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Photo Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Don’t Trade Roberto Osuna, Commit to Making Him a Starter

The Jays-o-sphere was abuzz on Thursday because of a piece written by Jonah Keri over at Sportsnet, in which he floated the concept that the club should consider trading their stud closer, Roberto Osuna.

I mentioned it in my Daily Duce. Bluebird Banter slapped together a poll piece. The Blue Jay Hunter said “don’t panic” on this to worried Jays fans. BP Toronto got a Jays source to rubbish the whole idea:

There was much tweeting! Angry tweeting in Jonah’s direction, mostly, for having the gall to suggest such a thing. “Osuna is the kind of player that a club should build around, not be looking to trade!

It’s a nice sentiment, unfortunately it’s not true. Not with Osuna in this form, at least.

Here’s the rub: We all love what Osuna can do. We love what he’s done for this team so far in his young career, and what he potentially could do for the Blue Jays for many, many years to come. But as Drew noted on this week’s Birds All Day — during which we talked about Jonah’s piece at length — Craig Kimbrel has been traded twice so far in his career. And with all due respect to Osuna, who has had a wonderful career so far, he’s not on that level. Kimbrel’s 16.3 WAR ranks him sixth among all relievers since 2000, and he’s pitched at least 200 fewer innings than everyone above him (and is within 3.3 wins of leaping into second place behind Mariano Rivera, who is miles ahead of the pack).

Craig Kimbrel is, full stop, one of the greatest relievers of all time. And yet two organizations have seen fit to trade him. That’s because, if your team is not in all-out, win-or-bust mode, the value of having a lights out closer simply isn’t as great to you as it will be to teams that are in that mode. This is, essentially, what Jonah was driving at. And unless something with their budget changes dramatically, the Blue Jays, as much as I believe they’re going to try to be good over the next couple years, aren’t quite going to be in that 2015-like push-in-all-your-chips, our-window-is-right-now kind of place.

The Jays of the next couple of seasons can entirely conceivably cobble together some very good rosters — any roster with Josh Donaldson on it, and with Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez in the rotation, is going to be alright — but nobody should kid themselves about the fact that this is a club that will be in a kind of transition. It has, in fact, been in this transition for the last year-and-a-half, patching holes in an aging roster with talent from the free agent and trade markets that requires the minimal amount of young talent (or draft picks) lost.

The club already has $75 million on the books for 2018. The figure will jump to about $100 million, or maybe more, once Josh Donaldson’s salary is factored in (he’s arbitration eligible), and they’ll be dealing with free agency for Bautista (almost certainly), Estrada, and Liriano, arbitration raises for Stroman (who’ll hit arb for the second time), Sanchez, Osuna, Travis, and Pilliar (all four for the first time), and further diminishing returns from the big money going to Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin. We all know the story.

Maybe I’m misinterpreting and the front office has some creative solutions to the club’s aging-and-expensive-roster problem, but what it appears to be from here is a team that will likely look quite a lot like this year’s team. They likely won’t have the money, or the wherewithal to trade the required prospects, to go and get genuine cornerstone pieces this winter, but they can still be pretty good — and in the age of the second Wild Card spot, it probably makes the most sense that that’s all they try to be. They could hit a real run of great baseball and outplay the projections and do very well, and give us a terrific summer, with a good-not-great team. But the next actually great Blue Jays team is probably still a few years off.

The 2013 Red Sox are an example of this sort of future that I’ve used before. This year’s Yankees team could be an analogue, too, if you squint hard enough. But, of course, returning to Jonah’s piece, they could especially be an analogue if the Jays do what last year’s Yankees did and get a bounty for a closer (or, as it was in New York’s case, two).

At least, that seems to be where this is going.

All that said, keeping Osuna and keeping him as a closer is fine. He’s a great asset to have, and if the 2017 or 2018 or 2019 Jays piece together a roster that ends up steaming toward the playoffs, we’re all going to be thrilled to have him around.

There is, however, another way to “flip” Osuna into an asset that’s more desirable to a team in the Jays’ good-but-not-quite-all-in predicament. And if you read the title of this piece, you already know what that is.

Osuna has the repertoire to be a very successful starter, he’s just been stuck in a sort of limbo of his own. When he became the Jays’ closer in 2015, he was coming off a year where he threw just 23 innings, as he recovered from Tommy John surgery. Before the surgery, Osuna was slowly building up his arm, year by year. By the time he got to the majors, he’d never had anything close to a 200 inning workload. The logic then seemed to be that if he spent a year in the big league bullpen, he’d probably reach something close to the innings threshold the club would have wanted him at anyway.

Osuna then went and fucked everything up by being so ridiculously good.

In 2016, coming off a season so close to the World Series, with a roster still very strong, and Osuna such a key part of it, it was simply too tough a decision to let him go back to starting, back to building his arm up for a long career. The Jays couldn’t justify taking that weapon away from their roster. He seemed to prefer doing it, too.

After another run to the ALCS in 2016, and even more uncertainty in the bullpen, they couldn’t justify doing it this spring, either.

Can they justify doing it next spring? It’s tough. Building Osuna back into a starter would require a long process. We all remember how Aaron Sanchez’s innings were monitored last year? Well he was practically a workhorse during his minor league career compared to Osuna, whose innings totals, by year, across all levels, are as follows: 43.2 in 2012, 42.1 in 2013, 23 in 2014, 69.2 in 2015, and 74 in 2014.

There are more innings in there than just the ones that show up as live game action — he pitched in the spring and in extended spring, etc. — and there’s something to be said for the fact that pitching out of the bullpen is high stress, and requires a lot more warm-up pitches over the long haul, too. He might not be limited to 100 innings, if he was to come into 2018 as a starter, but would they push him beyond 120? 130? I have a hard time seeing it.

Still, it could be doable. He could have a bridge year, where he’s a true multi-inning reliever, for example, building up that innings total to really take a run at the rotation in 2019. The need to find someone else to close out games would make this path tricky, but as we’ve already discussed, the Jays don’t exactly need a high-end closer, just someone reasonably competent — and there are arms already here that look like they could do the trick just fine, though not likely spectacularly.

On the other hand, much like the thought process on Sanchez last year, the Jays could just let him loose and start him. Have him keep starting games, understanding that at some point they will have to move him back to the bullpen. There’s the risk with that plan, though, in that he might need some time in the minors — a risk that the Jays would genuinely be without this great weapon of theirs. And despite my attempts to make them sound somewhat aloof about actually winning, that would obviously be a major problem.

It would also be a tough sell to fans. It might also be a tough sell to Osuna, too, who over the years has always said the right thing about preferring his role in the bullpen. At least publicly.

But they don’t have to choose any of these paths right now. The front office under Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins has stressed the importance of flexibility, and in that spirit they could go into next spring and stretch Osuna out — much like they did Joe Biagini this year — allowing themselves the flexibility to find the right path. Maybe he doesn’t look good in the spring. Maybe no one emerges who they’re comfortable with closing games and they begrudgingly have to use him in that role again.

But maybe they finally actually find a way to do right by him and start him on the path toward being a starter. If that can happen, there’s a good chance that he can be a really good one. If they can get the process started, they can at least see what they’ve got and then move him back to the spot where he’s been so successful if it doesn’t work out. If that can happen, then no, there’s absolutely no sense in trading him this summer.

If he’s only ever going to be a closer, though? As much as nobody wants to hear it, that really is — and should be — a different story.

  • The Humungus

    Counter-point : (reposted from yesterday’s Duce)

    Lets look at that TSN list for a second:

    1. Street – still a reliever, 324 career saves
    2. Feliz – Texas tried to make him a starter, he wasn’t good, then blew out his UCL. Has only had one decent relief season since
    3. Forster – arm injury at 23, then converted to a starter, where he failed miserably
    5. Kim – made into a starter, then bounced back and forth, wound up a sub-.500 major leaguer that Theo Epstein once called signing to a contract extension a “mistake”, publicly.

    So, Number 1 stayed a reliever and, although he’s had injury troubles, has had a decent career.

    The other 3 were made starters and dealt with injuries and basically became nobodies.

    Seems like that’s a pretty good argument not only for keeping Osuna in the ‘pen, but keeping him around in that role as long as you can (and as long as he’s healthy).

    • The Humungus

      Also, Osuna already has 4.7 WAR through 2.5 seasons. Kimbrel has 16.2 through 7 seasons.

      So, they’re actually pretty close. Especially when you factor in the face that Osuna is 2 years younger than Kimbrel at this point in their respective careers.

    • I don’t think that’s a good argument at all. Find me some actual data and not three anecdotal examples among countless pitchers who’ve shifted back and forth between rotation and bullpen and I’ll be happy to listen. There *could* be something to it, but it defies logic — are we saying their arms are more likely to fall apart? Based on what?

      Also, Forster was so long ago that his example isn’t really relevant — they didn’t handle pitchers the same then, with respect to innings, injuries, anything. And a “sub-.500” guy? I had to think what that even meant it’s been so long since anybody thought pitcher wins indicated anything.

      • Dalai Alpaca

        I’ve read read the above twice and i still don’t see the “data” that supports your argument. Too much risk involved in my opinion. Not only that who replaces him while this experiment continues? I just don’t see the need to roll the dice at this point.

      • The Humungus

        So, I had a busy weekend.

        Here’s a more formed response.

        Since he entered the major leagues, Roberto Osuna ranks 8th among all relievers in WAR (by fangraphs, I just find it easier to sort data). The guys he’s behind? Jansen, Miller, Betances, Chapman, Kimbrel, Britton and Allen. I’d argue you could put Wade Davis ahead of him on principal (Daves has 4.2 WAR to Osuna’s 4.4, but he missed all of last year).

        Guys like him don’t come around forever. I understand the appeal of him as a starter, I really do. But, MOST long-term successful relievers don’t start closing games at 20 like he did. And the track record of guys who have who’ve been moved out is ugly. If he’s got Kimbrel potential (which he might, given his current run), why would anyone want to throw that away to take a shot at starting him when there is no guarantee of success?

        I’m really just coming at this from risk-reward. Sure, the reward is huge if he duplicates his success in the rotation. But, it’s a huge risk to take with the potential that it could trash him permenently.

  • Oz Rob

    Sounds like a great idea, if it works. He seems to have the repertoire, but there’s no guarantee that he’ll be a decent starter and how will his fastball play at lower velocities? I worry about his arm health based on the generally short-lived careers of closers. I noticed he was using the cupping method a week ago. But who knows….maybe he’s a horse who will be awesome forever and be a great starter. I don’t envy the Jays Front Office at the moment. There are so many intangibles and unknowns. I imagine the plan was to make the playoffs this year with the aging and then start a bit of a re-tooling rebuild next year…but injuries and strange performances this year have killed that. It’s going to be interesting if we slump before the trade deadline.

  • dolsh

    Is “let’s fuck with Osuna” on a regular cycle or something? Seems like we can’t go a month or two without things like trades or returns to the starting rotation suggested. Are we not content with an awesome closer? One that has actually said he likes the glory of the closer role? It’s not just organizational lip service…it’s what he wants to do.

    • And you base that, of course, on absolutely nothing.

      As the piece says, having a great closer is more valuable to all-in teams than a team like the Jays, hence the trade idea. He could absolutely start, though, and would then be appropriately valuable to the Jays, hence the convert him idea.

  • allstev

    I agree they should stretch him out, maybe even start using him for multiple innings this season and try to get him built up. It’s great what he’s done the last couple years but a front line starter trumps a good reliever. I gotta problem with that Keri piece too, he says Osuna struggled as a starter in the minors, elite K/9 Good BB/9, not to mention striking out 17 in one game isn’t my idea of struggling.

    • Smarty24

      All Andrew is saying is that what is the sense of having an elite closer if he doesn’t have any games to close? If the Jays start to retool next year, having Osuna close is a waste of an asset that could be used in a way that is better for the Jays.

  • Player to Be Named Later

    Thank you !! I never got out of the boat on this one. As a general rule, let pitchers start until they fail. Especially if they have a chance to be good, or even spectacular. Shit – if the team flounders in this next month and have to be sellers at the deadline, they could start the process in the latter part of this season.