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Frank Francisco Traded to Toronto, But Will He Be the Blue Jays Closer in 2011?

The Toronto Blue Jays were finally able to find a taker for Vernon Wells’ hefty contract, dealing him to the Angels last Friday in exchange for Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera. (Click here for fantasy perspective on Vernon Wells in Anaheim.)

On Tuesday, the Blue Jays flipped Napoli to the Rangers for relief pitcher Frank Francisco. (Click here for fantasy perspective on Mike Napoli in Texas.)

Francisco (the guy formerly known for throwing a chair into the stands) will join the recently acquired Octavio Dotel and Jon Rauch in a battle this spring to determine the team’s closer for the 2011 season.

Of course nothing will be decided until March, but it’s never to early too speculate.

Both Dotel and Rauch landed unlikely ninth-inning gigs in 2010, saving 22 and 21 games, respectively. Francisco saved 25 games for the Rangers in 2009, but lost his job early last season to oncoming AL Rookie of the Year Neftali Feliz.

While all three have recent closing experience, none of them have been used exclusively as a closer in the past. Basically, the Blue Jays have three fully qualified eighth innings guys, but no clear-cut option to close games.

To find the best option for the job, we’ll compare relief pitcher-relevant statistics from last season:

Strikeout Rate

  • Francisco: 10.25 K/9
  • Dotel: 10.55 K/9
  • Rauch: 7.18 K/9

Walk Rate

  • Francisco: 3.08 BB/9
  • Dotel: 4.50 BB/9
  • Rauch: 2.18 BB/9

Rauch clearly doesn’t have dominant stuff, but his excellent walk rate is a big plus. Francisco and Dotel had near identical superb strikeout rates last season, but Francisco’s walk rate was much better.

ERA/FIP

  • Francisco: 3.76 ERA/3.12 FIP
  • Dotel: 4.08 ERA/4.20 FIP
  • Rauch: 3.12 ERA/2.94 FIP

(Check out this clever video for an explanation of FIP.)

Francisco posted a respectable ERA, while his .321 BABIP and 73.8 percent LOB rate actually signal a bit of poor luck. His 3.12 FIP supports this.

After lowering his ERA in each of the three seasons prior to 2010, Dotel’s ERA shot back up over four, despite a .269 BABIP.

Rauch’s .320 BABIP actually signals poor luck, but the 32-year-old shined last season, posting his best ERA since 2004. While his FIP supports this, his xFIP (or expected FIP) was 4.18. This is due to Rauch’s unusually low HR/FB rate of 3.7 percent. This is not a good sign for 2011.

Next, we’ll target a few not-so-obvious stats that are generally indicative of a good closer.

Contact Rate

To give you a frame of reference, the MLB average in 2010 was 80.7 percent. Francisco and Dotel were both filthy by this standard, while Rauch was very hittable.

Another intriguing stat (especially with relievers) is first-pitch strike rate. You expect your closer to throw strikes, especially with the first pitch. Nobody wants the guy who’s going to extend the game by walking a guy in the late innings.

First-Strike Rate

(The MLB average in 2010 was 58.8 percent.)

Dotel’s unusually low rate could help explain his poor season, as it’s tough to get hitters out when you’re always behind in the count. Conversely, Francisco and Rauch posted above-average rates.

Fastball Value

While Francisco had the best fastball of the group, he also and the best average fastball velocity (93.4 MPH).

Based on the compilation of these statistics, Frank Francisco is the best option to close games for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2011. It just so happens that he’s also the youngest, entering his age-31 season (compared to Dotel, 37 and Rauch, 32).

While much can change between now and Opening Day, or even Opening Day and the end of the season, Frank Francisco is currently the Blue Jays’ best option. If you’re drafting super-early this season, he’s the guy you want to target in Toronto.

Stop by the 2011 Fantasy Baseball Insiders Closer’s Corner for a full updated list of team-by-team closing situations!

Image courtesy of: Chris Creamer, Sportslogos.net

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