Blue Jays have many angles to consider with Osuna

Mar 26, 2016; Dunedin, FL, USA; Toronto Blue Jays relief pitcher Roberto Osuna (54) throws a pitch during the ninth inning against the New York Yankees at Florida Auto Exchange Park. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 26, 2016; Dunedin, FL, USA; Toronto Blue Jays relief pitcher Roberto Osuna (54) throws a pitch during the ninth inning against the New York Yankees at Florida Auto Exchange Park. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

Roberto Osuna has been named the team’s closer to begin the 2016 season, but that won’t completely stop the conversation of what’s best for his long-term future

For the time being, at least, Roberto Osuna’s fate and role with the Toronto Blue Jays has been decided. He is the closer to begin the 2016 season, despite the presence of new addition Drew Storen, and because of his performance as a 20-year-old rookie in 2015.

There will be no immediate emphasis on “stretching him out” with multi-inning stints, subtly in preparation for the 2017 when he would make his inevitable transition to the rotation. He could still find himself entering the game in the 8th inning for a 4 or 5 out save, as he did several times in 2015, but there won’t be any specific emphasis on ramping up his innings total.

It’s a debate that won’t go away any time soon, much the way that it’s still an ongoing conversation regarding the future of teammate Aaron Sanchez. Sanchez has served and thrived primarily in the bullpen thus far, but has been included in the rotation to begin the season. He’ll slot in somewhere between Marcus Stroman, R.A. Dickey, Marco Estrada, and J.A. Happ, and hopefully continue to build on the success he saw as a starter early last season before he went down with an injury.

For Osuna’s part, he has expressed that he loves the closer’s role, and has no desire to become a starter for the 2017 season or beyond, at least at this point. He did serve primarily as a starter before entering the big leagues, but has enjoyed closing out games and has been highly successful thus far. A lot can change as we make our way through the 2016 season, but Osuna’s role will come with many variables attached, and could be one of the more important decisions made in the next few years.

Let’s examine a few of these variables.

What it means for his (future salary)

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It’s pretty hard to dispute which way Osuna’s agent would like his young client to go. If we’re taking this offseason as a example, even in a year when team’s put great emphasis on the strength of their bullpens, the starters simply make a truckload more. Zack Greinke leads the pack with a 34 million dollar salary in 2016 as a new free agent acquisition (6 year and 234 million). Meanwhile Darren O’Day received a 4 year, 31 million dollar deal, and Joakim Soria a 3 year, 25 million dollar pact. Quite the difference for top-of-heap free agent contracts.

Those aren’t exactly ideal comparisons for Osuna’s career trajectory, but they serve to show the difference between a high end starter’s salary, and what can be expected as an elite reliever (albeit, neither are slated to close games).

The Blue Jays have control of Osuna for the next five years, and regardless of the role he fills with the club, he’ll be providing a bargain. Let’s fast forward to 2021 and use two young pitchers that will be free agents in 2017 as very rough comparisons for what Osuna could be looking at:

Kenley Jansen (age 28)- closer with the Dodgers

2016 salary:    10.65 million
142 career saves

Stephen Strasburg (age 27)- starter with the Nationals

2016 salary:    10.4 million
Career-   54-37, 3.09 ERA

Pretty comparable thus far, no? Well what happens this offseason, when both enter free agency? Jansen? He’ll be looking to top the highest salaries in the game for relievers, the bar currently set by Aroldis Chapman at 11.35 million, followed by David Robertson at 11 million. It’s not a stretch to think that Jansen will shoot for something in the 15 million AAV range, given his production and relatively young age.

Strasburg on the other hand has already had Scott Boras setting him up for this day for years. A lot will hinge on his performance and health in 2016, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the bidding doesn’t start around 200 million for the then-28 year old. Elite starting pitching doesn’t usually come available at age 28, so Strasburg will be at a premium in a potentially weak free agent market, and especially if he can stay healthy this season. The bar at the top once again is Greinke with 34.417 million, followed by David Price at 31 million, and Clayton Kershaw at 30.714 million.

For the sake of visual, please allow me this baseless, rough guesstimate (feel free to roast me in the comments section, but hear me out).

Jansen:         5 years, 75 million. AAV of 15 million

Strasburg:    7 years, 175 million, AAV of 25 million

If this is even remotely close, we’re looking at a 100 million dollar gap in contracts here. Whether Osuna likes closing or not, that’s a lot of dough to leave on the table, especially if you never try your hand at starting in the big leagues. There is no guaranteeing that Osuna becomes Strasburg or better, but the ceiling is indisputably higher for career earnings as a starter.

What it means for his arm health

Of course, we could sit around and dream about what Osuna “could be” all day if we like, but there are countless examples of players who had bright futures, only to fizzle out before hitting the age of 30. In today’s game, having Tommy John surgery has almost become an inevitability for young pitchers, and how one responds to that procedure is important. For every Kershaw or Felix Hernandez that have been able to stay healthy and elite, there are seemingly five Strasburgs, Jose Fernandez‘s, or even guys like Mark Prior, who can’t reclaim their dominance.

The plus side to using Osuna in the bullpen for the long term would certainly be reduced strain on his arm. If he pitching something similar to his 69.2 innings on average for the next five years, that gives him a greatly reduced chance of arm troubles. Of course there are no guarantees, but the Blue Jays could benefit in the long term knowing that Osuna will be there to finish the game when called upon.

What it means for his future with the club

The reality is the Blue Jays and Osuna have the next five years to figure out what is best for his future, and a lot can change throughout that time. That said, his golden right arm is going to be a crucial part of the team’s success this season and beyond, so how the club handles him will be important.

As mentioned above, Osuna enjoys closing games and doesn’t have any desire to become a starter, at least not yet. While it’s reassuring to know the Jays have him under control for the next five seasons, keeping the player happy and productive will only serve to set up a long term future together. The young Mexican pitcher entered the league very early, will only be 21 this season and will be a free agent at the ripe old age of 26. Depending on how the next season or two play out, the Jays could very well look to extend him before he hits free agency, and try to keep his contract manageable.

Trying to keep a young talented player approaching free agency can be a difficult venture, but the happier that player is, the more likely keeping him can be. I’m not suggesting the Blue Jays let Osuna or anyone else determine their role with the club, but there is no denying that a happy star is easier to sign than a disgruntled one.

In a worst case scenario, what if the Blue Jays forced Osuna into the rotation for 2017, only to watch him get hurt and miss that season, and some or all of 2018? A similar scenario played out with Neftali Feliz with the Texas Rangers a few years ago, and Feliz has never been the same, having been an elite closer prior to the transition.

There is no guaranteeing that Feliz would have remained healthy if he continued his career in the bullpen, just as there is no guarantee the same would happen to Osuna, but the concern is real either way.

Next: Blue Jays Osuna Likely Pleased With Closers Role

Bottom Line

For now, Osuna is the closer to begin the 2016, and that’s all that matters for the immediate future. The club faces much more pressing issues before they ultimately need to worry about Osuna’s status, and can enjoy the talent that the young righty brings to the table.

However, the issue won’t go away, just as it didn’t with Aaron Sanchez all offseason. The easiest way to quiet these things is to have a winning club, and the Jays are set up to do just that, and keep us all a little quieter. For now.