If you were told to choose between the following two players as your team closer, who would pick?
Player A: 199 career saves, 367 games finished, four-time MLB All-Star
Player B: 10 career saves, 79 games finished, zero-time MLB All-Star
You’d probably Player A, right?
After all, if career numbers truly meant everything, then Oakland should have reacquainted itself with Jason Isringhausen or something, he being of 300 saves. As is the case this spring training, by leaning toward Balfour, Melvin has opted to evaluate more than past experience.
Or has he?
Last season, Fuentes went down in flames, posting a 2-8 record and a 3.70 ERA. He lost his job by the end of May, ignited the firing of manager Bob Geren and fumed his way through a rather uneventful season.
With his most recent history, Melvin decided to go with Balfour as the Athletics closer. Balfour was one of the steadiest relievers in the A’s bullpen last year, posting a 5-2 record with a 2.47 ERA and 1.03 WHIP. Opponents batted a skinny .199 against him in 2011.
Given that the A’s shipped away All-Star closer Andrew Bailey last winter, there wasn’t an actual incumbent to fill his shoes. It was expected to be a close competition between the team’s most seasoned relievers, Fuentes and Balfour.
Fuentes indeed has the longer resume but has been trending downward of late. Over his past four seasons, the 36-year-old Fuentes sports an un-illustrious 11-15 record, with a 3.35 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP.
Meanwhile, Balfour, 34, is noticeably on the rise. In the past four seasons, he has an 18-9 record, 2.85 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP.
Apparently, Melvin has elected to go with more recent success over longer-term accumulated stats.
Which is good news for A’s fans. Balfour appears to be a solid choice given his more recent performance. His 26 holds in 2011 demonstrate both his ability to strand runners and keep leads intact, which is almost more impressive than coming into the ninth inning with no runners on base.
Plus, he strikes out batters at a high enough rate, which projects to more 1-2-3 innings—hopefully.
Make no mistake about it—Balfour won’t necessarily become an elite closer over night. But the fact remains that he is the best candidate the Athletics have for the job. And for a team that blew 18 saves last season, Balfour is a steady improvement who will provide some consistency at the back end of the bullpen.
Additionally, Fuentes’ experience in late innings will serve as a formidably, as he sets up for Balfour...for now.
Melvin does not seem like the wishy-washy manager that Geren was before him. So, it’s unlikely that his decision to have Balfour as the closer will be temporary, or at least until Balfour falters. But for now, it’s up to Balfour to prove he deserves the job on a full-time basis.
If he shows any signs of struggling, however, it’s always good to know that Fuentes can step in and assume the role. But all signs indicate that Balfour’s the man to close the door for the A’s and save ballgames for the starting rotation.
That’s assuming the team will actually be winning, of course.
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