After the Toronto Blue Jays revamped their lineup this offseason, everyone and their dog has tried their hand at a lineup prediction. How will their starting rotation be organized? What will their defensive alignment look like on opening day? Batting order? Your guess is as good as mine, but amidst all that, there is still another position that needs to be addressed: the closer.
At the beginning of last year, the closers role was to be filled by the newly acquired Sergio Santos. Coming off a 30-save season for the Chicago White Sox in 2010, the former first round draft pick looked to be the answer at the back end of the pitching staff.
The season started poorly for Santos with two blown saves in his first two opportunities but he straightened out his stat line over his next three appearances, recording two saves and a scoreless inning to finish off the Tampa Bay Rays.
General manager Alex Anthopoulos acquired Santos in December of 2011 before the season in hopes of acquiring a mainstay in the closers role for years to come. Santos is signed through 2017 and a team option in each of the last three years makes him highly controllable – a quality Anthopoulos has been known to look for in a contract.
2011 did not prove Santos was a household name. He was placed on the disabled list after his second save of the season. Without making progress for a number of months, Santos underwent season ending surgery on his shoulder. For the rest of the year, Santos was merely a name on a list of injured pitchers that continued to grow throughout the season.
Cue the third act of Casey Janssen’s career, when he filled in for the injured Santos. Janssen began with the Blue Jays as a starting pitching in 2006, but was moved to bullpen in the following years. Last year he was put into the closers role full time, completing the pitching hat trick.
He spent the majority of 2007 onwards pitching out of the bullpen and became the longest serving Blue Jay with the recent departure of Jason Frasor. To put it in perspective, the 2006 lineup that Janssen started his career with sported the likes of Eric Hinske (well past his ROY season), Gustavo Chacin, Russ Adams and was managed by – wait for it – John Gibbons.
Janssen recorded a respectable 22 saves last year, with a 2.54 ERA in 62 appearances. Janssen was a suitable replacement in relief of Santos and his performance will, at the very least, warrant a battle in spring training for the closers role.
By all accounts it is a two-man race for the closers job between Janssen and Santos. As it stands right now, the job is Janssen’s to lose. The fall back plan is the capable and experienced Sergio Santos, a luxury many clubs do not have.
This battle may be decided by injuries though. If Santos cannot make a successful comeback to start the year, then the job will land in the hands of Janssen. Conversely if Janssen catches the injury bug, then Santos will be the benefactor.
The closer has a unique job because it is not uncommon to see the pressure of ninth inning, with the crowd on their feet cheering on every pitch, alter a pitcher’s performance. Some pitchers thrive in that situation and some cannot handle it.
Experience is the only way to tell if a pitcher can handle the closer position and get them acclimated to the pressure. Santos proved he can handle the duties with his 30 saves in 2010, and while Janssen only recorded 22 saves last year, he has finished 36% of his 283 Major League appearances. He too is no stranger to the final inning.
But just how important is the closer?
Seven out of the past ten World Series champions have had a closer on their roster record at least 30 saves. The three exceptions are somewhat unique situations.
The 2003 World Series champion Florida Marlins had Braden Looper record 28 saves for them. Those Marlins were a team that struggled mightily throughout the year and made the playoffs as a wild card team 10 games back of the division lead. They hit their stride at the right time winning 21 of their last 29 regular season games and continued their hot play all the way to the World Series.
The St. Louis Cardinals failed to have a 30-save closer in their 2011 championship run but had Fernando Salas record 24 saves and Jason Motte get an additional 9 in the regular season before taking over the closing duties in the playoffs.
Last year the San Francisco Giants trusted Santiago Casillas with closing duties and he recorded 25 saves before Sergio Romo came in. He also recorded 14 regular season saves and was lights out for the Giants in the playoffs.
In all of these scenarios the quantity of saves was still there, they just did not come from one person. It clear that the ability to save a game is crucial.
It is no stretch of the imagination to believe that a team’s ability to win close games is directly related to their ability to make the playoffs and ultimately win the World Series. If the Blue Jays consider themselves a contender, then finding the right player for the closers role becomes extremely important.
If Casey Janssen cannot stay healthy or can’t get the job done, look for Sergio Santos to step into the closers role without missing a beat.