Osuna’s dominance could present Blue Jays with tempting options

Blue Jays analyst Mike Wilner joins the Andrew Walker Show to discuss how unbelievable Roberto Osuna has been lately, says "to me it's the best we've ever seen him, and it's such a joy to watch."

Roberto Osuna has been one of the biggest and best breakout stories in baseball. Gauge him by strikeouts, walks, home runs, groundball rate, hard-hit rate, and many other metrics, and he’s having the best season of his three-year major league career, and also one of the best for any reliever in the game.

He’s only 22 years old, making the league minimum, and can’t test free agency until after the 2020 season. By many different measures, he’s a blue-chip asset for any team to have.

And that’s exactly why the Blue Jays should trade him as soon as possible.

Osuna’s leap forward this season starts with a change in his repertoire. Primarily a fastball-slider pitcher (with a few changeups mixed in) in his first two seasons, he’s become more unpredictable this year, firing four different pitches at least 10 per cent of the time. That shift includes a big leap in cutter usage. He’s hurled that pitch 21 per cent of the time in 2017, vs. less than four per cent of the time last season. That cutter is by no means Osuna’s best pitch. But with the hard-throwing right-hander now featuring such a broad arsenal, hitters are getting flummoxed, not knowing what to expect.

That in turn makes other pitches more effective: Entering play Wednesday, opponents were hitting just .143 against Osuna’s slider, and slugging just .179(!).

Stats via fangraphs.com

You can see the tasty results everywhere you look. Osuna’s career-best 34.7 per cent strikeout rate entering play Wednesday ranked 11th among AL relievers with as many innings pitched. With just two walks allowed in 26 innings pitched, Osuna has been stingier than any other AL reliever in walk rate. He’s allowed just six extra-base hits (with just two homers) despite pitching his home games at hitter-happy Rogers Centre, limiting opponents to a measly .209/.223/.319 line. And after starting the season on the disabled list, he’s getting better by the day: The last 72 batters to face Osuna have collectively batted .143/.167/.214, with 28 strikeouts.

But wait, there’s more. Only two other AL relievers have allowed less frequent hard contact than Osuna has. Only one has generated a higher swing-and-miss rate than Osuna’s 19.9 per cent. Only one has thrown more frequent first-pitch strikes than Osuna, who gets ahead 0-1 a jarring 71.6 per cent of the time. And Osuna stands alone in generating swings outside the strike zone, using his new, wider assortment of pitches to produce those kinds of swings an incredible 47.6 per cent of the time.

This is where the howls of protest come in. Why would the Jays possibly trade someone this good and this young, in the midst of a monster run that rivals any pitcher in the league?

For starters… he’s not a starter. Relief pitchers are the most unpredictable commodity in baseball, with pedestrian arms turning into late-inning terrors (and vice versa) far more often than we’d like to think. Last season, Ryan Tepera was a serviceable righty tossing a few non-essential innings. This year, he’s become a high-leverage force, soaking up huge innings and doing a great job of covering for Joe Biagini when Biagini jumped to the rotation. Last season, Joe Smith was a soft-tossing veteran who generated tons of groundballs but did little else to help his team. This year, he’s become a strikeout machine, taking Jason Grilli’s spot as the team’s primary setup man after Grilli suddenly stopped getting hitters out.

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Most of the time, relievers are failed starters. It’s far more difficult to shut hitters down for seven innings and 100 pitches than it is to do so for one inning and 12-15 pitches. Think of the most dominant relief pitchers of the past generation. Eric Gagne was a mediocre starter before he became a reliever. Mariano Rivera broke into pro ball as a starter before becoming a reliever. And yes, Roberto Osuna spent much of his brief minor league career struggling as a starter before the Jays organization shunted him to the bullpen.

Look at the massive gap between the salaries of the top starters vs. the top relievers and you see that teams recognize how much easier it is to staff up a bullpen than it is to fill a rotation. That remains true even in at a time in which starting pitchers are leaving games earlier than ever before. Yet even with all that information at their disposal, teams don’t (and can’t) ignore bullpen construction is they want to win games.

That goes double for teams with playoff aspirations — teams like the Washington Nationals.

Armed with a loaded, veteran roster, the spectre of Bryce Harper bolting via free agency in a year and a half, and a near-certain NL East title this year thanks to horrible NL East competition, the Nats could be forgiven for hearing the loud ticking of their World Series clock. They already made one blockbuster deal over the winter, trading a package of prospects headed by promising right-handers Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez for centre-fielder Adam Eaton. Eaton’s now on the disabled list, and the Nationals still haven’t addressed their biggest problem: a leaky bullpen.

Wednesday’s 13-2 beating at the hands of the Braves was just the latest example of the Nats pen getting strafed. Even when young closer Koda Glover returns from the disabled list, this is a bullpen that probably doesn’t have enough reliable options to make it through the gauntlet of October without catastrophe striking.

Acquiring Osuna would help address that problem, both now and through the rest of the decade. Even after the Eaton trade, and even assuming top outfield prospect Victor Robles stays put, the Nats still feature interesting names and multiple positions who could collectively form a package that would make an Osuna deal make sense for the Jays.

Granted, Nationals ownership reportedly blocked an off-season trade for White Sox closer David Robertson and a relatively low-cost deal for Greg Holland, who’s turned back into a ninth-inning powerhouse for the Rockies following Tommy John surgery. But part of the reason the Nats’ system is ranked relatively poorly is because the organization cashed in prospects to make impact deals (notably for Eaton) and promoted top prospects to the majors, where they’re now thriving (notably Trea Turner). At this point, something close to an all-in approach would make tons of sense for Washington, especially since the roster has virtually no weaknesses other than the pen. The success of Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman (and the teams they joined) following last summer’s deadline deals only reinforces the short-term value of an impact bullpen acquisition for a team in need.

Whether it’s the Nats or another suitor, plenty of contenders figure to pursue top-flight relief help over the next few weeks. So rather than demand, the biggest obstacle to an Osuna deal would be the Jays’ willingness to make that kind of move.

It’s a tricky proposition, to be sure. After a 6-17 start, the Jays have gone 26-16 to creep back into the race — sort of. On one hand, they sit just 1.5 games out of the second wild-card spot. On the other hand, they’d need to pass four teams to claim that spot, which itself merely ensures that a team gets the right to play a do-or-die game which could its season in a flash.

Other complicating factors are also in play. The Jays field the oldest group of position players in the majors, making any present-day success unlikely to last. Team president Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins have also spoken frequently about the need to build a young core of talent that can contend for years to come. Balanced against all that is a fanbase that’s been energized by the team’s recent success, with two straight ALCS appearances producing the best home attendance for any American League team this year, as well as surging TV ratings and a more intangible buzz around the ballclub, the kind that hadn’t been felt since the back-to-black glory years of 1992 and 1993.

Finally, there’s Osuna himself. At age 22 and overloaded with talent, he would seem to be the kind of young player around which Shapiro and Atkins would want to build. But he’s also a relief pitcher, subject to the same volatility (and replaceability) that dogs his own species of player. Moreover, he’s already had one Tommy John surgery, and health and overuse concerns sprung up during last year’s playoffs and again this spring, when he battled through a neck injury.

So if you’re the Jays, what do you do? What do you do?

Count me as a supporter for an Osuna trade, but with a twist. If the Jays keep up their recent hot play, and their AL rivals keep faltering, a playoff run would be worth pursuing — and bullpen skill and depth would help a lot toward that goal. So if they can, they might consider mimicking the 1999 Oakland Athletics.

That season, the A’s unofficially began their run that would launch the Moneyball era. They didn’t quite make the playoffs, but they won 87 games, paving the way for their first division title of the era the following year. Moreover, they made an oh-so-Moneyball move at the ‘99 trade deadline. Even with Oakland in playoff contention, then-general manager Billy Beane saw a chance to build for the future. The A’s closer that year was Billy Taylor, a fairly capable right-hander with 26 saves by the end of July, who also happened to be 37 years old and thus not likely to be a big part of the team’s long-term success.

So Beane flipped Taylor to the Mets, acquiring two pitchers. One was another veteran right-hander in Greg McMichael, who was an afterthought in the trade. The other was 26-year-old righty Jason Isringhausen, who’d posted a brutal 6.13 ERA with the Mets that year. Despite those awful numbers, the A’s saw ample upside. They hoped that Isringhausen’s command and results would improved as time passed following the Tommy John surgery that knocked him out for the entire previous season. They also saw the starter-to-reliever upside that had made stars out of so many pitchers (and would later do the same for Gagne, Rivera, and Osuna). Turns out, they were right. Isringhausen flashed a 2.13 ERA for the rest of that season, then became a reliable closer in Oakland for the playoff teams of 2000 and 2001…before the A’s let him walk in free agency.

Want a more recent example? The 2016 Pirates employed one of the most dependable closers in the league in Mark Melancon. But with the Pirates falling out of the race and Melancon slated for free agency at year’s end, and Pittsburgh hoping to add younger, controllable talent, the club struck a deal. Coming to PNC Park was Felipe Rivero, an electric lefty who’s since grown into one of the most devastating relievers in the game, armed with a 101-m.p.h. fastball and now, the closer job for the Buccos. The team that got Melancon in return? Your Washington Nationals.

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Maybe the Nats wouldn’t fall for the same trick twice. Maybe other relief-hungry clubs would selectively ignore what Miller and Chapman did last year for the Indians and Cubs, and fixate on how good Clint Frazier, Gleyber Torres, and the other top prospects the Yankees got in those deals could become. Maybe this year’s deadline shoppers will thus be more cautious, making less sexy moves for functional relief help without raiding their farm systems to make it happen. Maybe the Jays hanging around the race will make Shapiro and Atkins too reluctant to make a bold move, right when their closer’s trade value is at its peak.

Or maybe the Jays could have their cake and eat it too, flipping Osuna, getting young, major league-ready (or nearly ready) talent in return, and retaining their shot at a third straight dance in October.

Stay tuned. Things could get really interesting, really soon.

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