There may be a way for the Jays to balance the objectives of stretching Roberto Osuna out as a starter but still keeping him in the Toronto Blue Jays ‘pen
It is a discussion that is rapidly getting old. Roberto Osuna’s arm and pitch mix is too good to leave him in a bullpen role, even as the closer. But the Jays’ 2017 rotation is largely set, and the team badly needs Roberto’s arm in the bullpen. An irreconcilable conflict, no?
Osuna pitched 83 innings in 2016 (including 9 playoff innings). By the end of the season, he was showing signs of fatigue. Add that to his 2013 Tommy John surgery and a Sanchez-style innings explosion in 2017, while possible, is likely highly imprudent. If the plan is to stretch Osuna out, it would make more sense to increase his innings to something in the 120-130 range in 2017, and then take the step to 160-180 in 2018.
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The conventional way to structure this kind of transition would be to leave Osuna in Buffalo for 2017, where he could be stretched out in a lower-pressure environment. Alternatively, he could be moved into a swingman role, where he could mix spot starts with long relief (similar to what Carlos Villanueva did for Toronto in 2011 and 2012). The problem with both of these options is that the Jays’ bullpen is perilously thin, particularly in the late innings. So unless the Jays can find high-leverage bullpen help to replace him, both of these options would place the team in a difficult position.
But what if the Jays turned Roberto into a long-closer/swingman? Instead of having him pitch only the 9th inning, have him pitch two (or even three) innings to close out a game? And perhaps, as the season goes on and he becomes more comfortable with higher-pitch-count outings, give him a few four or five inning starts?
The advantages of this approach are clear. By having Roberto pitch (say) the 8th and 9th innings on a regular basis, he would be effectively filling two bullpen roles. This would reduce the strain on the remaining bullpen members, while still having him see the opposing batters only once. And his value to the Jays in this scenario would arguably be even higher than it was in 2016.
There would be disadvantages to this approach as well. In 2016, Osuna appeared in 79 games. As a swingman-closer, that would likely reduce to 50-60 games. But Toronto have averaged ~60 save opportunities over the last two years, so these 50-odd appearances should be sufficient to cover the majority of 2017’s opportunities. And ideally in this scenario the Jays would plan ahead for 2018 by signing/promoting/trading for a pitcher who could handle 10-15 saves in 2017 and transition into the closer role in 2018 (think Duane Ward in 1992).
A variation of this idea would be for the Jays to sign a proven closer (Greg Holland!) and to use Osuna as a swingman-setup. Under that paradigm, if a starting pitcher went 5-6 innings, Roberto could pitch the 2-3 innings to bridge to the new closer. Or, if Greg needed a rest, Roberto could provide a ~2 innings save. Roberto could even come into the game earlier, in high-pressure situations, in a manner similar to the way Cleveland has been using Andrew Miller.
The bottom line
It may be possible to both stretch Osuna out and maintain his contribution in the bullpen in 2017, but it will take some out-of-the-box thinking (and hopefully some bullpen help!)