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:
Blue Jays source on Osuna trade talk: “No plans to trade Osuna. Doesn't make sense… Not a consideration… or Donaldson either."
— BP Toronto (@BProToronto) June 15, 2017
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.