Can Sergio Santos Take The Closer Job From Casey Janssen?

Title: Can Sergio Santos Take The Closer Job From Casey Janssen?
Date: January 14, 2014
Original Source: Rotographs
Synopsis: As part of Rotographs’ season in review/2014 preview series, this article looked at Sergio Santos’ chances of becoming the Blue Jays’ closer because I’m an idiot and can’t quit him, ever.

Before the 2013 season, one of my 10 Bold Fantasy Predictions was that Sergio Santos would finish the season with more saves than Casey Janssen in the Toronto Blue Jays bullpen.

The final tally was razor-close, a 34-1 advantage for Janssen, with the Californian posting his third straight season with an ERA of 2.56 or lower. It was a very unsuccessful prediction.

But heading into 2014, I find myself wanting to double down on it and predict the former Blue Jays shortstop prospect to out-save the UCLA alum, even though the latter ranked 14th in relief pitcher value this season while the former didn’t crack the top-150. Am I just being really stubborn?

Probably, but have a look at what I wrote back in March:

Santos was picked up last year for a prospect and has a longer-term deal, so the Jays have incentive to give him a chance to win the job. Considering Janssen himself still isn’t sure about his status for opening night, it doesn’t take a bold imagination to see the strikeout-heavy Santos running with the gig after just one or two conversions.

Now, two things from that blurb remain true but seem somewhat less important now:

*The Jays did give up Nestor Molina for Santos, coming off a season in which the prospect had a 9.25:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio across high-A and Double-A. Two years removed, and with Molina not looking anything like a major league arm, that’s of little consideration for present-day decision making.

*Santos does have a longer deal, with the Jays holding club options for 2015 ($6M), 2016 ($8M) and 2017 ($8.75M). Janssen, meanwhile, had his $4M option picked up for this season but can become a free agent after this season. If the team were looking longer-term, “seeing what you have” in Santos would be a likely consideration, but it’s less of one with the team trying to compete in the present.

There’s an argument to be made that the latter point, in concert with the way the free agent market has played out for relievers this winter, makes Janssen a trade chip. I believe the same, but then again, the Jays very nearly dealt Santos in a three-team deal for Brett Anderson a few weeks back. The Jays will almost surely trade someone, as between Santos, Janssen and Steve Delabar they have three great right-handed arms at the back-end of the bullpen and holes to fill elsewhere.

Even if everyone sticks around, though, I think Santos can finish 2014 with more saves than Janssen. Something about idiots and not learning from their mistakes, but consider why Santos never really got the chance this year: on April 14, he hit the disabled list with a triceps strain and didn’t return until August. Janssen, meanwhile, was ready from basically day one, beating his expected recovery timeline from camp.

Now, Janssen did absolutely nothing to lose the job. He went 34-for-36 in save situations and his 56-for-61 over the past two seasons. His three-year ERA and FIP are 2.46 and 2.77, he induces groundballs and his strikeout rate – roughly 25 percent – is high enough to matter. Of the 31 pitchers with at least 50 saves since 2011, Janssen ranks 17th in strikeout rate, fifth in walk rate, 10th in FIP and 10th in ERA. He’s very good, and even if his name doesn’t come with “established closer,” he is very much that.

But here’s the thing – Santos’ stuff is downright filthy, and while Janssen is as steady as they come, Santos has the arsenal of a “shutdown closer.” In 2011 with the White Sox, he struck out 35.4 percent of batters he faced! Last year, that number “slid” to 31.1 percent. He only threw 25.2 innings, but using that very low threshold, he ranked 23rd league-wide in strikeout rate and second in swinging strike rate (17.7 percent) to only Koji Uehara.

He throws his slider nearly as much as his fastball and it has a whiff rate over 50 percent. Of all relievers to throw 200 or more sliders since 2007, only Fautino de los Santos can top Santos in whiff rate on the pitch. With a 500-pitch minimum across all offerings in the same time frame, he ranks 27th in overall whiff rate (Delabar his seventh, interestingly enough). [Per Baseball Prospectus]

He has legitimately lights-out stuff, and it’s going to be really tough for managerJohn Gibbons to keep from leveraging that lights-out stuff with games on the line. (In “real” baseball terms, perhaps it’s better that Delabar and Santos can be free of the closer role to be used in high-leverage situations regardless of inning, but we care about saves here.)

There are two issues with Santos, though. For one, he’s hit the 60-day DL in back-to-back seasons. While the injuries were reportedly unrelated (though I think a triceps strain could follow as an over-adjustment after labrum surgery), it’s possible the late switch from shortstop to pitcher has been too tough on his arm.

More importantly, it’s tough to be a fantasy asset without getting saves. The highest-ranked reliever without at least 10 saves this season was Luke Hochevar, in 24th. To rank in the top-50 among relievers without double-digit saves, you had to average 68 innings, 67 strikeouts, five wins, a 2.26 ERA and a WHIP of 0.99. Santos was better than that in a tiny 2013 sample but had previously been good-not-great. He’s going to need some save opportunities to be worth his salt.

There’s no way Janssen has the role taken from him entering the season, I don’t think. Maybe a deal goes down, but if it doesn’t, Janssen enters 2014 as the closer. It will take injury or poor performance for Santos to usurp him, but if he does, even for a short period, there won’t be any turning back.

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