Closer role could be restrictive for Blue Jays’ Osuna

MLB insider Shi Davidi joins Barry Davis to break down the Blue Jays final opening day roster decisions.

When the Toronto Blue Jays were trying to decide on a closer, theoretically there wasn’t a bad choice to be made.

In Drew Storen, they had a guy with 95 saves to his name coming off a year where he posted a career-high strikeout rate. The other option, Roberto Osuna, was a 21-year-old with extraordinary stuff who proved himself in the role last season.

CLOSER TO HOME: Watch Stephen Brunt’s TV special Roberto Osuna: Sinaloa to the Show on Sportsnet, April 2 at 4 p.m., following Red Sox vs. Blue Jays in Montreal

Ultimately the team went with the incumbent in Osuna. It’s hard to fault a manager for going back to a winning formula, but the choice, while far from disastrous, seems sub-optimal.

One issue is that placing Osuna in a traditional closer role will likely limit his innings. Last season, only three of the top 15 relievers by innings pitched had 20 or more saves. While the Mexican right-hander has been resistant to the idea of starting in the past, he has a great deal of potential in that role. Making Osuna the closer may put the kibosh on notion of him using multi-inning stints to build towards starting next year.

Osuna would have perfect for the setup or “fireman” role because of his versatility. He can get more than three outs, he’s equally effective against opposition hitting from either side of the plate and his strikeout ability makes him a good pitcher to call on with runners on base. Some of these qualities apply to Storen, but not all.

The 28-year-old can certainly set down hitters on strikes, and last year he did so more frequently than Osuna. However, he’s strictly a one-inning pitcher and he opened up a pretty significant platoon split last year. Left-handed hitters hit him well to the tune of a .279/.358/.349 line as opposed to right-handers who managed just .146/.212/.271.

Those numbers come from a small enough sample to be taken with a serious grain of salt. Even so, Storen threw a modified slider last year and leaned on the pitch more than ever, which helps explain why he became so much more effective against same-handed batters. In a crucial late-inning jam it could be hard to justify calling on him to get out a big left-handed bat.

With Brett Cecil on the roster, the Blue Jays do have someone for that job. What they don’t have is anyone else who can do it. Though the team will carry eight relievers to start the season, Cecil is the only southpaw. On days when he’s unavailable, or has already been used, there will be no one to turn to.

Freed from the restraints of the closer role, Osuna could have been that guy. Thanks to a nasty tumbling changeup he held left-handers to a .206/.255/.382 line in his rookie year. Storen, on the other hand, won’t be able to provide much support for the critically important Cecil.

When the Blue Jays chose their closer on Wednesday, it wasn’t just a matter of deciding which one of two great relievers would get top billing. They were filling two roles: closer and setup man.

The setup role calls for a great deal of flexibility. The pitcher assigned to this post is often asked to escape other pitchers’ jams and provide a multi-out bridge to the closer. For this job, the Blue Jays selected a one-inning pitcher who inherited runners in just three of his 58 appearances last season.

The closer role requires a pitcher who can conjure up one inning of dominance. That’s all there is to it. The Blue Jays filled this position, the most restrictive and defined relief gig, with their most versatile weapon.

It seems the team fell into the trap of putting the best player in the highest profile role at the expense of finding the best fit for all of their pieces. Just because Osuna may be the best closer on the Blue Jays’ roster, it doesn’t mean he is the best choice to be the closer.

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