John Gibbons hears the baseball world talking about his bullpen. He has also been made aware that the last time hopes were this high for a Toronto Blue Jays team, it was uncertainty at the closer position that ruined things. Ask anybody who won in 1993 and stayed around these parts: The loss of Duane Ward to a mysterious shoulder injury was the end of it all. Case closed.
And here come the Blue Jays 20 years after their last World Series win, all ambitions and good intentions and postseason dreams – with a closer, Casey Janssen, coming off winter surgery on his right shoulder. The fallback is Sergio Santos, who missed all of last season with a shoulder injury.
The Blue Jays said early in spring training that they didn’t think Janssen would break camp with the team, the notable exception being bullpen coach Pat Hentgen, who said in February he didn’t see why Janssen couldn’t be here. Two weeks later, Gibbons and everybody else echoed the sentiments.
There was no fuss and little drama as Janssen busied himself on the back fields and in the bullpens at both Florida Auto Exchange Stadium and the Bobby Mattick Training Complex, chalking up all of two Grapefruit League innings.
“It was weird for me, because for so much of my career, I’ve had to impress people,” the 31-year-old Janssen said Monday, on the eve of the Blue Jays’ opener against the Cleveland Indians at the Rogers Centre. “I was usually trying just to make the team, or show whoever was managing what I’m capable of doing. This spring I’m on the back fields. This spring, they protected me.”
The Blue Jays’ bullpen was 25th in the major leagues in earned run average in 2012, and 29th in saves, but Janssen did more than his share, converting 22 of 25 save opportunities.
Janssen took over after Santos came up lame in April and Francisco Cordero couldn’t get anybody out.
There are those around the team who will tell you they still aren’t convinced that September’s closer is in the organization yet, let alone on the 25-man roster, but soft, white underbelly be damned: Gibbons is prepared to move forward with Janssen and Santos. There is, too, a quiet confidence in both Darren Oliver and Steve Delabar as fallbacks for the fallback.
Despite Janssen’s limited spring workload, he has the nod over Santos for now because of what he did in 2012 and because of Santos’s relative callowness as a pitcher (he was a shortstop until 2009). It suggests to Gibbons that Santos might have less of a pitcher’s awareness of soreness and its limitations and management. That’s a nice way of saying Gibbons needs to see more of Santos.
Janssen throws strikes. He walked just 11 batters and had 67 strikeouts last season. His trademark is efficiency as opposed to power, and that’s a commodity Gibbons admits he holds in higher regard than, say, four years ago. As a bench coach, he saw Joakim Soria close out 101 games for the Kansas City Royals over three years. Last season, as a Double-A manager, his pitching coach, Tim Worrell, delighted in showing a personal collection of videotape of guys hacking and missing hanging sliders and fastballs that Worrell threw down the middle during his career.
“I wouldn’t say my thinking about closers has been reshaped,” Gibbons said, “but I’ll tell you what. Watching Joakim do it for three years, it doesn’t surprise me that Casey can close. Like Casey, he kept them off-balance and picked the plate apart. Guys who can throw strikes and command their breaking ball when they’re behind in the count can exploit the anxiousness of hitters late in a game.”
Janssen is committed to making his skipper’s job easy this month. If he has thrown 20 or more pitches on one night, he will not likely be able to close the next night. Less than 20 pitches? “Then,” Gibbons said, “we can have a conversation.”
The guess here is there will be plenty of talk about the closer in 2013, as has often been the case these past 20 years. You expected different?