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Francisco Cordero, The Blue Jay

Right-hander Francisco Cordero sat on the sideline as every other available closer on the free agent market found employment this winter. On Tuesday afternoon, however, it was reported that the 36-year-old native of the Dominican Republic agreed to a one-year, $4.5M deal with the Toronto Blue Jays.

He is expected to serve as the set-up man for the newly-acquired Sergio Santos, which will be the first year in a non-closer role for Cordero since he set-up for Ugueth Urbina for half of the 2003 season. Dave Cameron adroitly illustrated why Cordero was left on the outside of the closer’s market looking in — mostly due to a troubling decline in the ability to miss bats over the past few years — in this article.

It’s beneficial for the Blue Jays that Cordero will not be relied upon to be the team’s closer, because that declining strikeout rate was not the only red flag raised in 2011. The vast chasm between his 2.45 ERA and 4.02 FIP last season has been well-documented, but the other major concern stems from what appears to be a huge improvement from last year: his walk rate.

Cordero only walked 2.84 batters per nine innings last season, his lowest total since 2007 and well below his career average of 4.09 BB/9. That is good. The issue, however, is that Cordero no longer pounds the strike zone. In 2011, he only threw 38.8% of his pitches inside the zone, which was the fifth-lowest in the league (minimum 60 IP). Only Kyle Drabek, Derek Lowe, Livan Hernandez, and Jonny Venters threw fewer pitches in the strike zone last season.

The odds are stacked against him that he will be able to maintain a low walk rate, considering he is throwing fewer pitches in the strike zone and not inducing more swings on pitches outside the zone.

His low Zone% in 2011 also suggests the right-hander’s stuff has declined to the point that he needs to rely upon deception and getting guys to chase more than ever before in his career. That notion is further evidenced by his increased reliance on his offspeed stuff. His fastball has lost two MPH over the last two seasons, and Cordero only threw it 41.2% of the time in 2011. That is a stark decline from 66.7% in 2010. His changeup usage has jumped dramatically, and he has begun flipping up a curveball from time to time.

Quite simply, Francisco Cordero is undergoing a transformation on the mound, the same transformation that many aging pitchers have to endure. He is attempting to deal with declining stuff. This has manifested itself in the form of more offspeed pitches, fewer strikeouts, more groundballs (his GB% reached 50% for the first time in his career last year), and fewer pitches in the zone — all of which should contribute to more walks issued next season.

His effectiveness on the mound is waning. When his ERA rises from 2.45 ERA, people will point to a stabilizing BABIP as the reason for the regression in performance. That will certainly be a reason. The real culprit for the higher earned run average, however, will be that Francisco Cordero doesn’t have the stuff that he once did. He is attempting to modify his approach and get by with a little more smoke-and-mirrors. That (and a healthy dose of luck) worked for him in 2011. Do not expect it to quite as well in 2012 for the Blue Jays.

Luckily, Toronto only signed Cordero to a one-year deal. It’s tough to get too worked up about any one-year deal. The real issue for Toronto is not the amount of money invested, but the fact that they acquired a depreciating asset. How much he depreciates next season is up in the air, but the fact that he has posted FIPs of 3.92 and 4.02 the past two years, respectively, is not a good sign.

If the wheels do simply fall off for the right-hander and his effectiveness on the mound is completely shot, Toronto does have Casey Janssen and Darren Oliver who can help pick up the pieces and hold down the set-up duties. Hopefully, it does not come to that and he can post respectable numbers in the eighth inning, because Cordero has been one of the most successful closers of the past decade. It would be a shame to witness such a dramatic fall from grace.

Unfortunately, though, the numbers suggest his days as an elite reliever are over, and one could argue that his days as even an effective reliever are severely limited.