The Blue Jays Closer Situation

By Erik Hahmann
Trying to predict who will end the season leading the Blue Jays in saves is like trying to beat the UConn women’s basketball team: It just can’t be done. Over the last five years there have been four different saves leaders for Toronto, with no one leading in back-to-back seasons. The 2009 season was especially rough on the closer position for the Jays, as the team leader had 11 saves. Here’s the list of the leaders over the past five seasons and their saves totals:
2009: Jason Frasor (11)
2008: B.J. Ryan (32)
2007: Jeremy Accardo (30)
2006: B.J. Ryan (38)
2005: Miguel Batista (31)
The Jays are staging a three-man competition for closer this spring, meaning there’s a good chance we will see another new face atop that list. The three men involved in this competition are Toronto stalwarts Jason Frasor and Scott Downs, along with the newly acquired Kevin Gregg. Let’s focus on Frasor and Downs first.
jasonfrasor.jpgThe Blue Jays turned to Frasor for their closing duties last season after releasing the oft-injured B.J. Ryan in early July. Frasor, who had closing experience from his 2004 rookie campaign, responded well to the promotion, putting up a 2.50 ERA, striking out 56 batters and walking just 16 in saving 11 games for a bad Blue Jays team. The 2.50 ERA is nearly two full runs lower than it had been over his three previous seasons, so some regression might be in order – despite some encouraging progress in his walk rate, which was by far the best of his career.

Since converting into a full-time reliever in the 2007 season, Downs has been one of the best set-up men in baseball. His ERA hasn’t finished above 3.09 and his Ground Ball Percentage (GB%) has never fallen below 55.7% in that time frame. That last part is important since keeping balls on the ground, and by extension in the yard, is an important part of a closer’s duties. Downs did save nine games a season ago, but Blue Jays Manager Cito Gaston seems like he’d rather Downs fill the type of roving reliever role that J.P. Howell has with the Rays, saying: “I’ve got a feeling that Scott, he’ll pitch anywhere you want him to pitch. He’s not going to be upset if he’s closing or not closing.” Not a good sign for the Scott Downs For Closer supporters out there.

The Blue Jays signed Gregg to a one year, $2.75 million dollar contract this winter. Gregg is an experienced closer with 85 career saves under his belt. He had a rocky 2009 season with the Cubs – his ERA was over 5.00 in early June and ended at 4.72 – losing his closing to Carlos Marmol. That’s even though Gregg posted a 9.31 K/9 and his lowest walk rate since 2006, numbers which suggested some back luck on the ERA front. Home runs were his bugaboo, allowing 13 in only 68.2 IP after yielding just 10 in the previous two seasons combined. The 13 home runs are an outlier, likely to make their way back down this season, which would in turn make Gregg’s other numbers look respectable once again.

If the Jays wanted to make a decision based solely on spring stats (a policy we would not advise given the issues of small sample size and uneven competition), Downs and his 0.00 ERA and 5 Ks would be the runaway winner to this point, with Gregg (5.40 ERA) second and Frasor (8.31) a distant third.

Taking everything into consideration, Gregg looks like the Jays’ most likely pick. Losing teams rarely spend nearly three million dollars on a reliever that’s not finishing games for them, and 20-plus saves for Gregg at the trade deadline could make him more attractive to a contender, potentially enabling the Jays to add prospects to their farm system. Gregg’s Average Draft Position is 329th, making him a cheap late-round pickup that could end up paying dividends – even if only for a few months.

For more information and tools on evaluating the closer position in your draft, check out Bloomberg Sports’ fantasy kit.

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