Relief corps should be among Blue Jays' strengths
Janssen anchors top-tier bullpen that includes 2013 All-Stars Cecil and Delabar
TORONTO -- The Blue Jays' bullpen will be looking for a repeat performance this season, but based on last year's results, that's a lot easier said than done.
Toronto's relief corps was expected to be its biggest weakness entering the 2013 campaign, but instead it became the club's biggest strength. There seemed to be an endless list of reliable pitchers at manager John Gibbons' disposal.
Right-hander Casey Janssen established himself as a reliable closer, while Brett Cecil and Steve Delabar became prominent names around the league following All-Star seasons. Add in the likes of Sergio Santos, Dustin McGowan, Aaron Loup and Neil Wagner, and the Toronto 'pen became one of the deepest in baseball.
All those relievers are back in the fold again this year, and -- at least on paper -- it's one of the most impressive groups in baseball. The problem is that relievers are also very hard to project from year to year, and the Blue Jays can only hope the group doesn't regress.
Even if there are a couple relievers who don't live up to expectations, though, there should be enough depth to overcome some shortcomings. In the third installment of MLB.com's preview for Spring Training, we take a closer look at which relievers are in the mix for a spot on this year's squad.
The sure bets
Janssen: The 32-year-old righty was about as reliable as it gets at the back end of the bullpen in 2013. Despite dealing with lingering shoulder issues for most of the year, Janssen converted all but two of his 36 save opportunities during his first full season as a closer. He's not the prototypical hard-throwing reliever, but he more than makes up for that with command of the strike zone and a fearless approach. There are plenty of closer candidates on this team, but based on his previous track record, Janssen doesn't have to worry about his job security any time soon.
Santos: The Blue Jays acquired Santos more than two years ago, but it wasn't until midway through the 2013 season that the organization got a glimpse of just how good he can be. The hard-throwing right-hander dealt with a variety of injuries during his first year and a half with the organization, but once he got back to full strength, the numbers were dominating. Santos allowed just one run over his final 19 appearances of the year, and he should find himself as the primary setup man in Toronto this season.
Cecil: The 27-year-old southpaw wasn't even a lock to make last year's team out of Spring Training, but a strong camp changed his outlook and laid the foundation for what would eventually become an All-Star season. The native of Maryland is now firmly entrenched as the primary left-handed reliever on the roster. The only concern is that he dealt with a shoulder injury late in the season, but Cecil should be fully recovered and ready to go for Spring Training.
Delabar: The late-emerging righty followed an impressive 2012 campaign with an even better one in Toronto last year. The 30-year-old joined Cecil on the American League All-Star team, and by season's end he had posted a 3.22 ERA over the course of 58 2/3 innings. Delabar will once again be one of the most frequently used relievers by Gibbons, and he should help ensure the bullpen is a strength again this year.
Next in line
Loup: Based on his past two years of experience, Loup is deserving of a guaranteed job on the roster. He has posted an ERA of 2.64 or below in each of the past two seasons and has the ability to go more than one inning when called upon. The only thing working to his disadvantage is the fact that there's an option remaining on Loup's contract. With so many pitchers in the mix for a spot in the bullpen, that could be enough to cost him a job. But he's known to be a favorite of Gibbons. With a strong track record of success, Loup has plenty working in his favor.
McGowan: The oft-injured righty recently said he's being stretched out as a starter during Spring Training, but odds are he'll still begin the season as a reliever. McGowan turned his career around in 2013 and will look to build on that momentum again this year. He's out of options on his contract but shouldn't have to worry about being exposed to waivers because the Blue Jays would prefer to hang on to him. The only uncertainty about McGowan's upcoming season is what role he will have.
Wagner: The 30-year-old righty caught the attention of the Blue Jays' brass with a strong Spring Training last year, which eventually resulted in a promotion to the Major Leagues. He went on to post a 3.79 ERA over 38 innings and became another reliable option in middle relief. Despite the impressive season, he's at least somewhat of a long shot to make the roster at the start of April because he also has an option remaining on his contract. That could cost him a spot on the Opening Day roster, but Wagner will still play a role -- the only question is when.
Luis Perez: The 29-year-old lefty was one of the favorites of former manager John Farrell until he suffered an elbow injury midway through the 2012 season. He suffered a couple of setbacks the following season but did make it back to the Major Leagues in September. Perez is out of options on his contract, so the only way he would stick with the organization is by making the team out of Spring Training. That could be tough considering how many other arms are in the mix, but general manager Alex Anthopoulos has been known to protect his assets in the past, and that could certainly be the case again this year.
Entering the race
Starting candidates: The bullpen competition won't be completely clear until the Blue Jays formalize their rotation. Drew Hutchison, Kyle Drabek, Esmil Rogers and Todd Redmond are all in the mix for the final starting spot, and there's an outside chance McGowan or Jeremy Jeffress will receive consideration as well. Rogers, Redmond, McGowan and Jeffress are all out of options, and they will be considered for the bullpen if a spot in the rotation doesn't pan out.