Saturday, February 5, 2011

My Close-r, My Close-r, My Kingdom for a Close-r

Let's face it, the back end of the Blue Jays' bullpen is more crowded than a Tokyo subway during rush hour.

It's actually pretty impressive that there's such a wealth of seasoned arms to choose from considering this offseason saw both setup guy Scott Downs and closer Kevin Gregg depart for greener, and more lucrative pastures.

Losing Scott Downs will hurt: our lefty-specialist heir apparent is David Purcey, who's amassed a whopping 147 innings on a Major League mound. However, Purcey put up respectable numbers last year -- his first stint as a reliever -- fashioning an ERA of 3.71 through 34 innings while striking out 32. But the 28-year-old, in anomalistic fashion, struggled against lefties, yielding an opposition batting average of .309. Nonetheless, save for Jesse Carlson, the Jays are bereft of any other viable options against lefties. Purcey it is. For now.

Losing Gregg, on the other hand, won't be nearly as painful. Don't get me wrong, I was a staunch supporter of Kevin Gregg last year. Sure, he never made it look easy, but the guy still converted 37 of his 43 save opportunities. And while the ERA and BB/9 rate were less than ideal, he got the job done. 86% of the time. Having said that, he's not the shut-down closer you build a bullpen around.

So who assumes the highly coveted role of getting (or trying to get) the final 3 outs? Anthopoulous must be a proponent of the 'competition breeds excellence' theory, because he dedicated a substantial amount of time and money this offseason soliciting tenured arms to the Toronto bullpen. Over the past three months, AA acquired the services of 37-year-old journeyman Octavio Dotel, 32-year-old behemoth Jon Rauch, and, through a swap with the Rangers for Mike Napoli just four days after the catcher got sent to Toronto in the Vernon Wells deal, 31-year-old Frank Francisco.

Throw those guys into the mix with long-time bullpen fixture Jason Frasor and Spring Training invitee Chad Cordero, who notched a Major League-best 47 saves for the Nationals in 2005, and you've got a lot of options to choose from.

So which hurler is the most qualified to, at least initially, handle closing duties?

Francisco's Case: The burly right-hander has emerged as the favourite to win the job this Spring, according to Blue Jays' beat writer Gregor Chisolm. Last year, the former Ranger had his position usurped by Neftali Feliz, the fireballing 22-year-old who now owns the single-season rookie record for saves with 40, after two blown saves to start the season. However, in 2009, Francisco performed well in the closer's role, nailing down 25 saves in 29 opportunities with an impressive 10.4 K/9 rate. Though 2009 constitutes the bulk of his closing experience, Francisco has fared very well against lefties throughout his career and should give the other closing candidates a serious run for their money.

Dotel's Case: Since 2005, Dotel has played for eight different clubs. I guess the Jays are lucky number nine. The Dominican has never really had an extended stint as a closer, and has spent much of his career teetering on the fence between setup man and closer. Over his 11-year career, Dotel's notched 105 saves in 150 opportunities, good for a paltry 70% conversion rate. Though his stuff may be nasty -- he boasts an impressive 10.95 K/9 rate for his career -- Dotel's probably not the guy you want to entrust with the ball with a one-run lead against the Sox or Yanks, especially with such a young and inexperienced starting rotation.

Rauch's Case: Let me say one thing first: if Jon Rauch's career as a baseball player comes to an abrupt halt for some reason, he'll never have any trouble finding employment as a bouncer. The 6,11", 290-pound Rauch has spent most of his career as a middle-relief/setup man, but the 32-year-old performed admirably in the closer role for Minnesota last year when Joe Nathan was shut down for, say it with me now, Tommy John surgery. Rauch fashioned a tidy 3.12 ERA while saving 21 games in 25 opportunities. He also notched 18 saves in 24 opportunities in a year split between Washington and Arizona. Though he may not have the same calibre stuff that Francisco and Dotel do, Rauch is a solid ninth-inning option that shouldn't be hastily overlooked.

As for Frasor and Cordero, provided the aforementioned triumvirate don't all succumb to a Rick Ankiel-esque collapse, I don't see them getting much consideration for the closer's job.

Either way, Spring Training will make for some spicy competition.

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