It's not often that a successful closer hits the free agent market with less fanfare than Casey Janssen. The Toronto Blue Jays' closer for the past three seasons, Janssen is getting nowhere near the publicity of pitchers like David Robertson and Andrew Miller. Janssen has provided some spectacular innings for the Jays over the last several years, but a lengthy medical history and lackluster 2014 season cloud an otherwise sunny profile.
*2015 Steamer projection
Who is he?
Janssen is a 33 year old right-hander who was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 4th round of the 2004 draft. A UCLA product, Janssen rose quickly through the minors. He made his MLB debut as a starter in April 2006, and made 17 starts in 19 appearances for an injury riddled Blue Jays rotation. He missed all of the 2008 season after undergoing labrum repair surgery on his right shoulder, and transitioned to full-time bullpen duty in 2010. He took over the closer role in 2012 after Sergio Santos underwent a similar surgery on his shoulder labrum. Janssen kept the job for three years, converting 81 of 91 save chances, and is now a free agent.
Why should we care?
Janssen has put up some excellent numbers with the Blue Jays over the past four years. He has allowed a 2.77 ERA and 3.06 FIP in 217 2/3 innings since the start of the 2011 season. He has been worth 3.7 WAR during that stretch, including three seasons of 1.1 WAR or more. Janssen tallied 170 strikeouts in 172 innings while allowing just 38 walks from 2011 to 2013. He has been equally effective against righties and lefties in his career, holding both under a .700 OPS.
One thing that jumps out about Janssen's numbers is his extremely low walk rate. He has only issued 121 walks in 493 innings, a rate of 2.21 per nine innings. He was even better in his three years as the Blue Jays' closer, walking 1.72 batters per nine innings. This has resulted in a career 1.22 WHIP, and a 0.99 WHIP in the past three years.
Despite having the "proven closer" label attached to his name, Janssen probably will not fetch a "proven closer" price this offseason. This is partially due to some of the concerns addressed below, but also because he is not viewed as a "dominant closer." His fastball rests in the low 90s and he doesn't generate the gaudy strikeout numbers of the top closers in the game. Janssen did not receive a qualifying offer from the Blue Jays, and will not have any draft pick compensation tied to his name this winter.
Why should we stay away?
While he has been very good over the past few years, Janssen is already approaching his mid-30s and has a significant injury history. The fact that he is still pitching at such a high level after a labrum repair is impressive in itself, but Janssen also had surgery to remove bone spurs from his right shoulder in 2012. He has also spent time on the disabled list due to elbow tightness in the past.
Concerns over his shoulder have become amplified over the past couple years as his fastball velocity has declined sharply. He averaged 92 miles per hour with his fastball in 2012, but that average velocity dipped all the way to 89 miles per hour in 2014. This coincided with a sharp decline in his swinging strike percentage and strikeout rate. As you might expect, Janssen's overall numbers also suffered. He allowed a 3.94 ERA and 4.14 FIP in 45 2/3 innings last season, well above the 2.46 ERA and 2.77 FIP he posted from 2011 to 2013.
Will he end up in Detroit?
I would like the idea of bringing Janssen in a lot better if his shoulder weren't held together with paper clips and bubble gum, but odds are a lot of other teams would too. A healthy Janssen is one of the most underrated relievers in baseball, and his excellent command would be a nice addition to the bullpen. While he doesn't necessarily need a high strikeout rate to be successful -- his WHIP was still just 1.18 in 2014 -- he showed that there is a significant difference in his results when he can generate the occasional whiff. Odds are a team looking for a cheap closer or setup man will get preference over the Tigers, who will look to shoehorn him into a sixth or seventh inning role.