It must be frustrating for John Farrell. Two days from the all-star break and he’s back where he was when the Toronto Blue Jays broke spring training – leaning toward Jon Rauch to be his closer while waiting for Frank Francisco.
Bet the Blue Jays’ manager would kill for the tightrope-walking Jonathan Papelbon right now. Or just kill, period, after Francisco’s on-field implosion and boorish, profanity-laced media tirade on Thursday. Back in April, it was a matter of waiting for Francisco’s sore shoulder to heal. Now, it’s a matter of taking stuff that the manager says gives Francisco the “ability to dominate,” and building up his confidence and consistency. That would be palatable if Francisco was, say, 25. But his bio says he’ll be 32 on Sept. 11, and after losing his job with the pennant-winning Texas Rangers last season, the question is: Is he worth it?
The stuff that struck out Adrian Gonzalez and Dustin Pedroia in Boston says he is. The fastball that was three to four miles an hour slower on Thursday and all over the place says he isn’t. Could Francisco close for a playoff contender? No, but he isn’t being asked to do that. He’s being asked to close for the 2011 Blue Jays, and congratulations, John Farrell, you now know the difference between being a pitching coach with the Boston Red Sox and managing the Blue Jays.
There is no one in the Blue Jays’ minor-league system ready to close at the major-league level. Zach Stewart hears the whispers, but he’s still a starter. Brett Cecil also closed in college, but after a 15-win season as a starter and a demotion this year to get his velocity back, that’s no option right now. The rest are just names and Baseball America guesses, and then there’s Dustin McGowan and, well, light a candle for that one, okay?
“Closers come from here, there and everywhere,” general manager Alex Anthopoulos said on Friday. “Very seldom can you say they’re groomed. Usually you try to exhaust the possibility of a guy being a starter first. You don’t just say in the off-season: ‘This guy is going to close because he has great stuff.’ You have to know what you’re closing the door on. A back of the rotation starter? A front of the rotation starter? It’s easier to get relievers on the market than it is to find starters.”
For now, Farrell must mix and match Francisco, Rauch and maybe Octavio Dotel or Jason Frasor or Luis Perez. While that is far from inspiring, here’s a subtle reminder: Volumes of evidence show that big free-agent relief contracts are a huge risk.
The Blue Jays swallowed $18-million (all currency U.S.) to get rid of B.J. Ryan’s final year. Some of last winter’s big-money acquisitions such as Joaquin Benoit (three years, $16.5-million, 1.667 WHIP), Rafael Soriano (three years, $35-million, 1-1, 5.40, 1.733 WHIP until he was hurt) and Bobby Jenks (two years, $12-million, 2.234 WHIP) have been wastes. The Tampa Bay Rays let six relievers go last winter – they signed elsewhere for a combined $67.65-million – and are still a force despite having Kyle Farnsworth as their closer.
So the whole “why doesn’t Alex go out and spend some money?” gang just doesn’t get it. As Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated pointed out in spring training, young, stud starting pitchers are staying in games longer, and that has changed the way bullpens are constructed, placing a greater emphasis on specialization.
“It has,” Anthopoulos said, “become a game of matchups more and more.”
Francisco met with Anthopoulos and Farrell Friday and apologized to the reporter personally. “There was a lot of accountability,” Anthopoulos said of the meeting. “He told us, ‘I usually go seven good games in a row and have one bad one or 10 and have one bad one. I never do this: good game, bad game, good game.’”
There is a different bullpen dynamic in the game right now, and this is on Farrell and to a lesser degree bullpen coach Pat Hentgen and pitching coach Bruce Walton. We know about Francisco. Now we’re going to find out about them, because barring a free-agent miracle, this could be how the Blue Jays are going to use their bullpen for the next couple of seasons.