Historically, the performance of young closers has been very volatile. What are the implications for a potential Jays trade of Roberto Osuna?
Roberto Osuna has everything going for him. He is still only 22 years old, but already has 78 major league saves and is in the midst (knocking on wood) of a 21-consecutive-save run. Writers are enthusing about his pitch mix and makeup, saying things like:
"When Osuna has taken the mound in 2017, he’s been absolutely sensational. Osuna was already a perfectly fine closer. What he is now is something else, something very nearly perfect, at least by human standards. Osuna’s only 22, and he’s pitching at the top of his magnificent game."
And Roberto is arb-eligible for the first time in 2018, and will not be a free agent until 2021. Why these writers ask, would the Jays even consider trading him?
Spoiler #1: I am an Osuna fan, and would be sorry to see him in another uniform. But spoiler #2 – I love to play devil’s advocate.
Closers (actually relievers as a whole) are a strange breed. There are a few who seem to remain elite forever, but how exceptional are they? To answer that question, I did a little experiment. For the years 2010-2016, I identified all pitchers who saved 15 games or more at an opening-day age of 23 or less. I then tracked their careers over the next few years.
Neftali Feliz (40 saves in 2010 @ age 22)
Feliz was brilliant in 2010, with 40 saves, a 2.73 ERA, and AL Rookie of the Year. His 2011 was similar, with 32 saves and 2.74. In 2012, after acquiring Joe Nathan to close, the Rangers tried to convert Feliz to a starter, with disastrous results. He sprained his UCL after only 7 starts and had Tommy John surgery in August of that year. He saved 13 games in 2014 but was injured again. By 2015, after being on the DL for the third straight season, he was designated for assignment. In 2017, he has a combined ERA of 5.29 and an xFIP of 5.47.
Craig Kimbrel (46 saves in 2011 @ age 23)
OK, I’ll give you this one. Kimbrel was, has been, and is an elite closer. Say no more!
Drew Storen (43 saves in 2011 @ age 23)
Storen had 43 saves in 2011, with an ERA and SIERA of 2.75. But in the offseason, he had elbow surgery that caused him to miss 89 games in 2012. By the time he came back, he had lost the closer job to Tyler Clippard. In 2013, the Nationals tried to create a super-bullpen by signing Rafael Soriano to close and moving Storen to setup. Storen’s ERA ballooned to 4.52, despite a strong second half. He had a strong 2014, but struggled again in 2015 as the setup man for Jonathan Papelbon, and in the first half of 2016 for the Blue Jays.
Jordan Walden (32 saves in 2011 @ age 23)
Walden was an all-star in 2011. But a year later he was removed from the closer role due to control issues. He was traded to the Braves at the end of 2012, and to the Cardinals at the end of 2014, but a combination of injuries and control problems limited him to a total of 6 saves from 2012-15.
Addison Reed (29 saves in 2012 @ age 23)
Reed was an anomaly in that he had 121 career saves despite a career save conversion ratio (saves divided by save opportunities) of a very poor 81% and an ERA of 4.22 over his closer years of 2012-14. He is having a mini-resurgence in 2017, earning 15 saves for the Mets in Jeurys Familia‘s absence.
Toronto Blue Jays
Trevor Rosenthal (45 saves in 2014 @ age 23)
Rosenthal pitched well in 2014, with 45 saves and a 3.20 ERA. He got even better in 2015, with 48 saves and a 2.10 ERA. In August 2015, a poll of National League major league coaches and managers ranked him the third best reliever in that league. But in 2016 he started experiencing control problems, with his walks per 9 innings almost doubling to an ugly 6.47, and his ERA more than doubling to 4.46. He was replaced as the Cardinal’s closer by “The Final Boss“, Seung-hwan Oh.
Edwin Diaz (18 saves in 2016 @ age 22)
Diaz was a strikeout machine in 2016. He set a Mariners record with 11 consecutive outs by strikeout in July, followed by setting a modern-day MLB record with the fastest 50 career strikeouts (25.1 innings). At 22, he appeared poised to be an elite closer for a decade. But he has struggled so far in 2017, with an 81% save conversion percentage (13/16) and an ERA over 4 in March/April and May. He was (briefly) taken out of the closer role in May, but reinstated (largely because Seattle had no better options). Diaz has shown signs of regaining his mojo in July, with a 2.70 ERA and much better control. Too early, to be sure, but red flags abound.
So what does all this mean?
Of these seven promising young closers, only one (Kimbrel) is still performing at an elite level. Obviously, this does not mean that Osuna is doomed to a similar fate – every pitcher is different, and Kimbrel’s success demonstrates that continued success *is* possible. But in six of the seven cases above, if their team had traded them for top dollar at their early peak, those GMs would be smiling now.
The bottom line
Roberto is a great asset to the Jays, and they should not (in my view) trade him for anything less than an outstanding return. But relievers are high risk … and players who have already had Tommy John surgery are high risk … and players with anxiety issues are high risk. It is difficult to trade a player when they are excelling, but that is precisely when their trade value is the highest. If the Jays choose to keep him, they should do so with their eyes wide open.