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Toronto Blue Jays' 2009 first-round draft pick pitcher Chad Jenkins throws during live batting practice at the Blue Jays' spring training baseball facility in Dunedin, Fla. Sunday, February 28, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese (Darren Calabrese)
Toronto Blue Jays' 2009 first-round draft pick pitcher Chad Jenkins throws during live batting practice at the Blue Jays' spring training baseball facility in Dunedin, Fla. Sunday, February 28, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese (Darren Calabrese)

JEFF BLAIR

Blue Jays have new bullpen for new era Add to ...

It is all so much spring-training fawning, really.

On Friday, it was The New York Post’s Joel Sherman quoting New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman raving about the Toronto Blue Jays, and Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon good-naturedly relaying how he told Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos he really didn’t like him or his team all that much any more.

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And this is how it has pretty much been this spring for the Blue Jays, possessors now of a 12-2 Grapefruit League record. The game’s U.S.-based opinion makers can’t stop falling all over themselves. But there is another, more tangible sign that in one crucial area of the game things have very much improved.

It is clear Toronto manager John Farrell’s comfort level with his bullpen is more than mere spring training lip service. For someone who was candidly self-critical of his bullpen use in his 2011 rookie campaign, the fact closer Sergio Santos and set-up men Darren Oliver and Francisco Cordero have been allowed to get in their work at the minor-league camp while Farrell remains at the major-league camp is telling.

Given the choice of watching guys with big-league track records or keeping pitching prospects such as Deck McGuire, Drew Hutchison and Chad Jenkins around, Farrell has opted for the latter. Farrell’s done this from the start, eschewing the opportunity to stay home during split-squad games to travel to Bradenton to watch starter Kyle Drabek face the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Those three pitchers are the next layer of Blue Jays prospects.

Jenkins threw three innings, giving up two hits, on Friday, striking out major-leaguers Sean Rodriguez and Ben Zobrist before being told he was being sent out to minor-league camp. Rodriguez’s strikeout came with runners on the corners and one out, and was followed by a fly out off the bat of Evan Longoria.

Farrell will admit the Blue Jays never really found their bullpen footing last spring, when Frank Francisco and Octavio Dotel needed to be monitored for injuries.

Anthopoulos did another overhaul of the back end of the bullpen this winter, but instead of merely collecting arms that could be turned into compensatory draft picks, he added a bona fide 28-year-old closer (Santos), a 36-year-old with 327 career saves who is transitioning away from being a power pitcher (Cordero) and a 41-year-old left-hander who has made 60-plus appearances in four of the last five seasons and is coming off a career-low earned-run average of 2.29 (Oliver).

Santos, a converted shortstop who was originally traded to the Blue Jays by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2005 in the Troy Glaus deal, has spent most of the spring refining his change-up after being cautioned against overthrowing early. He was reacquired at the winter meetings in a trade for prospect Nestor Molina, after a season in which he was second in the American League in relief strikeouts (92) and tied for third in first-batter efficiency (.125) for the Chicago White Sox.

As Oliver noted, the construction of bullpens, as well as their use, is undergoing something of an evolution. The game is no longer a steroid-induced pinball machine of offence. And, coupled with so much emphasis on young power pitching, Oliver said Friday, “it’s almost as if the game doesn’t start any more until the fifth or sixth inning. And other than maybe the Philadelphia Phillies and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, how many teams have the starting pitching to avoid using their bullpens?”

It is a new era of relief-pitching mixing and matching. It isn’t just righty-lefty-bring-in-the-98-miles-per-hour-closer any more.

Only the regular season will tell if Farrell has improved in this aspect of the game, but he’s certainly given the impression this spring of somebody who thinks his hand has been strengthened.

It is up to him, now, to use the cards properly.

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