The struggles of Toronto closers is not a new phenomenon. When it comes to the ninth innings of games, the Blue Jays have rarely had a Mariano Rivera or Brian Wilson type closer who they know will come into the game and protect a lead.
If the Blue Jays are going to be serious playoff candidates, they need to find a lights out closer. It is no coincidence that the World Series wins in 1992 and 1993 were anchored by the outstanding closing of Tom Henke and Duane Ward.
Let’s take a look at the Blue Jays closing problems since 1999.
Koch was originally drafted fourth overall in 1996 and took the closers role three years later. With the ability to throw at 100 mph, Koch was an extremely dominating closer at times.
His best year came in 2000 when he posted a 2.63 ERA and a 1.22 WHIP to go along with 33 saves. However, his following year was not nearly as impressive. Despite saving more games (36), his ERA climbed to 4.80 and his WHIP to 1.47. His K/BB ratio declined as well.
At the end of the 2001 season, Koch was traded to Oakland for Erik Hinske and Justin Miller as new Blue Jays G.M J.P Ricciardi looked to transform the organization. In a deal that worked out pretty well for both sides, Koch had another good year setting highs in saves, strikeouts and innings pitched. It was to be his last good year as spells with the Chicago White Sox and the Florida Marlins proved to be unsuccessful.
Not for the first time, Toronto needed more than one closer in a season. 2003 saw Toronto begin the year with Cliff Politte as closer but blowing six out of 18 save opportunities combined with an ERA of 5.66 saw him replaced by Aquilino Lopez. Lopez was an upgrade, his 3.42 ERA and WHIP of 1.25 were decent if not outstanding.
Lopez failed to build on this relatively solid start and he was gone by 2004. He is now pitching in the Korean leagues. Despite his poor year in 2003, Politte was signed by the Chicago White Sox and was part of the outstanding bullpen that helped them to the 2005 World Series.
Before his trade to the White Sox, Frasor was been a constant in the Toronto bullpen for the last few years. In a terrible year for the Blue Jays where they finished 67-94, the rookie Frasor lead the team with 17 saves but he posted a relatively mediocre 4.08 ERA and 1.46 WHIP.
This would not be the first time that Frasor would be used in the closers role.
Having disappointed as a starter the year before, Batista was moved to the closers role where he was equally ineffective. His 4.10 ERA and 1.43 WHIP were almost identical to Frasor’s numbers the year before. On top of that, Batista blew eight of his 39 save attempts.
It was to be the last season in Toronto for Batista as he was included in the Troy Glaus trade that sent him to Arizona. After a couple of years as a similarly average starter in Arizona and Seattle, Batista has spent the last couple of years as an average reliever for a number of teams and has garnered more attention for insulting the women of Iowa than for anything he achieved on the mound!
He is currently pitching at Triple-A Buffalo in the New York Mets organization.
In 2006, Toronto finished 12 games above .500 and had their best finish since the 1993 World Series coming second in the AL East. This was in no small part to the excellent season of new closer B.J Ryan.
Ryan was signed to huge five-year $47 million dollar deal and in his first year looked to be a value. Ryan posted a remarkable 1.37 ERA and incredible 0.85 WHIP. His 38 saves put him third in the league and he only blew four saves all season.
His deceptive delivery and deadly slider contributed to a 100-strikeout season and put Ryan among the elite closers in the game.
No one could foresee the fall from grace Ryan was set for.
Ryan was put on the disabled list with what turned out to be a season-ending UCL ligament tear. Someone needed to step in to the closer role. Somewhat unexpectedly, it was Jeremy Accardo. Accardo was little more than a throw in the trade that got Shea Hillenbrand out of Toronto, and yet he began his role with 21 consecutive scoreless innings.
Accardo continued to impress in Ryan’s absence posting a 2.14 ERA and 1.11 WHIP. However it was to be a one off, Accardo never game close to replicating the form of 2007. After regularly bouncing between Triple-A and the Major Leagues, Accardo was non-tendered by the Blue Jays and he signed with the Baltimore Orioles where he is currently playing for their minor league affiliation.
Ryan came back from Tommy John surgery and resumed his role as closer. While he again put up decent numbers, an ERA of 2.95 and a WHIP of 1.28, it was a significant decline from his pre-injury record.
Ryan’s fastball velocity had declined and his slider lacked the movement it had two years previous. This was shown in Ryan’s strikeout numbers which nearly halved from 2006.
It was to be the beginning of the end for Ryan. In 2009, he lost more velocity on his fastball and despite having nearly two years on his contract, he was released.
Despite the Blue Jays paying his salary Ryan was unable to find another club and retired.
Not for the first time, the Blue Jays had to change their closer part way through the season. With Ryan’s demise, Scott Downs initially stepped into the role but could not replicate his excellent form as set up man.
Frasor then took over and performed admirably ending with 11 saves and a very impressive 1.02 WHIP.
Frasor’s poor start to 2010 lead to the newly acquired Kevin Gregg taking over as closer. Gregg had struggled the previous year in Chicago but ended up having a decent year.
While his numbers were not outstanding, Gregg provided a stable presence at the back end of the bullpen. His ERA and WHIP were both a little too high to be a top line closer (3.51 and 1.39) and there were a couple of occasions where Gregg lost his cool and had to be replaced when the game was on the line.
At the end of the year, Gregg was signed by Baltimore where he has performed to a similar standard to last year although his most notable performance was starting a fight with David Ortiz.
While watching Gregg close out a game was often a nerve-racking experience, the performances of Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch have made Blue Jays fans long for the days of Gregg! Between them, Rauch and Francisco have combined to blow nine saves in 30 attempts.
Francisco was struggling so badly that he was taken out of the closers role. However, he has not given up a run in 10 appearances which may mean a return to the closers role.
Rauch has not been any better with an ERA of 4.47 and having given up 10 home runs.
With both players becoming free agents at the end of the season, it would seem unlikely that either player will return to Toronto in 2012.
If they ever want to compete in the AL East, Toronto’s struggles to find a consistent closer needs to be resolved. The current strategy of signing relievers for a year and then letting them go works for a team in transition, it is not a long-term option.
So what approach do the Blue Jays take? The two big free-agent closers this year are Jonathan Paplebon and Heath Bell but I can’t see the Blue Jays pursuing either. Both would require giving up a first-round draft pick and in Paplebon’s case, he has not been as effective in the last couple of years as his usual high standards.
As for the other names, no one really stands out. Jonathan Broxton is young and has had success in the past but a loss of form and injury make him too much of risk. Perhaps it is worth looking at Ryan Madsen who is still quite young and has done a good job as closer in Philadelphia, but with his good form he may be looking for a multi-year deal, a big risk when it comes to relief pitchers.
The Blue Jays may have to look to their minor league system. There are plenty of young arms but most are a few years away from the Major Leagues. Triple-A closer Danny Farquhar has struggled in Las Vegas while Wes Etheridge, who has been outstanding at High-A Dunedin allowing 10 earned runs all year, is still a long way from the majors.
Other options may include converting a starter. Henderson Alvarez is one name that has been discussed. His 100mph fastball and plus changeup would be a perfect combination, but Toronto wants to see what he can do as a starter first.
Dustin McGowan would be an option but management wants him to maintain a routine. A outside bet may be Kyle Drabek. A number of closers were starters who could not control their pitches, but Toronto is a long way from giving up on Drabek.
In short, there is no easy solution.