Dealing With The Closer Issue

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Complaining about closers is like complaining about the weather: everyone talks about it, but no one does anything about it. The difference between the weather and closers is that something can be done about closers.

Amid all the talk about “what to do” with struggling relievers Jim Johnson and Fernando Rodney and the references of clubs who have found unheralded veterans to take over as their closer like the Cardinals with Edward Mujica and the Pirates with Jason Grilli, no one is addressing the fundamental problems with needing to have an “established” closer. Here they are and what to do about them.

Veteran relievers like to know their roles.

Managers like Whitey Herzog, Sparky Anderson, Billy Martin and Earl Weaver had the ability to tell their players that their “role” is to pitch when they tell them to pitch. Nowadays even managers who are relatively entrenched in their jobs like Joe Maddon have to have the players on their side to succeed. The Rays are a different story because they’re not paying any of their relievers big money and can interchange them if need be, but they don’t because Maddon doesn’t operate that way until it’s absolutely necessary.

Other clubs don’t have that luxury. They don’t want to upset the applecart and cause a domino effect of people not knowing when they’re going to pitch; not knowing if a pitcher can mentally handle the role of pitching the ninth inning; and don’t want to hear the whining and deal with the aftermath if there’s not someone established to replace the closer who’s having an issue. Rodney was only the Rays’ closer last season because Kyle Farnsworth (a foundling who in 2011 had a career year similar to Rodney in 2012) got hurt.

Until managers have the backing of the front office and have a group of relievers who are just happy to have the job in the big leagues, there’s no escaping the reality of having to placate the players to keep clubhouse harmony.

Stop paying for mediocrity in a replaceable role.

The Phillies and Yankees are paying big money for their closers Jonathan Papelbon and Mariano Rivera, but these are the elite at the position. Other clubs who have overpaid for closers include the Dodgers with Brandon League, the Red Sox with money and traded players to get Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan, the Nationals with Rafael Soriano, and the Marlins who paid a chunk of Heath Bell’s salary to get him out of the clubhouse.

Bell has taken over for the injured J.J. Putz with the Diamondbacks and pitched well. The Cubs, in desperation, replaced both Carlos Marmol ($9.8 million in 2013) and Kyuji Fujikawa (guaranteed $9.5 million through 2014) with Kevin Gregg. The same Kevin Gregg who was in spring training with the Dodgers and released, signed by the Cubs—for whom he struggled as their closer when they were trying to contend in 2009—as a veteran insurance policy just in case. “Just in case” happened and Gregg has gone unscored upon and saved 6 games in 14 appearances.

As long as teams are paying closers big money, closers will have to stay in the role far longer than performance would dictate in an effort to justify the contract. It’s a vicious circle that teams fall into when they overpay for “established” closers. When the paying stops, so too will the necessity to keep pitching them.

Find a manager who can be flexible.

A manager stops thinking when it gets to the ninth inning by shutting off the logical remnants of his brain to put his closer into the game. If it’s Rivera or Papelbon, this is fine. If it’s anyone else, perhaps it would be wiser to use a lefty specialist if the situation calls for it. If Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are hitting back-to-back and a club has Randy Choate in its bullpen, would it make sense to use a righty whether it’s the ninth inning and “his” inning or not?

Maddon is flexible in his thinking and has the support of the front office to remove Rodney from the role if need be. One option that hasn’t been discussed for the Rays is minor league starter Chris Archer to take over as closer in the second half of the season. With the Rays, anything is possible. With other teams, they not only don’t want to exacerbate the problem by shuffling the entire deck, but the manager is going to panic if he doesn’t have his “ninth inning guy” to close. Even a veteran manager like Jim Leyland isn’t immune to it and a pitcher the front office didn’t want back—Jose Valverde—is now closing again because their handpicked choice Bruce Rondon couldn’t seize his spring training opportunity and the “closer by committee” was on the way to giving Leyland a heart attack, a nervous breakdown or both.

The solution.

There is no solution right now. Until teams make the conscious decision to stop paying relievers upwards of $10 million, there will constantly be the “established” closer. It’s a fundamental fact of business that if there isn’t any money in a job, fewer people who expect to make a lot of money and have the capability to make a lot of money in another position are going to want to take it. Finding replaceable arms who can be used wherever and whenever they’re told to pitch, ignore the save stat, and placed in a situation to be successful instead of how it’s done now will eliminate the need to pay for the ninth inning arm and take all the negative side effects that go along with it. Games will still get blown in the late innings, but at least it won’t be as expensive and will probably happen with an equal frequency. It’s evolution. And evolution doesn’t happen overnight, if it happens at all.

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Keys to 2013: Tampa Bay Rays

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Starting Pitching Key: Matt Moore

Moore’s done his flashy playoff introduction to the world as David Price did. He had an inconsistent rookie year as Price did. Now, he’s ready to take the next step into Cy Young Award contender in his second season as Price did.

Moore has a smooth, clean, simple and repeatable motion similar to Cliff Lee. He’s refining his command and harnessing his changeup. The changeup is usually the last pitch a pitcher needs to master before fulfilling his potential. If Moore’s able to do that at age 24, the Rays will be legitimate World Series contenders.

Relief Pitching Key: Chris Archer

Fernando Rodney is not going to repeat his 48 save, 0.60 ERA. The question is whether he’ll revert to the on-again/off-again closer he was with the Tigers and Angels or will be able to get the job done the majority of the time. If he can’t and Kyle Farnsworth, the closer in 2011, can’t do it either, the Rays might turn to Archer.

Archer has been a starter in the minors, but has the power fastball to be a dominating reliever. The Rays have never been shy about using young pitchers in very important roles and Archer could play a major factor in 2013.

Offensive Key: Evan Longoria

As Longoria goes, so go the Rays. The other lineup bats Desmond Jennings, Kelly Johnson, Yunel Escobar, Matthew Joyce and eventually Wil Myers are undoubtedly important and the Rays are opportunistic and adaptable, but with Longoria they’re a title contender and without him, they’re not.

Defensive Key: Desmond Jennings

If Jennings has to play center field, he has to be at least adequate at the position. Sam Fuld is a fine defensive outfielder, but he can’t hit enough to justify being in the lineup as an everyday player. The Rays were in the market for a legitimate center fielder, but as the season moves along and Myers is recalled, they’re going to need to find a place to get Myers and Joyce in the lineup. Someone’s going to have to play the outfield and if Myers/Joyce are the DH, one is going to have to play left with Jennings in center.

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Masters Of The Universe

Hot Stove

Pending physicals, the Rays have traded RHP Matt Garza, OF Fernando Perez and a player to be named later to the Cubs for RHP Chris Archer, OF Brandon Guyer, C Robinson Chirinos, SS Hak-Ju Lee and OF Sam Fuld.

This is a gutsy and smart move for the Rays to extract a large chunk of the Cubs system for a pitcher who was going to get a big raise in arbitration and has always been a temperamental “go this way or that way” type who might implode (he has before) on the mound if a 3-2 borderline pitch was called against him.

Would the Rays front office led by GM Andrew Friedman be this courageous if they were functioning in a crisis-a-day atmosphere like that in New York, Boston or Philadelphia?

Don’t automatically say yes because the mental adjustment and accounting for public reaction—i.e. ticket sales and sports talk radio—is not something to dismiss out of hand. Even those who partake in such ancillary concerns may not realize they’re doing it; it’s imperceptible and affecting as it seeps into the thought process before making a deal.

Teams like the Mets have historically allowed an expected reaction, positively or negatively, influence what they do—many times to club detriment.

The Rays are able to do things such as trading their number 2 starter, Garza, or allow big free agent Carl Crawford to leave without any fight at all (a fight in which they had no chance to win) and clear out the entire bullpen because they’re in a venue that doesn’t live and die with the Rays. Judging from the comparatively sparse attendance figures for such a good team, much of Tampa barely pays attention to them at all.

The Crawford case is indicative of this. Other clubs would’ve been compelled to make a perfunctory offer knowing that it would be refused. Not the Rays. They tried to sign Crawford to a team-friendly extension and were rebuffed; they accepted that they were losing him and moved on safe in the knowledge that they were getting draft picks and had Desmond Jennings to replace him.

While it would be nice for the Rays organization to get more recognition, the lack of attention has allowed them to build the team correctly and cut loose players of diminishing returns and higher cost to replenish the system.

The Rays do it right. Part of the reason they’re able to do it “right” isn’t that they have a bunch of former “Masters of the Universe” (quoting from The Bonfire of the Vanities) running the club—the arrogance inherent in such a vocation and statement isn’t unimportant as they think they can do anything and get away with it—but because they don’t have anyone picking at everything they do; such entities in the media have one eye on ratings; another eye on fan reaction; and a third eye on waiting and seeing how it works out before taking a stand.

As for the players involved in the deal, I can only go by the ones I’ve seen and the stats of the minor leaguers.

I like Garza a lot and said so in my posting on New Year’s Day:

Garza just turned 27, he’s arbitration-eligible for the first time and the Rays have been listening to trade offers for him; he’s got three years to go before free agency, but he’s undoubtedly looking for his payday before then. He’ll be motivated to have a big year.

Having gone 15-10 in 2010, he’s primed to win 18-20 this year. His strikeouts dropped by 39 from 2009-2010; his hits allowed increased; but his walks diminished drastically, so he may have been pitching to contact by design.

He’s ready to step forward.

The Rays were able to do this because of the aforementioned departures, diminished expectations, the retooling on the fly and that they have enough starting pitching depth to get by with what they have if James Shields rebounds and Jeff Niemann steps up. With David Price at the top of the rotation and youngsters Wade Davis and Jeremy Hellickson at the back end, the Rays will be okay without Garza.

For the Cubs, it’s a questionable move.

What are they?

They needed a starter—there’s no question about that. The offense is serviceable; the bullpen is serviceable; the starting rotation is rife with questions. Ryan Dempster has essentially proven over the last three years that he’s consistent and trustworthy; but Tom Gorzelanny? Randy Wells? Carlos Silva? And the wildest of wild cards, Carlos Zambrano?

What are they getting out of this group with Garza and Dempster?

It’s an absurd assertion that Zambrano’s blowup in August cleansed his palate and led the way to a terrific final month of the season; to see this is a portent of a maturation and finally fulfilling his limitless potential is a recipe for disaster. He’s flighty; he’s mercurial; and he’s by no means a guarantee for anything one way or the other.

As mentioned earlier, Garza’s not Mr. Congeniality either. New manager Mike Quade doesn’t tolerate garbage, so if Garza or Zambrano start acting up, they’ll hear about it; but that doesn’t eliminate the explosive combination of ingredients the Cubs have thrown into the pot.

They’re a veteran team with immovable contracts like that of Zambrano and Alfonso Soriano. The situation is untenable unless everything works out right. If Zambrano wins 18 games and Garza repeats his 2010 season, the Cubs will contend for a playoff spot; if not, they’re around a .500 team in a rough division. Trapped in that vacancy, the only saving grace for the Cubs is—as it’s always been—the loyalty of their fan base.

Maybe that’s part of the problem.

It was either try to win now or hang onto those prospects and know they were non-contenders in 2011. Time will tell if they did the right thing.

For the Rays, they extracted a lot from the Cubs.

Chris Archer is 22 and his minor league numbers are ridiculously good; he might be a contributor to the Rays out of the bullpen—much like Price was—late in the season if they’re in contention. And they might be contenders despite all the turnover.

Sam Fuld is a fallen prospect who put up good numbers in 2009 and slumped back to the minors in 2010; the Rays have shown a propensity of getting use from such players as they did with Gabe Gross.

I can only judge the others by their numbers.

Brandon Guyer is a soon-to-be 24-year-old outfielder with speed and pop; Robinson Chirinos is a 26-year-old catcher who bashed both Double and Triple A pitching in 2010 and can really throw from behind the plate (his caught-stealing percentages are impressive); and shortstop Hak-Ju Lee is a speedy, 20-year-old shortstop.

It’s clear the Cubs did this deal because they felt they had no choice if they wanted to be relevant at all in 2011.

The Rays are the exact opposite.

In general, teams that do deals because they think they “have” to make mistakes.

The Rays don’t make many mistakes.

Do the Cubs? You tell me.