Since coming to the Blue Jays as a long man and spot starter prior to the 2005 season, Downs has developed into one of the premiere left-handed setup men in the game. He became a quiet leader within Toronto's reliefs corps and is now on the verge of being an attractive free-agent arm on the open market.
Downs is not the only veteran reliever who could be on the move for the Blue Jays, either. Right-hander Jason Frasor -- after being a fixture in Toronto's bullpen for the past seven seasons -- is also eligible for free agency this winter. So, too, will be closer Kevin Gregg, if the Jays opt against picking up his club option for 2011.
Losing all three would create a gaping hole at the back end of the Blue Jays' bullpen. Younger pitchers would suddenly be in the mix for late-inning roles, creating uncertainty behind Toronto's young rotation. One way or another, the Blue Jays will likely seek to keep some more experienced arms in their 'pen.
"You need a veteran presence in the back end of the bullpen," Blue Jays pitching coach Bruce Walton said at the end of the season. "It's very important just because of the division we play in. When we go into Boston's house and we go into New York's house. I think the more experience you have, the easier it is to get those games locked down."
It seems probable that the Jays will look to retain the 32-year-old Gregg, who saved a career-high 37 games in 2010 and has an affordable $4.5 million club option for next season. It also seems likely that 34-year-old right-hander Shawn Camp -- arguably Toronto's top reliever last year -- will be in line for a setup job.
Downs and the 33-year-old Frasor, who have combined to pitch 758 games for the Blue Jays dating back to 2004, seem more likely to head elsewhere. Both relievers qualify as Type A free agents, meaning they will be worth two compensation picks each in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft if they decline arbitration and sign with a new team.
Those extra Draft picks are attractive to a Blue Jays club that is trying to strengthen its system from top to bottom.
Beyond Camp, Walton identified left-hander David Purcey and right-hander Casey Janssen as in-house options that have shown flashes of late-inning ability. Should Downs and Frasor -- both setup men for the Jays -- go on to join new clubs, general manager Alex Anthopoulos is not guaranteed to be searching for veteran alternatives.
"It depends on who's part of that young bullpen," Anthopoulos said in a season-end sitdown with reporters. "If it's a young bullpen that's had some success -- I mean there's some young relievers out there in the league that have done a pretty good job. I think ideally, when you can have veterans at certain positions, you always feel more comfortable with that.
"But, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's better. You weigh it out, it's part of it, but you can go get someone that's established that may not perform as well as a young player. Especially with relievers, there's so much volatility in that role. There's been so many examples."
The only thing Anthopoulos knows for certain is that the Blue Jays' bullpen might need a new look in some fashion for 2011. Toronto's relief corps -- even with the solid contributions from veterans such as Downs (2.64 ERA) and Camp (2.99), among others -- ranked 10th in the American League with a 4.09 ERA last season.
"There's a lot of missing elements when you're 10th in relief ERA," Anthopoulos said. "We just have so much room for improvement. The 'pen isn't made up of one guy. ... You always need to try to improve it and try to build depth."
That line of reasoning is one of the reasons Downs was signed by Toronto in the first place. He was brought in for added depth, but ultimately emerged as one of the Jays' most reliable arms, posting a 2.36 ERA over 262 games dating back to 2007.
Now, after turning his career around, the 34-year-old lefty knows that it might be time to move on.
"It's exciting," Downs said. "It's the first time I've ever really been a free agent. I really don't know what to think. I don't know what to feel. I'm excited about the whole process, but I'm obviously nervous at the same time. Things will work out the way they're supposed to work out.
"Six years, that's a long time for anybody to stay in one place. Especially being in the bullpen, getting a little bit older, I can't say enough about this organization. I've made a lot of great friends here, but, if this was my last season with Toronto, I know they'll only be a phone call away."