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.
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.