MLB: ALDS-Texas Rangers at Toronto Blue Jays

On Roberto Osuna, Aaron Sanchez, and a Player’s Wish

When the Blue Jays traded Ben Revere for Drew Storen, everybody began to wonder what that meant for last year’s golden boy, Roberto Osuna. Would he setup? Would he close? And what about going forward? Is he going to move into the rotation for 2017 and beyond? We don’t yet have an answer to the former questions, but yesterday Osuna provided some clarity on the latter. In a tremendous piece by John Lott over at VICE sports (seriously worth a read), Osuna admitted that, given the choice, he would like to remain in the bullpen full time. While the team seems to have different plans, if Osuna is worried about his arm holding up (as he admits in the piece), you have to imagine the Jays would take a long hard look at what is best for the future of their young hurler.

There are a few takeaways from this. The first thing to consider is how this could affect the Blue Jays’ usage of Osuna in 2016. When Storen was first acquired, I wrote a piece for Blue Jays Plus that argued for the former National to immediately assume the closer role. I wanted Osuna to become a 100-110 inning super reliever in the mold of Duane Ward, with an eye towards transitioning into the rotation in the future.

However, if Osuna is going to be stuck in the bullpen for good, there is some logic to putting him back into the closer role and letting pending free agent Drew Storen handle a setup role. There is no longer a real need to build up Osuna’s innings, and he has shown an aptitude and desire for closing out games. If Storen is truly willing to accept the lesser job, the team may as well make their long term fixture of happy. Sure, Storen wouldn’t enter free agency as a capital-c, ‘Closer’, but teams are clearly realizing that paying more for saves is a fools errand, so his market shouldn’t change much.

I also imagine that many fans reacted to Osuna’s statements with disappointment. It is fun to dream of a future rotation fronted by Marcus Stroman, Roberto Osuna, and Aaron Sanchez. Ironically, Sanchez happens to be in the exact opposite situation from Osuna; he wants to start, but may ultimately be ticketed for the bullpen.

This all calls back to the situation faced by another AL East closer, the Yankees’ Aroldis Chapman. When he was first coming up with the Reds, Chapman still hadn’t mastered his command. As a result, the Reds sent him to the bullpen, where, like Sanchez and Osuna, he thrived in the role. However, many pundits ultimately called for his return to the rotation. “He is too valuable to be limited to 70 innings,” they cried.  The Reds agreed that a good starter has more value than a good closer, so they stretched Chapman out in spring training. But nobody, it seems, had actually asked what the Cuban fireballer wanted to do. When a reporter finally posed the question, Chapman was unequivocal; he wanted to close. He never started a game in the big leagues.

Like Osuna, Chapman had become a fan of the adrenaline that came with constantly pitching with the game on the line. Also like Osuna, Chapman chose to stay on that path, even if it cost him some money down the road. Aaron Sanchez prefers a different path – one that perhaps leads to less excitement, but where he feels he can have the most impact on the game.

All of that said, it is not Osuna’s role this year, his job next year, or his salary in the future that sticks out most to me with John Lott’s report. Instead it is the reminder of just how much we ignore when we try to play manager or GM. We attempt to determine the optimal spot for the players and then we just assume that they’ll be happy and comfortable when the reality is often anything but.

Yes, Troy Tulowitzki might be better suited to hitting atop the Jays lineup with Kevin Pillar somewhere down around the bottom. In a vacuum, that’s clearly the better choice. But baseball is not played in a vacuum. It is played on the field. It is played by people who we view as superheros, but who are very much human beings, with human emotions. If an athlete isn’t comfortable, they simply won’t perform at their peak.

Why do you think Jose Reyes was allowed to stay at shortstop for so long? It certainly wasn’t because John Gibbons couldn’t see his eroding skills. It was because while Gibbons is a manager of talent, he is also a manager of men, and a happy Jose Reyes is probably much more productive than an unhappy one.

You will see strands of this in probably every clubhouse in baseball. Derek Jeter didn’t stay at shortstop for so long because he belonged there, and Mike Piazza never moved to first base even when it was clearly his optimal position. They stayed where they were because their teams felt they would be more productive offensively if they were happy defensively. Jeter identified as a shortstop, Piazza as a catcher and now Roberto Osuna, it seems, as a closer.

Of course, the difference between all of those players and Roberto Osuna is that they were established superstars, and superstars tend to get their way. We’re already seeing signs that the team is choosing what they feel is the best role for Sanchez, regardless of his wishes. If Osuna’s comments on his future role are to believed, then the Mexican righty might be in for a similar letdown.

This is definitely a story to follow through 2016 and beyond. The Blue Jays have two very young, very talented pitchers who want two very different things. You can’t always please everybody, but hopefully they can make these two happy. If not, let’s hope they can rise above it and, to borrow a phrase from the US Army, be all that they can be.

I still want Osuna to start. However, it’s clearly not up to me, and it may not be entirely up to management. Roberto Osuna has a say in his ultimate destiny, and that’s the way it should be.

Lead Photo: Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports

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1 comment on “On Roberto Osuna, Aaron Sanchez, and a Player’s Wish”

Gary W

It’s worth noting that while yes, Osuna could make more long-term as a starter, there are financial risks in asking his arm to make a transition from a role he’s already proven he can carry out. If making money for his family and future family is the goal, the relief trajectory he’s on will do a fine job of it, and there’s value in that. Do you risk the few million a year you know you can make for the potential to make more? Easy to say yes on paper, but you can’t blame him for wanting the more secure option that’s more likely to pay out.

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