In case you haven't noticed, there's been a wee bit of turnover recently in the Jays closer role. In fact, since the days when Tom Henke's glasses would intimidate opponents before they even stepped into the box, only one man - Billy Koch - has led the Jays in saves in consecutive seasons (BJ Ryan, Jason Frasor and Kelvim Escobar each led the Jays twice, but in non-consecutive years).
Now, before I go any further, I will say, without equivocation, that I think the entire notion of a "closer" is total bullshit and that saves are pretty useless as a statistic. Statistics are meant to inform strategy, not dictate strategy. Even before Joe Posnanski's recent article revealed that the modern bullpen has had zero effect on the likelihood of a team winning a game when it holds a lead going into the ninth, I was never really on board. It amazes me how virtually every manager over the last 20+ plus years has willingly and knowingly altered their game strategy to ensure their designated closer maximizes their save opportunities, instead of using them to maximize the likelihood of winning.
Back in my salad days, there was no such thing as a closer. Instead, teams had a "stopper" (sometimes referred to as a "fireman"). Like the closer, the stopper was nominally the best pitcher in the bullpen (this was much more often the case with stoppers than with closers now). The big difference was how the manager would use them. A stopper would typically enter the game at some point after the sixth inning (although sometimes in the sixth) when the starter was tiring and/or getting into trouble and/or facing the heart of the opposing team's lineup. They might pitch an inning. They might pitch three. But managers wouldn't hesitate to bring them in before the ninth inning if the game was on the line. And it was not at all uncommon to bring the stopper into a tie game.
I could go on like this for quite some time, but really, my point is only that identifying the closer is not nearly as important as we have been led to believe. With that said, let's take a little look into the crystal ball and see if it tells us who's mug will go next to Kevin Gregg in the collage above.
As Wilner discusses in his most recent blog entry, there are 10 guys fighting for up to 7 spots in the Jays' pen to open the season. The returning members: Frasor, Janssen and Camp; the guys on the Vegas shuttle last year: Purcey, Carlson and Roenicke; the guy who will likely be in the bullpen if he doesn't stick as the 4th or 5th starter: Rzepcyzynski; and the three new guys: Octavio Dotel (free agent), Carlos Villanueva (trade from Milwaukee) and Chad Cordero (free agent).
Although many have suggested that the bullpen will likely be a sore spot next year, looking at this list, I have to admit that I'm cautiously optimistic. While it's certainly true that losing Scott Downs will hurt (a perfect example of a team's best reliever not being their closer), the loss of Kevin Gregg will not. Gregg's numbers, on the surface, were passable, but any scratching of said surface revealed a very different story, one which can be verified by literally anyone who actually watched him pitch last year. Whether or not Dotel is in fact named the closer, his career numbers suggest that he is a very reasonable facsimile of Kevin Gregg (or at least, of what Kevin Gregg was last year).
As for replacing Scott Downs, it's not likely that one guy is going to step up and simply fill his shoes. But that doesn't mean the bullpen will be worse this year For the sake of argument, I'll temporarily subscribe to the dogmatic labeling of relief pitchers. Through this lens, it is most likely true that the Jays will suffer some drop off in the set-up man position. But lest we forget, Brian Tallet has taken his talents (such as they are) to St. Louis, and one could quite reasonably expect that his replacement as the long-man out of the pen (I would guess Rzepcyzynski) is very likely to be a significant improvement. Enough to make up for the deficit in the set-up man role? Probably not, but I suspect that the addition of Villanueva and the maturation of Purcey, Roenicke and to a lesser extent, Janssen and Carlson should more than make up the difference.
As for who the closer will actually be, I think we can safely rule out Janssen, and Rzepcyzynski. Both seem well suited to be long men, and neither has had enduring success at the big league level. Carlson has been far too inconsistent to be a serious contender, and is probably a long shot to even make the team. Certainly, Dotel is going to be given an opportunity to win the job in spring training, but he was relatively inexpensive and only signed for one year, so I doubt Farrell will feel much (if any) pressure to use him as a closer if he doesn't perform. Cordero was a very interesting signing - he had two or three dominant seasons not so long ago. His numbers in AAA last year weren't bad and suggest he may have finally recovered from the shoulder surgery that sidelined him three years ago, and if healthy, he could be the best option.
Villanueva, Purcey and Roenicke are all wild-cards. I'd be surprised to see any of them emerge as the closer this year, particularly right out of spring training. Villanueva doesn't have the fastball one has come to expect from a closer (neither did Trevor Hoffman), but has a high strikeout rate anyway. Purcey and Roenicke both throw some smoke, but have been maddeningly inconsistent when up with the big club, although Purcey had a very nice stretch at the beginning of last season. The Jays would like to eventually see Roenicke become the closer, but that's not realistic for 2011 (if ever).
Frasor is...well...Frasor is Frasor. He's not the guy you want closing. But if nobody else takes the job, sooner or later he'll get a shot, and at the end of the day, while it won't be pretty, it will be what it is (query: why does writing about Jason Frasor cause me to feel utterly defeated - not to mention incoherent?).
As such, if one were betting on who would lead the Jays in saves for 2011 (not that I would ever do such a thing), I would handicap this race as follows:
- Dotel: 35% (likely to be the closer coming out of spring training, but there's a good chance he either a) loses his job for pitching ineffectively, or b) gets traded mid-season)
- Frasor: 25% (only because there seems to be no other sure thing)
- Cordero: 20% (something of a long shot to make the team, but if he does...)
- Purcey/Villanueva/Roenicke: 5% each (any one of which could be a really nice story)
- Someone else: 5% (not sure who this might be, but hey, Aquilino Lopez and Darren Hall both led the Jays in saves at one time, so anything is possible).