When the news broke on Friday that Tony Reagins acquired Downs, most Halo fans probably thought the team was revealing that their GM had somehow contracted Down Syndrome, thus explaining the Carl Crawford Catastrophe. Nope, turns out the Angels merely made a sneaky (mostly) good move by picking up a reliable veteran reliever, Scott Downs.
Excellent reliever + questionable contract = Solid Move
Let's just get the nasty part out of the way first, shall we? For some reason, Tony Reagins seems to be a glutton for punishment when it comes to overpaying relievers. Having learned nothing from his misfires with Fernando Rodney, Brian Fuentes and (guh) Justin Speier, Tony still felt compelled to hand Downs a three-year deal for $15 million. In the next few paragraphs, I am going to gush about Downs' many virtues, but really, there is no excuse for that contract. Downs is going to be 35 years old on Opening Day, meaning he'll be 37 in the final year of the deal. Whether he'll be 37 and still in the bullpen or golfing in Arizona, enjoying his retirement, remains to be seen. And just to pour some salt in the wound, Downs is a Type A free agent, meaning the Angels will lose their second round pick in the 2011 draft to Toronto as a result. Yuck.
OK, so the contract is ugly, but it isn't exactly a payroll crippler either. If Downs fails to age with grace, the Halos will be overpaying him for sure, but he at least profiles as a guy who can survive for a number of years as no worse than a LOOGY. At best, the Halos might actually have themselves a steal.
Yes, that's right, a steal. While everyone is clamoring for the Angels to sign Rafael Soriano to a deal twice the size the one given to Downs to become the Angels' closer, Downs has a chance to step in and do as good a job (or close to it) as Soriano in a similar role, for a signigicantly smaller cost. It certainly isn't set in stone, or even clay, but if you look at the bullpen depth chart for the Halos right now, Downs is the most deserving of being installed as the closer.
As a southpaw, Downs has been death on left-handed batters for most of his career, holding them to a .219 average on his career. But don't let is his soft-tossing sinister ways fool you. Downs is pretty effective against righties as well. Over his career, he has limited righties to a .265 average, but he hasn't allowed an average over .254 since 2007 when he made the full-time move to relief work. The point here is that Downs is likely to be unfairly saddled as an elite lefty specialist when, in fact, he is really a standard issue really good reliever.
Now, that may not sound like the profile of a closer to you, but that could just be because Downs hasn't really had a legit shot at the gig. He lacks the power arm that most expect to see in that role, but who cares how he gets the job done, so long as he gets the job done, right? Now, before you go and start having post-traumatic Fuentes flashbacks, keep in mind that Downs is no Fuentes. Tito's biggest problem was that he had middling (at best) command and relied too much on deception. Downs, on the other hand, is far more stingy with the bases on balls and still generates plenty of whiffs. He may not have much better stuff than Tito did, but Downs isn't likely to get himself into a bunch of messes via the free pass. Plus, Downs is a groundball pitcher, which is a far cry from Fuentes' extreme flyball tendencies. In fact, Downs hasn't allowed more than 4 homers in a season since he became a reliever.
OK, I can tell from all the way across your internet connection that Downs as closer just isn't blowing your skirt up. Honestly, it isn't exactly doing it for me either, though I can feel a draft. I believe Downs can and will be useful to the Angels in the late innings, which exact inning though should be dictated by match-ups. I've tried selling this closer-by-committee idea before, to no avail (it is almost like Scioscia doesn't actually read my blog), but this year I think the idea has legs.
Downs can hold his own against righties, but there is a good chance that his numbers look a bit better in that regard because the Blue Jays had generally protected him from being overexposed against righties. The Angels would be wise to do the same. Downs surely can take care of business against the Jack Wilson's of the world, but have him face guys like Nelson Cruz too often and he is going to get burnt. So, rather than Mike Scioscia define everyone's role in the pen strictly by the inning number, Sosh needs to think just a little bit harder and take a look at what batters are up that inning. After all, there is no sense in saving Downs to pitch the ninth inning when Josh Hamilton is due up in the eighth where he will end up facing Fernando Rodney. Therefore I propose that Downs be designated the closer for innings in which the batters due up skew towards being more dangerous from the left-hand side. When that scale tips to the righty side, Sosh can call upon Fernando Rodney or Kevin Jepsen or Jordan Walden, really, whichever righty he trusts most at the time.
Is this likely to happen? No, probably not. Scisocia is a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist and he probably isn't the guy who is going to turn the era of relief specialization on its ear. But I do wish he would because it really is the best way to deploy the new look pen which is heavy on depth but light on elite talent (at least until Walden proves himself).