DUNEDIN, FLA.—At one point this winter, after Brett Cecil signed with the Cardinals, the Blue Jays’ bullpen seemed it was going to be a major weakness, ranking up there with a razor-thin outfield depth chart. Then the Jays signed 33-year-old lefty J.P. Howell and 32-year-old right-hander Joe Smith.
The Jays’ pen now features an interesting balance of experience — Smith, Howell and 40-year-old Jason Grilli — and youth — closer Roberto Osuna, just 22, and last year’s Rule 5 revelation Joe Biagini, now 26. And one reason Smith followed Howell to Toronto, signing a one-year, $3-million deal, was to win a championship.
“We had other offers out there, but ultimately we kind of knew what those were going to be,” Smith said. “If you throw the ball well, you get traded in July. If you don’t, you kind of have it end there, but I’ve been on those teams where you’re not really playing for much except for your numbers and it’s not fun.
“The more you can win or go to a place with the opportunity to win, the more fun it makes it. It takes all the focus really away. As players, you compare to this guy, compare to that guy. You get paid on your numbers. But when you’re playing to win, it just takes care of itself. It takes all your focus on just doing your job and not worrying about the other stuff.”
Smith has been an under-the-radar, major-league-reliable reliever in recent years. His 413 relief appearances over five seasons rank fifth in Major League Baseball over that stretch. He signed a three-year deal with the Angels prior to 2014 and, when asked to fill in as a closer that season, recorded a career-high 15 saves before the Angels reached out to acquire closer Huston Street and Grilli. The sidearming Smith has proven versatile and realistic.
“I didn’t sign (in Anaheim) to be a closer,” Smith said. “I had signed there and they pretty much said you’re going to throw the eighth. But you never know what happens. In ’14, it was a little rough for some of our bullpen guys. I was closing, but at the time we had such a good team we weren’t going to be able to do that and win in the post-season.
“Huston has been closing his whole career. Obviously, he’s got 300-some odd saves now. Would I like to close? Hell, yeah, I’d like to close. But a guy comes in with that track record? All right, cool, I’ll go back to what I signed here to do and it just made our bullpen that much stronger.”
There was another Jays factor for the Ohio native that came into play when making his decision. He spent five seasons in Cleveland and had a familiarity with current members of the Jays’ organization, led by president Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins. And after being dealt to the Cubs in a season in which he had oblique and hamstring woes — he didn’t see any post-season action with Chicago — he was seeking familiarity.
“That was one of the things my agent and I talked about,” Smith said. “Last year was what it was. Getting hurt didn’t help, but I didn’t want to go somewhere where nobody has known me or hadn’t seen me pitch that much, because I know what I can do when I’m healthy.
“My stuff’s the same. Everything’s the same. It’s just that life happened last year. I feel like when something doesn’t go your way, maybe that first week (with a new team), as opposed to saying, ‘We don’t know this guy, we might as well give up,’ you’ve got somebody saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute we know him.’ I just wanted to come some place with a little bit of familiarity. That and winning.”
Smith, like Howell and Grilli, is looking forward to life in the bullpen, watching games and chatting with other veterans with similar life experiences, but maybe a slightly different take on what they see. Smith has a different take on the Jays with all the vets being in setup roles for the young Osuna.
“He’s a young kid, but at the end of the day closing is nice to do (when you’re young) because your routine is so set and you know when you pitch,” Smith said. “It almost makes it easier for a younger guy just to know these are the situations you’re going to pitch in. Get your body ready and go. As opposed to flip-flopping, in the fifth inning one day, the seventh inning the next. That’s hard to do.
“Everybody’s got a routine, whether it be getting warmed up physically or mentally, getting prepared. You know (the situations) when you’re throwing, it’s so much easier just to filter it in. Obviously that’s not why they put him in there. He’s got unbelievable stuff.”
Even if you concede the likely presence in the Jays bullpen of Smith, Grilli, Howell, Biagini and Osuna, there remains a need for manager John Gibbons and staff to choose two more relievers – a left-hander and a right-hander.
Aaron Loup is not a mortal lock as the second southpaw, just based on his ’16 season and the lack of confidence Gibbons has showed over time. As for the last right-hander, don’t pencil in a guy like Mat Latos ,who is being counted on as next up if a starter is injured. They will need him to get innings.
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