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Jon Rauch: Highest Paid Toronto Pitcher?

For the past four seasons, Jon Rauch has averaged exactly 1.0 WAR in value. A fly ball pitcher, his value is often determined by which side of the warning track his balls wind up on. Yesterday, the Toronto Blue Jays made him their latest free agent addition, signing him to a completely appropriate one-year deal worth $3.75 million. On the heels of the deals handed out to Rafael Soriano and Brian Fuentes, Rauch’s deal should be a bargain for the Jays, and along with Octavio Dotel, he gives them two sensible options at the back end of their pen.

Despite an uncharacteristically high .332 BABIP, Rauch had himself a nice little season in 2010. He posted a career high in FIP, HR/9, HR/FB, and saves. At first blush, it would seem that those first three stats were aided by Target Field, or as it may soon be known, PETCO North. While there’s probably a little truth to that, Rauch actually allowed a much higher OPS at home than he did on the road. Still, given Rauch’s normal rates, and the fact that Rogers Centre was so homeriffic last season, and that the Blue Jays play in the attack zone that is the AL East, a regression can be expected in 2011. Even with that caveat though, Rauch should be a good addition for the Jays.

What Rauch lacks in fastball velocity – his average 2010 fastball was just 90.9 MPH – he makes up for by pounding the strike zone (his first strike percentage of 64.1% the past three seasons was 10th among relievers with at least 100 innings pitched). And while he is still predominantly a fly ball pitcher, he has also shown some improvement in his GB/FB ratio. After posting a 0.50 GB/FB in 2005, Rauch has moved the needle closer to 1.00 in each of the past five seasons, culminating last year with a 0.85 GB/FB, a number that provides some hope that he can duplicate the low HR/9 and HR/FB marks he has posted the past two seasons.

For his career, Rauch looks remarkably similar to the man he’s replacing, Kevin Gregg – both have near identical FIP and xFIP marks, and are a miniscule 0.1 WAR apart in career value – but Rauch does have a couple of indicators that work in his favor. The first is K/BB ratio. Over the past three seasons, Rauch has compiled a 3.04 K/BB ratio, 21st best among relievers with at least 150 innings pitched in that timeframe. But Gregg’s less sparkling 1.93 ratio ranks a mere 67th out of 92 total qualifiers. Rauch doesn’t strike out as many batters as does Gregg, but he doesn’t walk nearly as many, and the latter may be more important given how patient hitters are in the AL East. The second indicator working in Rauch’s favor is Clutch. Neutral in 2008 and 2009, last season Rauch posted the best Clutch mark of his career – his 0.62 Clutch was 12th best in the Majors among qualified relievers, which stands in sharp contrast to the three negative seasons Gregg has put up these past three campaigns, for a total Clutch score of -2.40. Given these indicators and the fact that Gregg not only got more money, but more years from the Orioles, Anthopoulos and Co. look pretty sly in the swap.

Looking ahead to 2011, Rauch fits in nicely to the Jays’ pitching plans, and, along with Dotel, should be a nice one-two punch at the back end of their bullpen. Both pitchers are far better against righties than lefties, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Since both pitchers have the same skill set, it will give manager John Farrell the opportunity to mix and match his end of game duties, sprinkling Jesse Carlson and David Purcey in and around his two righties in order to get matchup advantages.

Looking at the Jays pitching staff overall, you can’t help but be impressed. While losing Scott Downs was a blow, the Jays do have replacements ready in Carlson (3.08 FIP vs. lefties last year) and Purcey (3.39). Amazingly, depending on how Jason Frasor and Brandon Morrow fare in arbitration, Rauch could actually end up being the highest paid Jays pitcher in 2011. All told, the Jays could wind up with a quality pitching staff for under $25 million, or less than the combined 2011 salaries of Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, Downs and Jesse Crain. The Blue Jays payroll isn’t as high as it was a few years back, but with Anthopoulos and Co. signing good players like Rauch to cost-effective deals, it may not have to be.