Gaston not ready to anoint closer
Frasor, Downs, Gregg all vying for coveted ninth-inning job
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston is not quite ready to reveal who will be the primary occupant of the ninth inning this season. With a little less than three weeks remaining until Opening Day, Gaston wants to hold off on naming his closer.
On Wednesday, Jason Frasor, Scott Downs and Kevin Gregg -- the trio of relievers vying for the closer's role this spring -- made the trip to Ed Smith Stadium for another round in the competition in a road tilt against the Orioles. Early in Spring Training, Gaston indicated that he might consider having two of the pitchers share the ninth-inning duties this year.
Now, Gaston said he plans on anointing one primary closer to open the season.
"I'm pretty sure that's the best way to do it," said Gaston, sitting in the visitors' dugout prior to Wednesday's contest. "Let the guy know. Let them know where they stand -- this guy is going to close."
In determining who will win that role, Gaston and Blue Jays pitching coach Bruce Walton devised a different strategy for using the closing candidates this spring.
Early in the Grapefruit League schedule, when starting pitchers only work two or three innings, Gaston wanted Frasor, Downs and Gregg to pitch as early in the game as possible. That has helped the three pitchers face some of the opposing clubs' better hitters, considering teams tend to play Minor Leaguers more often in later innings.
As the starters' innings have increased throughout the spring, forcing the closing candidates to work later in games, Gaston wanted the closing candidates to appear in some road games. Since rosters have started to be trimmed, road games provide a chance for the pitchers to possibly face better lineups.
Gaston and Walton made these changes after how some of the veteran relievers were used last spring, when the Blue Jays also had a high volume of starting candidates in camp. With few innings to spread around, Toronto's relief pitchers made frequent trips to the team's Minor League complex to appear in Triple-A games.
If possible, Gaston hoped to avoid such a scenario this spring.
"We're trying to get them in some competition," Gaston said, "so we can get a better idea of what they're doing. Last year, most of the time, they'd throw over at the Minor League camp. I never really got a chance to see them a lot of times. With these three guys, that's one thing that Bruce and I talked about. We wanted to see them in competition with some good hitters."
One thing Gaston said he won't do this year is have one of the two setup men replace the closer for a specific series based on matchups. Gaston indicated that the only time he might use that type of approach is if the primary closer needs an extra day or two of rest due to a heavy workload.
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"If you tell a guy he's your closer, then you just can't go and do that all the time," Gaston said.
Frasor, Downs and Gregg have appeared in the same game for all of their one-inning outings this spring. On Wednesday, Downs pitched in the sixth inning, and then Gregg and Frasor followed in the seventh and eighth, respectively. The three innings they combined to log against Baltimore did little to separate one from the others in the competition, though.
Downs issued a leadoff walk, but he recovered with a strikeout, groundout and then a pickoff at first base to bring an abrupt end to the sixth. Gregg induced a pair of groundouts and had one strikeout, mixing in a two-out walk that proved harmless in the end. Frasor retired the only three hitters he faced with two groundouts and a flyout.
The results brought Gaston no closer to a decision.
"That's a good problem to have, right?" Gaston said with a laugh. "They all did great."
So far this spring, the left-handed Downs is the only one of the closing candidates without an earned run against him. Gregg -- signed to a one-year, $2.75 deal in the offseason -- has given up two runs over four innings with one home run. Frasor has surrendered four runs and one home run in 3 1/3 innings.
All four of the runs Frasor has yielded came against the Braves on Sunday, when the right-hander was able to record only one out before being pulled. In that outing, Frasor continued turning to his changeup, even though he did not have a good feel for the pitch. The end result was not pretty, but Frasor might have handled the outing differently in the regular season.
Last year, Frasor's changeup helped him fashion a 2.50 ERA over 61 games in the best season of his six-year tour with the Jays. That is one reason Toronto turned to Frasor as a closer throughout the campaign after releasing former closer B.J. Ryan. Gaston saw a more confident Frasor last year and believes the righty is capable of handing the pressure of a late-inning role.
"He's turned a corner for me," Gaston said. "I think he's grown, and giving him the opportunity to go back out there and pitch is giving him some confidence. He's done a good job for us."
With 84 career saves, Gregg has more experience as a closer than Frasor or Downs, and he signed with Toronto due to the great chance to earn the ninth-inning job. Downs, who saved nine games a year ago, has thrived as a setup man in his time with Toronto, and Gaston does not believe the lefty will be upset if the primary closer's role is handed to Gregg or Frasor.
"I've got a feeling that Scott, he'll pitch anywhere you want him to pitch," Gaston said. "He's not going to be upset if he's closing or not closing. If he turns out to be the better guy, then you'll use him, but he's just the type where he's going to come in to pitch and do whatever you want him to do.
"I don't think I have trouble with any of those guys out there."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.