Tuesday, April 20, 2010

MLB 2010: Ten Closers in Jeopardy of Losing Their Job

Cincinnati Reds vs St. Louis Cardinals

The closer role is perhaps the most difficult job in major league baseball. If not the most difficult, it surely is the most highly scrutinized and insecure position on any team.

Before two weeks of the 2010 regular season had passed, four teams had already changed pitchers filling this important role. Looking around the league, it is possible that these are just the first amongst other similar moves by teams that do not have the luxury of calling on Mariano Rivera.

In Baltimore, big free-agent acquisition Mike Gonzalez hit heavy turbulence blowing two saves in three chances before being placed on the DL for shoulder stiffness. He was replaced by Jim Johnson, who filled the role late last season after the Orioles traded George Sherrill.

Similarly, Angels lefty Brian Fuentes was placed on the 15-day disabled list and replaced by Fernando Rodney.

Injuries did not play a role in Texas and Toronto where each team's struggling closer was quickly demoted. Former Marlins and Cubs closer Kevin Gregg took over for young Jason Fraser, while flame throwing right-hander Neftali Feliz was handed the assignment previously held by Frank Francisco.

Besides the four aforementioned teams, within the near future, at least ten other clubs could conceivably change the name they call to nail down a victory. Here are those clubs and the odds they will make a switch.

1 Cleveland Indians Kerry Wood

Former Cardinal Chris Perez is currently holding down the job while Kerry Wood is on the mend. The hard-throwing right-hander has converted on four of five save opportunities, but has been a bit of an adventure along the way.

Reports are that Wood is improving and nearing a return. When he is reactivated, Wood will resume closer duties and Perez will return to late inning set-up responsibilities.

The rub here is Wood's $10.5 million salary and long injury history. The Indians are in a rebuilding mode and shedding salary, so it appears to be simply a matter of time before Perez steps back in as closer.

Unless the Tribe unexpectedly finds itself in contention, Wood will likely be dealt to a team in the hunt in need of a closer. As you will see, there are quite a few clubs with unsettled situations.

Odds: 80/20 that Wood will be traded by mid-summer

2 Philadelphia Phillies Brad Lidge

What a difference a year makes. Brad Lidge culminated a perfect season with a triumphant leap into the air to conclude the 2008 World Series—and then suffered through a nightmarish 2009 encore.

One year its 48 saves in 48 chances and a massive, diamond-studded piece of bling on his hand. The next year its 0-8 with a 7.21 ERA and a meltdown in the Fall Classic that may have killed any chances of a repeat.

When the season ended, Lidge went under the knife to repair damage to both his knee and elbow. While he continues rehab in Florida, Ryan Madson is handling the closing duties.

Although Madson's performance in the role continues to fall short of his potential, Manager Charlie Manuel will likely have a much shorter rope for Lidge this season. His rehab outings have been mixed, and if he mirrors last season's performance once he gets back to the big club, Manuel might opt to let Madson grow into the closer role.

Odds: 70/30 that Lidge hangs onto the closer job

3 Arizona Diamondbacks Chad Qualls

Lidge's former teammate Chad Qualls finds himself in a similar situation in Arizona. The Diamondbacks closer also had offseason knee surgery, but was ready to go to start the season— at least the team thought so.

Qualls sports an 8.31 ERA and has blown two out of three save opportunities in the early going. Just when the cries for right-hander Juan Gutierrez to take over reached deafening levels, the setup man blew a save opportunity himself.

With many fans questioning whether Qualls has the stuff or make-up to close, expect the debate to continue in Arizona. More blown saves, or even shaky performances, could lead Manager A.J. Hinch to give Gutierrez a longer look.

Odds: 50-50 that Qualls gives way to Gutierrez or another closer

4 Chicago White Sox Bobby Jenks

Similar to his physique and that patch of hair on his chin, things are not always pretty with Bobby Jenks. So far, so good in the regular season, but a horrible spring and spotty performance in 2009 have the list of doubters expanding.

The hard throwing behemoth has held down the White Sox closer role for the past five seasons, but if he continues the trend of giving up the long ball, the team has some potential closers in waiting.

Former Mariner's closer J.J. Putz and hard throwing wannabe Tony Pena are waiting in the wings. High wire innings or walk-off homers could have Jenks in the hot seat.

Odds: 75/25 that Jenks holds onto the job

5 Colorado Rockies Huston Street

Last year's All-Star closer Huston Street opened the 2010 season on the DL with a strained shoulder and is expected to return in May. Meanwhile, lefty Franklin Morales has been shaky as the interim replacement.

Morales has flashed great potential, but everything gets a little bit tougher when the game is on the line. The pitcher became unnerved yesterday on his way to blowing his second consecutive save.

Besides having a sore shoulder, perhaps the biggest factor here is the 3-year, $22.5 contract Street signed in the winter. And, although he registered 35 saves in 2009, he had arm woes in September and struggled in the postseason.

If Morales flourishes in his absence, the Rockies might decide that he gives them more— for less. The club also has former closer Manny Corpas rehabbing from injury and targeting a mid-year return.

Odds: 50/50 that Street is traded and/or replaced

6 Houston Astros Matt Lindstrom

When Houston allowed Jose Valverde to walk this winter via free agency, they quickly traded for Matt Lindstrom and signed Brandon Lyon to take his place. The former won the spring training battle, but Lyon waits in the wings.

Lindstrom is a classic closer-type possessing a fastball that can light up triple digits on the radar gun. His downfall has been a lack of command, particularly with his secondary pitches.

Conversely, Lyon relies on pitching savvy to be effective. The fact that GM Ed Wade signed him to a somewhat shocking 3-year, $15 million contract suggests that the team envisioned him as a closer.

Although the Astros are off to a horrific start, Lindstrom has been solid. The situation bears watching, though, as at least one guy in the front office is rooting for Lyon to win the job.

Odds: 60/40 that Lindstrom remains the closer

7 Milwaukee Brewers Trevor Hoffman

At the advanced age of 42 with a fastball in the mid-80's, many wonder if this could be the year that hitters finally catch up to Trevor Hoffman? A 12.60 ERA and a couple blown saves has a way of doing that.

The Major League's All-Time saves leader has gotten off to a rocky start, failing to convert save opportunities by surrendering two-out home runs in consecutive games. It was the first time that Hoffman blew back-to-back saves since 2007.

Considering the track record of the future "Hall of Famer," there would probably be little concern if he were younger and relying on hard stuff. Similar to Jamie Moyer in Philadelphia, though, anytime a soft tossing elder statesman struggles, the tendency is to wonder if baseball's "Father Time" has finally claimed another?

Odds: 75/25 chance that Hoffman works it out

8 St. Louis Cardinals Ryan Franklin

Whenever you have a closer with what appears to be mediocre stuff, you can pretty much count on a short rope. After a pedestrian career, Ryan Franklin stepped into the closing role for St. Louis in 2008 and evolved into an all-star last season.

The 37-year old right-hander registered 38 saves for the division winning Cardinals in 2009 with a stellar 1.92 ERA. Without the aid of a blistering fastball or any signature pitches of note, Franklin instead relies on guile and precision—and possibly a diversionary ZZ Top-like goatee.

In 2010, the Cards closer has recorded four saves in as many attempts, but has skirted trouble along the way. His 6.00 ERA high wire act has many wondering if hard throwing Jason Motte might be better suited for the role.

Motte, who also sports a less than flattering chin growth, is the type of strikeout pitcher capable of escaping tough jams. The Franklin-Motte watch should continue as long as Franklin remains the closer.

Odds: 60/40 that Motte takes the job—at least for awhile

9 Washington Nationals Matt Capps

In desperate need of a closer, the Washington Nationals took a chance by signing Matt Capps to a 1-year, $3.5 million contract. Capps was coming off a rough season that saw his ERA balloon to 5.80 with hitters racking up a .324 average against him.

The Nats are hoping that he regains the form that he showed in 2007 and 2008 as the Pirates closer. The early returns are good as Capps has recorded five saves and a paltry 1.42 ERA.

The 27-year old right-hander has decided to revert to his early career approach by relying heavily on his mid-90's fastball. It appears to be serving him well, but its a long season in which hitters can adjust.

The team drafted Drew Storen out of Stanford with the tenth overall pick in the 2009 amateur draft. They hope to fast track and envision him as the closer of the future. When the Nationals fall far enough off the pace, they may decide to accelerate his arrival in the bigs.

Odds: 75/25 that Capps closes all year

10 Minnesota Twins Jon Rauch

Minnesota fans were anxiously awaiting the opening of their brand new stadium and for their beloved Twins to make another run at postseason success when something ugly happened. All-Star closer Joe Nathan tore an elbow ligament and was lost for the season.

The Twins went from having the major advantage of having one of the best closers in the business to searching their roster for a solution. Up stepped (and we mean up) giant right-hander Jon Rauch.

Manager Ron Gardenhire first contemplated a closer by committee approach, but then decided to name Rauch to fill the role. That decision has looked golden so far.

The 6' 11" Rauch has posted six saves and a 1.50 ERA in six games. The 31-year hurler has flashed potential with the White Sox, Nationals, Diamondbacks and last year in Minnesota, but has never really been "the man."

Although he has excelled early, until the sample size increases and the pressure heats up, this situation has to be considered subject to change. After all, Gardenhire had a few potential candidates in mind just a few weeks ago.

Odds: 70/30 that Rauch nails down the job (possession is 9/10ths of the law)

The Final Word

Unless your name is Mariano Rivera, job security very rarely accompanies the assignment of being a major league closer. Those pitchers that take on this difficult role understand it comes with the territory, but that doesn't make the task any easier.

Taking the ball in the biggest moments with the game on the line requires a unique mix of swagger, focus and mental toughness to be successful. Having really good stuff or laser-like precision—or both— is also an essential.

Did I mention luck? Sometimes it works in a closer's favor, and sometimes not.

It is not a job for the faint of heart.

Some will lose their edge—physically or mentally. Some will lose their job— temporarily or permanently. A new closer may be coming to a ballpark near you.

Gary Suess is also a Featured Columnist covering the Philadelphia Phillies, Philadelphia Eagles and MLB for the BleacherReport.com.

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