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Blue Jays must fix bottom portion of roster to win now

Photo by Michael Axisa (CC)

As of Friday night, the Blue Jays were 21-21 — good enough for third in the American League East, and one and a half games back of the division-leading Baltimore Orioles. Jose Bautista is playing like an MVP, Mark Buerhle is massaging the strike zone like an artist with 80 mile per hour fastballs, and Melky Cabrera is leading the American League in hits — playing like a man who isn’t hobbled by a tumour on his spine.

And while any casual fan of the team can see this year’s edition of the Blue Jays are more polished and competitive than last year’s squad, what is maddening to watch is that the results for the team thus far have been merely mediocre.

Many experts have pointed to popular critiques of the team to explain its average play — poor starting pitching, a black hole of inefficiency at second base, and injuries to key players. But a more in-depth analysis of the team’s statistics shows the culprit is a much more fixable and forgotten problem: the fringe members of the bullpen.

Generally impressive performances from the majority of the team have thus far been negated by brief moments of disaster from a select few pitchers in the bullpen, resulting in the team’s merely competent record.

The five most reliable pitchers in the Blue Jays bullpen are Casey Janssen, Sergio Santos, Aaron Loup, Brett Cecil, and Steve Delabar. Each of these men has a proven track record and, for better or worse, has a guaranteed spot on the team. For the season, this group has an earned run average (ERA) of 4.62 across 70 innings pitched. Take out the disappointing 12 innings pitched by the now injured Sergio Santos, and the rest of the group has produced a 3.72 ERA. Not great, but enough to support the team’s playoff calibre offense, and better than the 3.76 bullpen ERA of the division-leading Baltimore Orioles.

The problem is that the rest of the Bluejays bullpen — a group that includes Esmil Rogers, Todd Redmond, Neil Wagner, Marcus Stroman, Jeremy Jeffress, and Chad Jenkins — have pitched to a 6.08 ERA in 66 and two thirds innings pitched. More troubling, this group has allowed 50 per cent of its inherited runners to score. Pretty awful when you consider the league average is 29 per cent.

This group represents the very fringes of the Blue Jays roster. Jeremy Jeffress isn’t even part of the organization anymore, Rogers and Redmond are both out of options (their spots on the team have more to do with their contract situation than their performances), while Wagner, Stroman, and Jenkins have all shifted between Toronto’s AAA minor league affiliate, the Buffalo Bisons, and the big leagues.

While these players will never be made into bobbleheads or find themselves immortalized on giant advertisements outside of Rogers Centre, their importance shouldn’t be diminished. During the middle and late innings of baseball games they represent the margin of error for the Blue Jays — the difference between an expected victory and a disastrous loss.

If the Blue Jays are to improve beyond mediocrity, the fringe performances of the team must improve. Less attention should be given to the long-term organizational strength of this part of the roster. Players like Esmil Rogers and Todd Redmond should be released if there are players in the minors more deserving of a spot on the team (there are many), while the others should be given little to no rope — either perform immediately or get replaced by the next minor leaguer looking for a shot on the fringes of the big leagues.

The repercussions of such a mentality are minimal when you consider the Blue Jays have an estimated 140 million dollar payroll. This team is built to win the World Series, and about 20 of its players are performing at a level high enough to get this team there. It’s time the media and general manager Alex Anthopoulos began focusing on the players who aren’t.