Sit back and enjoy the Roberto Osuna show

Roberto Osuna responds to Carlos Correa being upset with how he handled the final out of Thursday’s game, explaining that he wasn’t trying to “show up” Correa in any way.

TORONTO — Screw it. I don’t know about the rest of you out there, but I’m going to sit back and enjoy watching Roberto Osuna close out games for however long he’s with the Toronto Blue Jays.

I’m going to enjoy watching a guy with cojones who comes through in the biggest situations. Never mind the folks who still want him to be converted to a starter three years into his career. And I don’t care how fungible relievers are. I don’t care whether the chattering classes have been beating the drums that now would be a good time to sell high on Osuna – as if at 22 years old he can’t get any better than he already is – based on the idea that this team is a pretender in 2017 and they’ll always be able to find some failed starter to fill the role. All that stuff the World Series teams did with the back end of their bullpens? A one off. Hell, on average Mariano Rivera was worth 3.0 WAR. Osuna, who was named as a replacement to the American League all-star team on Friday, is for all his brilliance worth 1.7 WAR. Craig Kimbrel is 2.2, Kenley Jansen an even 2.00.

Somebody asked Osuna on Friday how he was. Never mind the 21 consecutive saves, it’s how was he in light of the anxiety issues of which he’d spoken two weeks ago? “Really happy,” he said. “The All-Star Game is what’s on my mind, right now. This is the biggest thing I’ll have gone through.” This is, he added later “my time.”

This was the week that Blue Jays president and chief executive officer Mark Shapiro publicly declared that he was against any “violent disruption” in the baseball landscape in this city – essentially reaffirming to those who needed it that by and large any decisions that will be made closer to the trade deadline will be baseball decisions aimed at extending the team’s competitive window. Looking ahead to next week, next month or next year, there’s really not all that much this organization has going for it except for two potentially dominating starting pitchers in Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez and a closer in Osuna who won’t be free agents until 2019. That, and 40,000 fans per night at the Rogers Centre.

Osuna’s season did not get off to a smooth start. He was lit up pitching for Mexico at the World Baseball Classic, developed a stiff neck that cut into his Grapefruit League activity – at times it seemed as if he was being hidden by the Blue Jays, who were often vague about his assignments – and blew three of his first four save opportunities while giving up a hit in six of his first seven appearances.

Coupled with the fact that Osuna finished the 2016 regular season striking out just one of the last 29 batters he faced – although he had eight strikeouts in nine post-season innings – and that some in the organization wondered how diligent Osuna was in adhering to his off-season conditioning plan … yeah, there was some concern. This was a pitcher, after all, who had thrown 161 innings total in the two previous seasons and post-seasons combined.

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Yet look at him, now: at 22 years and 154 days old on Tuesday, he will be the youngest Blue Jays all-star since Dave Stieb went to the 1980 game at the age of 22 years, 352 days. He has struck out 12.09 batters per nine innings, well ahead of his career average of 10.28 and has walked 0.77 batters per nine innings, ahead of his career mark of 1.66. He is four consecutive saves away from Tom Henke’s team record and two away from Greg Holland’s major-league best streak this season.

Earlier this season, Osuna became the youngest pitcher in history to get to 75 saves.

He keeps this up, and he’s going to get paid. Boy, will he get paid because this is the thing about closers: they can get to $9 million a year pretty damned fast because of the weight attached to saves in the arbitration process, which for all the analytical advances in the game can be at times a surprisingly simplistic endeavour.

Osuna is making $552,000 this season and will be eligible for arbitration for the first time this winter. He won’t likely beat Jonathan Papelbon’s first-time arbitration record of $6.25 million for closers (Papelbon had 113 saves and 236 strikeouts going into his first season of eligibility), but the meter is running. Osuna has 78 career saves so far, and he will turn 26 on February 7, 2021, meaning he will be soliciting free-agent offers before even turning 26. At his current pace, keeping our fingers crossed for good health, he could have close to 200 saves by that time.

Look: there will be a point in time where hard economic questions will have to be asked about Osuna. But that’s OK, that’s the price of success.

Blue Jays manager John Gibbons plays it pretty straight when it comes to his closer. The only reason he doesn’t like to give him four- or five-out save opportunities, Gibbons said, is because he’s conscious of workload, although it’s notable that he does have two five-out saves in 14 post-season games, the same number as Duane Ward. But make no mistake: bullpen usage is undergoing a re-think. Cincinnati Reds manager Bryan Price won’t end up with two 100-inning relievers this season, but that’s something he talked about in spring training and something that hasn’t been done since the 1999 Reds had 224.2 innings split between Danny Graves and Scott Sullivan.

Middle relievers such as the Astros’ Chris Devenski (who leads the AL in innings, strikeouts and is third in WAR among relievers without being his team’s closer and is also going to the All-Star Game) and Dellin Betances are lethal weapons. In the latter’s case, the haziness of his role emerged as an issue in an extremely bitter and mean-spirited arbitration hearing with the New York Yankees this spring. The arbitration system, frankly, hasn’t caught up.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

As Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins noted Friday, it’s tough to quantify the value of a guy who can blow a game one night and then come out and strike out the side the next two nights. The only thing that’s certain is it costs money. What is the value of a guy who can hold Aaron Judge to 0-for-5 with four strikeouts, shut down teams on the game’s biggest stage – including the post-season? Or a guy who can cause an all-star like Carlos Correa to muse about how he showed him up in a game like Thursday’s because of the nonchalance with which he tossed the ball to first base (for the record, Osuna said he apologized if he did anything wrong, didn’t think he really did because he was waiting for Justin Smoak to get to the bag but, hey, whatever, you know?)

How do you value all that? I don’t know, to be honest. I’ll leave that to brighter minds. But damned if I don’t want to find out with Roberto Osuna.

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