For all the potential frustration from fans about a quiet offseason, the Blue Jays’ braintrust has had some small victories recently when it comes to building the bullpen. Getting J.P. Howell and Joe Smith added some much needed depth to the relief core, supplementing 2016 holdovers Roberto Osuna, Jason Grilli, and Joe Biagini.
The Blue Jays bullpen struggled at the beginning of last year, and there’s no shortage of reasons why. The Blue Jays started the year with eight relievers, an abundance of high-leverage situations, and two struggling veterans in Drew Storen and Brett Cecil making the opening months quite nail-biting for Jays fans. John Gibbons emerging from the dugout with an arm raised was a source of stress more than relief, save for the mostly-automatic Osuna. The late season acquisitions of Joaquin Benoit and Grilli righted the ship, but with Benoit and Cecil leaving, the team had some holes to fill coming into the offseason.
Did they get the right guys? Let’s compare the newcomers to the players they’re replacing, and see how they stack up. To start off, we’ll do the lefties: Howell does J.P. stack up against Cecil?
J.P. Howell vs. Brett Cecil
By the 2016 numbers, this exchange works reasonably well for the Blue Jays. Howell seems to be a competent replacement for Cecil, and signed for less money and fewer years. One thing to note is they’re very different pitchers. Cecil was a fastball/curveball pitcher, famous for that sweeping hook that got him strikeouts when it was on. Even in what was perceived by some to be a down season, he still struck out 11 batters per nine innings. Howell is a sinkerballer, relying mostly on a mid 80s sinker and a solid defense to bail him out. With the excellent defensive infield the Jays have, this will likely work out just fine.
Something else Howell doesn’t have is Cecil’s history and familiarity with the organization and the fans. Given how some fans saw Cecil’s performance last season, this might be a bonus rather than a deficit. Howell is likely to be John Gibbons’ first call when a left-hander is needed, regardless of if he does well or not out of the gate.
Smith is ostensibly replacing Benoit, but Benoit only spent part of the season with the Jays. So rather than compare Smith to just Benoit, we will compare him to the aggregate of Benoit and the man he replaced: Drew Storen.
Joe Smith vs. Joaquin Benoit/Drew Storen
This is another one that seems to work out well for the Blue Jays. Though we do not have an aggregate DRA, the other numbers are fairly similar, with a lower K/9 from Smith than our Benoit/Storen hydra. Another thing we note looking at Benoit specifically is he had a much lower HR/9 rate with the Jays than his career would have suggested. Though he threw well with Toronto, trouble was coming, and they may have been wise to let him walk after getting as much as they could from him.
When we look beyond the numbers, there’s now a running similarity in the pitchers the Jays have brought in: they don’t throw as hard. Both Benoit and Storen were fastball/slider pitchers, and threw said fastballs in the low 90s. Smith, much like Howell, is a sinkerballer, and might touch 90 on a good day. This could be why both Smith and Howell were available when higher-end relief pitchers who throw much harder were getting a lot more money.
While the numbers suggest this should work fine for the Jays, there’s no certainty with relievers. They can fluctuate from year to year, as the Jays learned repeatedly last season. Storen struggled, Cecil scuffled early and righted the ship late, Grilli turned from a cheap trade acquisition into a key setup man, and Benoit became another crucial link in the middle inning chain the Jays constructed as the season went along. The bullpen on opening day was much different from the one that entered the playoffs, and that’s something to keep in mind if the newcomers blow a game or two early. But everything we can see suggests Smith and Howell were savvy pickups at a low cost, and should save Gibbons some heartache when he tries to match up later in games.
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