Roberto Osuna is going to be a reliever next season, according to Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins. Whether this is good news or not depends on your perspective on him, and young pitchers in general. Not enough is made about how good Osuna is, or rather, how good he would have to be to make the leap he did prior to the 2015 season. A starter for most of his time in the minor leagues, the lack of top-level prospects and the lack of depth in the bullpen forced the Jays to give Osuna a shot at the big league bullpen in spring training. Osuna impressed the brass enough to stick around, in a role he’d never done in his professional career and with just 22 innings in High-A ball. But you wouldn’t have known it with how he pitched, showing poise and prowess from his first outing, grabbing hold of the closer’s role quickly and never letting go.
From one angle, what to do with Osuna is an easy decision; Osuna has been a great closer, so why change what’s working? The Blue Jays have had enough turmoil in the bullpen the last couple years, searching for answers at the back-end even with Osuna there. Do they get another closer in free agency after a playoffs that inflated the value of elite relievers? Or cobble together an answer from several flawed pieces?
The other side of the argument is the sabermetric one, which suggests starters are much more valuable than closers. Baseball Prospectus’ WARP standings for pitchers draw this picture nicely; the best reliever in baseball, Andrew Miller, was 44th in pitcher WARP behind names like Zach Davies, Wade Miley, and Jaime Garcia. Osuna, at 143rd, is behind Matt Garza, Wily Peralta, and Rubby De La Rosa. Those starters aren’t making any all-star teams. Heck, they wouldn’t make some rotations.
On a strict value basis, there’s not much to discuss. With a pitcher as young and good as Osuna, the Jays should make every effort to put Osuna in the rotation, to stretch him out and see if he can hack it as a starter. But there’s important context that we can’t ignore, based on where the Blue Jays are right now, what they hope to do in this upcoming season, and Osuna’s own career so far.
One consideration is the Jays’ current starting pitching depth. They can probably consider their rotation set, with Happ, Estrada, Sanchez, Stroman, and Liriano currently on the roster, and having earned their spots based on their performance last year. Are the Jays trading one of them to open up a spot for Osuna? Or telling Liriano he starts the season in the bullpen?
The success of fellow youngster Aaron Sanchez would seem to support the argument that Osuna should start, but there are some key differences. Sanchez had started for a time in 2015 before getting hurt and coming back in the bullpen. He’d built up a base of innings upon which to build. Osuna has now had two straight seasons where he’s been strictly a reliever, and even prior to that was building up stamina after his Tommy John surgery that knocked out some of his 2013 and 2014 seasons. If the Jays made him a starter now, they would have to monitor his workload heavily. He’s probably not throwing a whole season after two years of 70+ innings each. Are the Jays willing to plan for a couple partial seasons of Osuna in the rotation? Would Osuna pitching on an innings limit be that much better than their other options?
Another more current problem is the Jays’ thin bullpen. Even with Osuna, there are several questions as to how they bridge the gap from the starter to the closer, with the aforementioned Grilli as the only certain answer. You’re already looking at potentially replacing Cecil and Benoit, in addition to wanting to add more depth. Take Osuna out of there, and that’s another hole to fill. You’re taking away from what’s already a potential weakness to supplement what’s currently a strength.
On the flip side, you could argue that the Jays shouldn’t just look at 2017. Marco Estrada and Francisco Liriano are free agents after next season, and J.A. Happ after 2018. The Jays will have opportunities in the rotation soon enough, barring injuries or trades. A rotation with Sanchez, Osuna, and Stroman at the front sets the team up well for the next several seasons (and has a catchy S.O.S. nickname, which would hopefully be more frightening for opponents than the home team). The argument for Osuna as a starter is less for 2017, and more for the years after, something which might appeal to team president Mark Shapiro’s value-based sensibilities.
The Jays are also limited by what they’ve done already with Osuna. His rapid ascent, which reflects well on the player, was also partially a product of immediate need throwing a wrench into his development. The prior front office felt some urgency, and Osuna earned his spot. While the Jays can and should be delighted with how he’s done so far, there’s cause to wonder what might have been if he’d had a more traditional path through the minors.
While this piece certainly defends the idea of Osuna as a reliever, it isn’t to say that the Jays made the right decision on him, or the only decision. There have been many players that thrived in one pitching role and bombed in another, and many more that apprenticed in the bullpen and then were great starters afterwards. For every Aaron Sanchez, there is a Joba Chamberlain, someone who couldn’t make the transition back to starting after being a reliever. With much more of Osuna’s career yet to come, we have more questions than answers, and only Osuna and the Blue Jays will tell us how this resolves.
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