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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National League Breakout/Rebound Candidates (Or Cheap Gets For Your Fantasy Team)

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Last week, I looked at breakout/rebound candidates for the American League, some of whom will be very, very cheap pickups for your fantasy clubs. Now I’ll look at the National League.

Wilson Ramos, C—Washington Nationals

Ramos is coming back from a torn ACL in his knee and because the Nationals traded for Kurt Suzuki from the Athletics last season, there’s no need to rush Ramos back before he’s 100%. But he will eventually take over as the starting catcher and it’s not just because he’s a future All-Star and potential Gold Glove winner.

Suzuki is a competent everyday catcher who’s shown 15 homer power in the past. Even if he’s not hitting, the Nationals lineup is strong enough to carry one mediocre bat and Suzuki’s good with the pitchers.

There’s a financial component though. Suzuki has a club option in his contract for 2014 at $8.5 million. The option becomes guaranteed if Suzuki starts 113 games in 2013. Barring another injury to Ramos, that is not going to happen. Ramos will be catching 5 of every 7 games by the summer.

Freddie Freeman, 1B—Atlanta Braves

It’s easy to forget about Freeman due to the number of power-hitting first basemen around baseball, but he’s gotten steadily better every year as a professional and with the infusion of Justin Upton and B.J. Upton into the lineup, plus Brian McCann, Jason Heyward and Dan Uggla, teams won’t be worried about Freeman’s power leading to him getting more pitches to hit.

Lucas Duda, LF—New York Mets

Given the Mets on-paper outfield (Collin Cowgill, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Mike Baxter, Marlon Byrd, Marv Throneberry, George Theodore, Jan Brady, Cindy Brady, Gilligan, Barnaby Jones, Cannon), there’s plenty of fodder for ridicule. Duda is the butt of jokes because of his last name; that he’s a bad outfielder; because he seems so quiet and reticent. The criticism is missing an important factor: he can hit, hit for power and walk. If the Mets tell him he’s their starting left fielder, period, they’ll be rewarded with 25-30 homers and a .360+ on base percentage. So will fantasy owners.

Bobby Parnell, RHP—New York Mets

With Frank Francisco sidelined with elbow woes, Parnell has been named the Mets’ closer…for now. They have Brandon Lyon on the team and are still said to be weighing Jose Valverde. None of that matters. Parnell was going to get the shot at some point this season and with a little luck in Washington last season when defensive miscues cost him an impressive and legitimate old-school, fireman-style save, he would’ve taken the role permanently back then.

Jacob Turner, RHP—Miami Marlins

The Tigers were concerned about Turner’s velocity at the end of spring training 2012 and he wound up being traded to the Marlins in the deal for Omar Infante and Anibal Sanchez. He acquitted himself well in seven starts for the Marlins and will be in the 2013 rotation from start to finish. He has all the pitches, a great curve, command and presence.

Justin Ruggiano, CF—Miami Marlins

It’s natural to wonder if a player who has his breakout year at age 30 is a product of unlocked talent and opportunity or a brief, freak thing that will end as rapidly as it came about.

Ruggiano has been a very good minor league player who never got a shot to play in the big leagues. He took advantage of it in 2012 and will open the season as the Marlins starting center fielder.

Billy Hamilton, CF—Cincinnati Reds

The Reds have major expectations in 2013 and much of their fortunes hinge on their pitching staff; they’re functioning with Shin-Soo Choo playing an unfamiliar position in center field; at mid-season (or earlier) it may become clear that Choo can’t play the position well enough for the pitchers nor to bluff their way through to the playoffs. Hamilton is in Triple A learning center field after a shift from the infield and can make up for any educational curve with sheer, blinding speed that has yielded 320 stolen bases in 379 minor league games. He also provides something they lack: a legitimate leadoff hitter and an exciting spark that other teams have to plan for.

Vince Coleman spurred the 1985 Cardinals to the pennant by distracting the opposing pitchers into derangement and opening up the offense for Willie McGee to win the batting title and Tommy Herr and Jack Clark to rack up the RBI. The same thing could happen with Hamilton, Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Choo.

Jason Grilli, RHP—Pittsburgh Pirates

Grilli is a first time closer at age 36, but he’s a late-bloomer with a fastball in the mid-90s and a ripping strikeout slider. The Pirates starting pitching and offense are good enough to provide Grilli with enough save chances to make him worthwhile as a pickup.

Kyuji Fujikawa, RHP—Chicago Cubs

Fujikawa was a strikeout machine as a closer in Japan and history has proven that Japanese closers tend to transition to North America much better than starters without the fanfare. Takashi Saito and Kazuhiro Sasaki are examples.

The Cubs are in full-blown rebuild and will trade incumbent closer Carlos Marmol during the season. They’ll let him close at the outset to boost his value, then dump him, handing the job to Fujukawa.

Dale Thayer, RHP—San Diego Padres

Closer Huston Street is injury prone and the Padres, for whatever reason, don’t think much of Luke Gregerson (they tried to trade him to the Mets for Daniel Murphy and when Street was out last season, they let Thayer take over as closer.)

Thayer has a strikeout slider that leads stat-savvy teams like the Rays, Mets, and Padres continually picking him up. If Street gets hurt, Thayer will get closing chances.

Yasmani Grandal, C—San Diego Padres

His PED suspension has tarnished his luster, but he’s still a top catching prospect and once he’s reinstated, there’s no reason for the Padres not to play him with Nick Hundley and John Baker ahead of Grandal. Neither of the veteran catchers will be starting for the Padres when they’re ready to contend; Grandal will. He hits and he gets on base.

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The Dual-Edged Sword of Hiring Gary Sheffield as an Agent

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A player agent with experience might’ve had it in mind that there was the possibility—injury or trade—that his client’s new contract might require a few “if-then” incentive clauses. That doesn’t appear to have been the case with Jason Grilli whose agent, Gary Sheffield, didn’t get such clauses inserted into the contract Grilli signed to return to the Pirates. Because of that, as Grilli is set to take over as the Pirates’ new closer once the Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox trade is finalized, he will collect his salary for 2013-2014 (2-years, $6.75 million), and not get one penny more whether he saves 40 games or 0.

Was Sheffield required to do more and what’s the trade-off when Grilli shuns an established agent who might see Grilli as a low priority and opts for Sheffield, who doesn’t have a long list of clients?

In the past, agents like Scott Boras have treated their lower-tier clients as moderate inconveniences, expecting them to be happy to take a back seat to the big names and wait their turn. Felipe Lopez was such a player who pushed back in February of 2010 when he fired Boras. Lopez wasn’t in Grilli’s situation when Grilli hired Sheffield in 2010. Grilli was out of baseball and looking for work; Lopez, in 2009, had had one of the best seasons of his career with a .310/.383/.427 split and 9 homers for the Diamondbacks and Brewers. Lopez was a flawed player, but should’ve gotten a suitable job offer before February considering his bat, pop and that he was defensively versatile playing a passable second and third base.

Boras’s reaction wasn’t an apology to his client or an explanation. Instead, he announced that he was going to “confront the player,” and made cryptic references of “reasons” why Lopez wasn’t offered a job that he declined to disclose. It’s as if he—the employee—was in charge and was exacting revenge for being fired. Boras is powerful and Lopez had little leverage, but in the end, Boras worked for Lopez, not the other way around.

While Sheffield might not have the most sparkly reputation around the executives and teams that he angered throughout his career and that is definitely going to hurt the players he represents because they simply will not want to deal with Sheffield, he’s going to speak up and fight for the people on his side. His clients—Grilli and Josh Banks—weren’t in a great position to bargain. They were looking for work. Would someone have signed Grilli and Banks without Sheffield? Probably. But what’s the difference? Maybe players like these need someone like Sheffield who has nothing to gain by representing them instead of Boras who probably has lower level associates handling the Lopezes of the world on a daily basis and forgets about them completely until they do what Lopez did and publicly fires him, embarrassing him. Boras certainly couldn’t let that go by without face-saving response.

Grilli’s main obstacle as a closer is handling it mentally. The Pirates have a shot at a playoff spot in 2013, so his closing opportunities will be important. Pitchers in the past that have proven themselves as set-up men and couldn’t close have been legion—one in particular last season was David Robertson of the Yankees, who looked as if he was about to hyperventilate on the mound when he took over for Mariano Rivera, then got hurt. It opened the door for the more proven Rafael Soriano and Robertson went back to being a set-up man. It’s not that Soriano’s stuff is better than Robertson’s—it’s not—but Soriano can close. Whether Robertson can or not remains to be seen. The first impression wasn’t good.

That mentality, more than stuff, is the key to closing. Grilli’s strikeout numbers have spiked and he’s found a velocity in the mid-90s that he didn’t have earlier in his career. He has a chance to be good at the job that Sheffield the agent clearly didn’t expect his client to have. Should Sheffield and his partner, lawyer Xavier James, have realized that there was a chance that Grilli could accumulate a few saves and prove himself as a closer, possibly putting himself in line to make a lot more money? Yes. But Grilli is also 36 and his annual salary for a 15 year professional career surpassed $1 million for the first time in 2012. Taking the guaranteed cash was the smart move. Another agent would’ve insisted on the clause and that might’ve wound up costing Grilli the opportunity and left him sitting out and waiting as Lopez was.

It’s a dual-edged sword. Sheffield, perhaps unwittingly, served his client and got him a guaranteed two year contract in the now. That’s not a bad thing.

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Hurdle’s Law vs Murphy’s Law—Fighting for the Future of the Pirates

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Pending a physical, the Pirates have agreed to a 2-year, $14 million contract with free agent lefty Francisco Liriano. This winter, in addition to Liriano, the Pirates have added catcher Russell Martin (2-years, $17 million) and retained pitcher Jason Grilli (2-years, $6.75 million negotiated with Grilli’s agent Gary Sheffield. Yes. That Gary Sheffield.) These moves follow last spring’s acquisition of A.J. Burnett from the Yankees and the summer trade for Wandy Rodriguez from the Astros. During the 2012 season, they also received cheap and talented youngsters Travis Snider from the Blue Jays and Gaby Sanchez from the Marlins.

Liriano’s acquisition mirrors the Pirates’ trade for Burnett. Liriano is a superiorly talented underachiever whose results will benefit from the National League and the big Pirates’ park. Looking at the club on the whole, the Pirates have a batch of young players that they’re in the process of surrounding with veterans who have playoff experience and have played for well-run, winning organizations.

The Pirates collapsed in the second halves of both 2011 and 2012; endured rightful public indignation at their assistant GM Kyle Stark implementing ridiculous physical and mental training techniques for their minor leaguers; and struggled to shake the hapless image that has been their albatross for two decades. The entire front office from team president Frank Coonelly to GM Neal Huntington to Stark were said to be in jeopardy of losing their jobs at the conclusion of 2012 and still aren’t completely secure, but owner Bob Nutting retained all three, staying the course along with manager Clint Hurdle and trying—not putting forth the pretense of trying, but actually trying—to win by spending some money.

They haven’t simply taken on onerous contracts of other clubs either, nor have they drastically overpaid in terms of years/dollars to get veteran help. The Pirates got Burnett from the Yankees for low level non-prospects while paying a third of Burnett’s $16.5 million salary in 2012 and will pay half in 2013. They got Rodriguez from the Astros for three nondescript minor leaguers and are paying $8.5 million of his $13 million salary. Now with Liriano, the rotation of Burnett, Rodriguez, Liriano, James McDonald and as early as 2013, Gerrit Cole, the Pirates can compete. Andrew McCutchen is a true all-around star and MVP candidate; Pedro Alvarez has tremendous power; and with Sanchez, Martin, Neil Walker and Garrett Jones, they’ll score enough to support that starting rotation. In the weakened National League Central—with only the Reds substantially better on paper—and the extra Wild Card, there’s an opening for the Pirates.

The front office is constantly on the precipice of doing something stupid and are discussing trading closer Joel Hanrahan. What they get for him and whom they use to replace him should be planned before pulling any trigger and I wonder whether Hanrahan’s pending free agency after 2013 is more of a catalyst to this talk than any potential return or concerns about the righty’s effectiveness. I would not trade Hanrahan unless there are extenuating circumstances or the offer is too lucrative to turn down. They’re going to need him.

As always, there’s a dubious nature surrounding the Pirates’ plans and intentions and much of their rise has been due to a vast number of high draft picks and not overwhelming wisdom from the front office. But in spite of the collateral stories and questioning glances, there’s much to be enthusiastic about in Pittsburgh and it’s not Sidney Crosby (if the NHL ever plays again) or Ben Roethlisberger. It’s McCutchen, Cole and the other youngsters the Pirates have developed along with their shiny new veterans. Players are no longer shunning the Pirates or going to Pittsburgh because they have nowhere else to go. Given the team’s reputation around baseball as a wasteland where young players run out the clock to free agency and veterans go for a final job, that new perception is not a small thing.

There’s still that hovering feeling of Murphy’s Law that everything that can go wrong will go wrong, particularly because of the still shaky status of the front office and the owner’s blindness to the harsh and exhausting realities of being a baseball player. It’s highly possible that Nutting’s expectations will outweigh what the team can accomplish and he’ll let his displeasure be known early if the team isn’t markedly better immediately. At that point, changes might be made in the front office.

Even with the looming dysfunction, they have enough talent to rise from the ashes of their 2011-2012 stumbles, use them as learning experiences, and contend for seven months rather than four. Murphy’s Law says that the Pirates will remain the Pirates, but that’s being counteracted by Hurdle’s Law—the law that dictates not taking crap and not making excuses.

They have the talent to win. And they just might.

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