Perhaps leaving Roberto Osuna in the closer’s role indefinitely is not such a bad thing
Many writers were surprised to hear that Roberto Osuna had been anointed the Jays’ closer for 2016. An arm like Osuna’s should not be kept in the bullpen, they would argue. He would create far more value for the team with 180-200 innings as a starter than he would as a 60-70 inning closer, and it behooves the Jays to start the transition in 2016 by using him as a multi-inning setup man for 100 innings or so.
All valid arguments. But the decision might not be that simple.
The Tommy John factor
Roberto had Tommy John surgery in June 2013, missing the remainder of his 2013 season and struggling in his return in 2014. His velocity and control has since recovered, and Roberto would be considered a TJ “success”. But there is a strong school of thought that
It is logical to expect a graft to be weaker and less durable than the native ligament and prone to failing over time
pitchers who have undergone TJ or similar major arm surgeries are more prone to injury in the future. The single largest risk factor for TJ surgery among pitchers is a previous TJ – in fact, of the 31 TJ surgeries in 2014, 36% were revisions (i.e. second TJs). It does not follow that Osuna can never be a starter, but a
The narrowing starter/closer gap
An argument frequently used to justify emphasizing starters over closers is their market value. Compare David Price‘s $30m+ annual salary with Aroldis Chapman’s $11.3 million, and you will quickly see on which one the team places the higher value. But not every starter is a David Price. At ~$11m+ (and likely to increase in the 2016 FA class), a top closer would appear to command similar money to a mid-rotation starter with upside (as the Jays found with Marco Estrada [$13m AAV] and J.A. Happ [$12m AAV] going into 2016). Even players generally regarded as #2 starters (such as Chen, Kazmir, Kennedy and Lackey) only received contracts with AAV in the $14-16m range in 2016.
So, if you accept the market price metric, it appears that a top closer is worth about as much as a #3 starter with upside, and not that much less than a #2. If you believe that Osuna has top closer potential, then he would have to become at least a #2 starter for his financial value to be higher in the rotation than at the end of the bullpen. That is certainly possible, but hardly a guarantee (particularly given the strain factor referred to above).
The team need
It is almost axiomatic that teams need starting pitchers more than they need bullpen arms, even closers. Almost. But consider the 2017 Blue Jays. They should have a starting rotation of Stroman, Sanchez, Happ, Estrada and Hutchison, with Connor Greene, Jon Harris and Sean Reid-Foley potentially knocking on the door. And this does not include wild cards like Scott Diamond and his rediscovered curve or a Matt Smoral breakthrough. Or any re-signings (Jesse Chavez, Gavin Floyd), free agent signings or trades.
The bullpen picture is not as bright. Drew Storen, Brett Cecil, Jesse Chavez, and Gavin Floyd are all projected to be free agents after the 2016 year. Moving Osuna from the closer role to the rotation could mean that five of the seven members of the 2016 bullpen would be gone in 2017, including all of the top 3 arms. In the near term, it is possible that the Jays could need Osuna in the bullpen more than in the rotation.
WPA and leverage
The WPA (win probability added) metric measures the impact of a player (or play) on the team’s chances to win. Of the 10 top pitchers in WPA in 2015, 5 of them were relievers/closers. This is because closers tend to pitch in high-leverage situations, where the impact of their mistakes or successes are magnified. There is considerable debate about whether this distorts the WPA metric in favour of closers, but it is clear that the difference between an average closer and an elite one can have a dramatic effect on a team’s performance.
The bottom line
Osuna is a very talented pitcher. It is not impossible that, if converted to a starter, he could become a staff ace and even a Cy Young contender. But it is also possible that he would not achieve that elite level, and that the additional innings could adversely impact on his surgically-repaired arm. Regardless, it is clear that he could add significant value if he becomes an elite closer – a goal that many feel he is already close to achieving. It is not at all clear that the Jays would be making a mistake by keeping him in that role.