Possible Blue Jays’ Bullpen Targets

Toronto Blue Jays Management has stated that adding to the bullpen is one of their offseason objectives. There is an intriguing free-agent reliever and one trade target worthy of consideration.


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During the 2021 season, the Blue Jays bullpen posted a 4.08 ERA, 4.38 FIP and 1.87 WPA. Among American League teams, the ERA and WPA marks ranked eighth-best; the FIP was twelfth-best. Some observers may find it interesting that Blue Jays’ relievers performed better during the April-June period than after July 1. Toronto’s group of relievers’ first-half ERA was 3.84 (fifth-best), and their FIP was 4.19 (eighth-best).  For the July 1 to October 3 time segment, Jays’ relievers posted the fourth-highest ERA (4.35) and second-highest FIP (4.57).

 

Not all of Toronto’s relievers performed poorly after June 30. The quartet of Jordan Romano, Tim Mayza, Adam Cimber and Trevor Richards collectively produced a 2.53 ERA and 3.63 FIP. However, the other bullpen members contributed a 6.06 ERA and 5.45 FIP from July to October.

 

The Blue Jays already supplemented the relievers’ group by signing Yimi Garcia to a two-year, USD 11 million contract. Garcia’s 2021 3.88 FIP is closer to Richards’ 4.20 FIP than Mayza’s 3.09 FIP. Therefore, I do not think Garcia will be used initially as a late-inning reliever. Hence, Toronto should consider acquiring a high-quality back-end reliever before the 2022 season begins.

Why add another closer?

Romano performed very well in the closer role for the Blue Jays. His 2.64 xERA was excellent, and his 3.15 FIP was very good. However, he is new to the role and was not relied upon to pitch on consecutive days until late in the 2021 season. The addition of a top-quality veteran closer would accomplish a few things.

  1. If a top-end reliever joins the Blue Jays as a closer, Romano can move into the set-up role. Such a move pushes Garcia, Mayza, Cimber and Richards primarily into sixth and seventh-inning responsibilities.
  2. Romano could draw upon the experience of a veteran closer, which can only add to Romano’s closer toolbox.
  3. The Blue Jays would have the option of using Romano and the veteran closer in Closer A and Closer B roles. Such a deployment would provide Toronto with the flexibility to rest a closer every game.
  4. Suppose the Blue Jays want to use an eight-man bullpen. Adding a top-end reliever to the names noted in Point #1 would take up six spots. Also, assume Ross Stripling is the swing-man/long reliever. Furthermore, Toronto will allow Nate Pearson to resume his career as a starter either in Toronto or initially in Buffalo. That leaves Trent Thornton, Tayler Saucedo, Ryan Borucki, Julian Merryweather and Thomas Hatch to battle for the final bullpen spot. Thornton, Saucedo, Merryweather and Hatch each have at least one option remaining in 2022. That is quality depth.

Who are the relievers to consider as a target? The free agent is Kenley Jansen, and the trade target is Craig Kimbrel. Let’s dig into the profiles of these relievers.

Profiles

For details concerning the pitch mix for each reliever, please refer to Table 1.

Jansen

Starting with the 2012 season, Jansen has been the primary closer for the Dodgers. After generating a 4.03 FIP in 2018, he recorded better FIP scores of 3.48, 3.03 and 3.08 in 2019, 2020 and 2021.  Jansen will be entering his age-34 season in 2022.

Kimbrel

The Cubs signed free-agent Kimbrel to a three-year, USD 43 million contract on June 7, 2019. The deal included a USD 16 million club option for the 2022 campaign, which the Chicago White Sox exercised. 2019 was not a good season for Kimbrel, who recorded an 8.00 FIP in 20.2 innings. 2020 was a little better, as evidenced by his 3.97 FIP in 15.1 innings. The encouraging news is that Kimbrel posted a 2.43 FIP during the most recently completed campaign.  The 2022 campaign will be Kimbrel’s age-34 season.

Approach

The structure of the analysis is as follows:

  • A review of various pitching metrics
  • An estimate of what a reasonable contract would be for Jansen
  • Examples of what the player cost would be to acquire Kimbrel

Percentiles

The 100th percentile means the best among the relievers; the 0th percentile is the worst—for example, the lower a pitcher’s ERA, FIP, xERA and BB%, the better. Therefore, the reliever with the lowest ERA would have the 100th percentile ranking. The 100th percentile grade in K%, K%-BB% or fWAR means the pitcher scored the highest value in one of those metrics.

 

Generally speaking, I will use standard rankings when the sample size is less than 100. For example, the 2021 Blue Jays had the fifth-lowest bullpen BB% of the 15 American League teams from July to October. When the number of data points exceeds 100, I utilize percentiles—a case in point. Kimbrel’s 2021 K% was 99th percentile, which means that of the 191 relievers who pitched a minimum of 40 innings, only one percent of the relievers had a higher K%.

Pitching Metrics

Table 2 contains key pitching metrics for Jansen and Kimbrel, and Table 3 presents those metrics in terms of percentiles. The highlights are as follows:

  • Jansen’s xERA has been remarkably consistent in the past four seasons. The xERA scores are 2.85, 2.90, 2.81 and 2.83 in 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021, respectively. His xERA percentile ranking was 83rd in each season between 2018 and 2020; it was 90th percentile in 2021.
  • Kimbrel’s poor xERAs in 2019 (7.11) and 2020 (4.74) were bookended by 2018’s 2.89 (80th percentile) and 2021’s 2.33 (98th percentile).
  • Jansen’s BB% has risen in the past four seasons, from 5.9% in 2018 to 12.9% in 2021 (15th percentile).
  • Kimbrel generally performs well in the K%-BB% metric. Leaving aside the 2019 debacle, Kimbrel’s K% has hovered around the 40% mark. However, Kimbrel gives up a lot of walks. His best relative BB% ranking during the 2018-2021 period was 2021’s 42nd percentile slot.

On FanGraphs Top 50 Free Agents list, Ben Clemens ranked Raisel Iglesias as the top reliever, and Jansen was the next bullpen arm listed. Not surprisingly, the 2021 data supports the view that Iglesias is currently a better closer than Jansen. Iglesias’s 2021 FIP (2.83), xERA (2.47), fWAR (2.0), WPA (3.67) and K%-BB% (33.3%) marks were superior to the related scores posted by Jansen. Also, Iglesias is two years younger than Jansen. On November 30, Jon Morosi reported that the Angels and Iglesias had reached a four-year, USD 58 million deal.

 

Kimbrel is an intriguing pitcher. When he is at his best, as he was for most of 2021, he is on a shortlist of the best closers in baseball. As proof of that claim, Kimbrel’s 2.33 xERA in 2021 was in the 98th percentile of relievers. For his career, Kimbrel’s 2.18 ERA and 2.26 FIP are excellent. However, he has had some poor seasons recently (2019 and 2020). Yet, despite his 2019 and 2020 campaigns, I believe that Kimbrel is a worthy trade target.

 

Kimbrel’s White Sox Tenure

Before the Cubs traded Kimbrel to the White Sox on July 30, Kimbrel’s 2021 ERA was 0.49, and his FIP was 1.10. However, with the White Sox, Kimbrel posted a 5.09 ERA and a 4.56 FIP. The most significant factors that elevated Kimbrel’s post-July 30 FIP were a ten percentage point decrease in his K% and an increase in his HR/9 metric (from 0.25 to 1.96). Kimbrel may have been the victim of poor luck with the White Sox. His OPS against was 21st percentile, but both his xOPS and xERA were 61st percentile. The latter two metrics are not great but not horrible.

Injuries

Jansen was absent for 50 days in 2015 as a result of a foot injury. He also had a heart issue in 2018 that caused him to skip nine days. Kimbrel was derailed by a knee problem in 2016 (26 days) and again in 2019 (15 days). He also had an elbow matter to deal with that led him to miss 15 days in 2019.

Contract Estimates

Estimating a contract value for a relief pitcher using a standard $/fWAR methodology does not work as well as for a starting pitcher. The main reason is that a top-end starter will pitch many more innings than a closer, and hence, the starter will have more opportunities to generate fWAR than does a closer.

 

I attempted to estimate a contract for Jansen and the recently-signed Garcia using the $/fWAR approach, and the results were wildly different than other published estimates. Accordingly, I will use FanGraphs’ contract estimates for Jansen, which is two years, USD 30 million.

A Kimbrel Trade

Baseball Trade Values (“BTV”) is an excellent source to use when one wants to get a sense of a player’s trade value. BTV determines a player’s trade value by subtracting their salary from their BTV-determined on-field value. For a more detailed explanation, please read this description.

 

Kimbrel’s trade value is 0.6 million, which means his on-field value is slightly higher than his USD 16 million salary. The Blue Jays players in that range value include Adam Kloffenstein, Eric Pardinho and Saucedo.

I am not suggesting that Toronto trades any of the players noted above for Kimbrel. The critical point is that the player acquisition cost in a Kimbrel trade is not high. Why? Because the acquiring team would assume a sizeable salary (USD 16 million) in exchange for him.

Conclusion

Generally, there is a fair amount of season-to-season performance variance associated with relievers, and accordingly, the shorter the contract, the better.  Jansen’s projected two-year deal and Kimbrel’s one-year term fit the bill.

 

Table 4 presents Steamer’s 2022 projection for Jansen and Kimbrel. Concerning FIP, Jansen’s projected 4.06 FIP would have been 41st percentile in 2021; Kimbrel’s 3.63 FIP estimate would have been in the 63rd percentile slot. These FIP numbers are not terrific. However, I think Jansen’s consistent xERA over the past four seasons should elevate him in the projected 2022 rankings. I also believe that Kimbrel should be able to replicate or nearly replicate his 2021 performance.

 

In my opinion, Jansen is not worth the expected USD 30 million outlay. Even if he produces a 70th percentile FIP in 2022, Jansen does not bring enough to the table to slide into the primary closer or the tandem-closer role.

 

Kimbrel is a worthy trade target. Overall, his 2021 campaign was excellent, and his White Sox tenure was not quite as bad as his ERA indicates. Also, his White Sox performance may have been negatively affected by his role: Kimbrel was not familiar with being an eighth-inning set-up man. Therefore, given Kimbrel’s 2021 excellence, pedigree, the low player cost of a transaction and the short-term financial commitment, I think the Blue Jays should consider acquiring Kimbrel.

The Last Word

The Toronto Blue Jays corps of relievers was, at best, middle of the American League pack during the 2021 season. Management has stated that one of their offseason objectives is to add to the bullpen. The Blue Jays signed Garcia, but acquiring a high-end closer would benefit the ball club in many ways. The Blue Jays should consider the acquisition of Kimbrel.  By bolstering the back-end of the bullpen, Management would improve the team’s chances of 2022 success.

 

 

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Bob Ritchie

Bob was a St. Louis Cardinals fan until the Blue Jays arrived on the baseball scene, although he still has a soft spot for the Cards. Similar to straddling the Greenwich Meridian, as depicted in the avatar, Bob applies sabermetrics when applicable, but his heart tells him that Lou Brock belongs in the Hall of Fame.