Toronto Blue Jays: Who should be the closer this season?

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JULY 07: Closing pitcher Kirby Yates #39 of the San Diego Padres pitches in the ninth inning during the MLB game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium on July 07, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. The Padres defeated the Dodgers 5-3. (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JULY 07: Closing pitcher Kirby Yates #39 of the San Diego Padres pitches in the ninth inning during the MLB game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium on July 07, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. The Padres defeated the Dodgers 5-3. (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images) /

With Ken Giles no longer with the Toronto Blue Jays (he signed with the Seattle Mariners this off-season), the organization enters 2021 without a closer for the first time in roughly three years.

Acquired in the Roberto Osuna trade midway through the 2018 season, Giles did an alright job since joining the Blue Jays, authoring a 2..83 ERA while wracking up 38 saves over 76.1 innings with 111 strikeouts and a 1.087 WHIP. His best season with the Blue Jays was in 2019, as he would appear in 53 games and would save 23 games over 44 appearances.

The right-hander would have a rough 2020 campaign, appearing in 4 games and throwing to a 9.82 ERA over 3.2 innings before finding himself on the injured list and eventually undergoing Tommy John surgery, an injury that will sideline him for the entire 2021 season.

With Giles leaving the organization, the Blue Jays will be entering the year without a stand-out closer at the helm, yet there are a few options who could find themselves slotting into the role.

Kirby Yates

Signing with the Blue Jays this off-season on a one-year deal, right-hander Kirby Yates is a veteran in the bullpen who has experiencing closing but is coming off a rough injury-shortened 2020 season.

A year removed from leading the league in saves (41) and an all-star appearance, Yates would struggle last season during six games of action, crafting a 12.46 ERA with eight strikeouts, surrendering six earned runs in just 4.1 innings pitched. He would see his season come to a close after having surgery to remove bone chips in his elbow in August, the injury being the most likely cause for the elevated stats last season. For his career, Yates has a 3.54 ERA over seven years, mustering 57 saves and 400 strikeouts with a 1.148 WHIP.

A bounce-back candidate this season, Yates does have experience closing and has shown he is capable of pitching in high-leverage situations. The Hawaiian native comes into spring training healthy and is looking to return back to the form that saw him become one of the San Diego Padres’ go-to relievers late in the game over the past three seasons.

Jordan Romano

Drafted by the Blue Jays back in 2014, Jordan Romano is one of the lone Canadians on the roster and is hoping to improve upon his breakout 2020 season.

After making his debut with the Blue Jays in 2019, the Markham, Ontario native would pitch in 17 games and would finish the season with a 7.63 ERA, 21 strikeouts, and a 1.696 WHIP. The 2019 season would be a bit rough for Romano, as he bounced between AAA and the MLB roster while also missing some time on the injured list with an oblique injury.

The right-hander would bounce back in 2020, pitching in 15 games and crafting a 1.23 ERA with 21 strikeouts and a 0.886 WHIP. He would also finish with two saves and his first career win but would spend some time on the IL as he experienced numbness on the middle finger on his pitching hand, eventually being left off the Blue Jays Wild Card roster.

One of the younger competitors for the closer role, Romano is a hard-throwing pitcher who has been converted to a reliever after being used as a starter for most of his minor league career. Compared to the other bullpen arms, Romano does lack the MLB experience you would normally look for in a closer, but his numbers are solid and are hard to ignore.

If Romano can have a stellar spring training and be healthy this year, the Ontario native might just see some time in the closer position.

Rafael Dolis

Another experienced arm in the Blue Jays bullpen, Dominican native Rafael Dolis has seen his share of ups and downs in the MLB.

After spending parts of three seasons with the Chicago Cubs from 2011-2013, Dolis would spend the 2014-2015 seasons in the minor leagues before jumping overseas and pitching for the Hanshin Tigers in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league for four seasons.

While in Japan, Dolis would appear in 208 games, throwing to a 2.49 ERA over 206.0 innings with 227 strikeouts, 96 saves, and a 1.063 WHIP. Dolis would sign a one-year deal with the Blue Jays (with a club option for 2021) during the 2019/2020 off-season and would pitch well in 2020, throwing to a 1.50 ERA with 31 strikeouts and a 1.250 WHIP over 24.0 innings. With Giles on the injured list, Dolis was tasked with closing alongside Romano and former Blue Jay Anthony Bass, picking up five saves on the season.

Another viable option for the Blue Jays closing role, Dolis does have experience in the ninth inning while pitching in the NPB and nine saves under his belt at the MLB level with the Cubs and the Blue Jays. The right-hander did have some issues with his command last year, issuing 5.25 walks over nine innings, which is a bit high given he has the potential to be the Blue Jays closer.

If Dolis does not become the Blue Jays closer out of spring training, you should expect to see him in high-leverage situations late into ball games over the course of the season.

What are the Options?

With no set closer to begin the season, Blue Jays fans will most likely see a battle for the role all throughout spring training between the trio mentioned above.

Romano only has roughly one year of service time and cannot become a free agent until 2026, so another season as a set-up man/spot closer could see him being groomed to become the Blue Jays future closer beginning next season. Dolis and Yates only have one-year deals so they may not be back after 2021, but if either pitcher has a great season this year and eats up a bulk of the Blue Jays saves this year, there is the possibility that the Blue Jays extend one or both and have one of them be the de-facto closer for the foreseeable future.

Tyler Chatwood has also publicly said that he will be used as a late-innings reliever this year for the Blue Jays alongside Dolis, Romano, and Yates. I wouldn’t necessarily say Chatwood will be primed for the closer role given his experience as a starter/middle relief pitcher, but there is the possibility that he could spot close if injuries happen to the back end of the bullpen.

One option the Blue Jays could also take is to follow what the Tampa Bay Rays used last year and have no defined closer, using Dolis, Romano, and Yates over the course of the season to close games (similar to what the Jays threw together last year with Giles being injured). This would be a bit different than what the Blue Jays have used prior to 2020 with Roberto Osuna closing games before Giles was in Toronto, but is an option that can be utilized if injuries or players start to struggle early this season.

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Final Decision

If Yates can pitch as he did back in 2019 and throw well this spring, the closing role will most likely be going to him but on a short leash basis. If he blows a few saves and starts struggling, expect to see Dolis and Romano slot in and take a turn at closing some games over the course of the season. Even if Yates is healthy, Dolis and Romano will still most likely get a few opportunities to close this season as they will most likely be your two set-up men for the 7th and 8th innings.