubtedly where the Jays failed. But it won’t fail in 2012.

The signings of Darren Oliver and Francisco Cordero are very important (both of which will be discussed later), but not as essential as the signing of Sergio Santos. The young closer, who pitched for the Chicago White Sox in 2011, brings much-needed reliability to the ninth inning for the Blue Jays, where Jon Rauch and Frank Francisco were inconsistent at best for the Jays last year. With a respectable 30 saves in 36 chances for the Sox in his first year as a closer, Santos showed promise with a mean fastball and slider one-two punch. If he can find his control on a more consistent basis, levying a balance between his high walk and strikeout ratios, he could be poised to be a dominating force in the final frames. With a contract through 2014 with team options through 2017, Santos could be the long-term closer the Jays have been looking for.

But what if Santos fails? What if the scouting reports find a glaring error in his game and he ends up being a flash in the pan? While this is highly unlikely, Anthopoulos’ moves have it covered. Cordero has already stated that he’s fine being Santos’ set-up man, but could easily jump into the role of closer when needed. Cordero had another solid season in 2011, with 37 saves and a ERA of 2.45, so his ability shouldn’t be questioned. It almost becomes a moot point as to who closes the game, because Cordero and Santos are both solid eighth-inning options as well.

The signing of 41-year-old veteran Oliver proves to be a double-edged sword. While he did have a somewhat subpar 2011 season, with a solid ERA of 2.25 but a dangerous H/9 of 8.3, he undoubtedly brings a wealth of experience to the Blue Jays bullpen. Oliver has an ability to keep calm under pressure and enter the game in dangerous situations. That allows other talented Jays relievers, Casey Janssen and Jason Frasor, to do their work earlier in the game and in a more relaxed environment. Unless Oliver has a resurgence of sorts, it’s hard to see the Jays picking up their 2013 option on the lefty, so the young staff should learn all they can from him in the year ahead.

While the new-look Blue Jays bullpen is far from perfect, it does represent an essential improvement over last season’s relief corps. Santos brings raw talent that the Blue Jays can capitalize on for years to come, while Cordero and Oliver address the lack of veteran leadership in Toronto bullpens past. And if the Blue Jays finally enter the postseason in 2012, it could be thanks to their relief corps, and not in spite of it.

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