Grant Balfour Struggles Opens Closer Debate for Athletics

Peter FournierContributor IIMay 4, 2012

Could 24-year-old Ryan Cook be the Oakland A's next closer?
Could 24-year-old Ryan Cook be the Oakland A's next closer?Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

It was just last week that the idea of which team may deal for Grant Balfour before the trade deadline was discussed.

This week, it's time to figure out who could replace him as the Oakland Athletics' closer. 

Balfour blew a save last week against the Chicago White Sox, melted down against the Baltimore Orioles on Sunday and almost collapsed against the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday night. The A's went on to win two of those games, but Balfour had little to do with that.

The A's had Jordan Norberto finish off Tuesday night's game after Balfour allowed three hits and two earned runs and Brian Fuentes was called on for the save on Wednesday night. Fuentes allowed a run and pair of hits, but settled down to record his 200th career save. 

One Oakland reliever who hasn't received a save opportunity is 24-year-old Ryan Cook. He hasn't allowed any runs and given up only two hits - to David Ortiz and Albert Pujols - in 12 1/3 innings pitched this year.

He's been untouchable. But does he deserve to get the ball in the ninth?

Not quite yet, but the A's shouldn't hesitate to give him the chance.

What's to say Balfour just isn't in a rough patch? It'd only be fair to have him appear in maybe one or two more save opportunities to prove he can still do it. If he blows another save, give the job to Fuentes, at least momentarily.

Fuentes was a proven closer for the Los Angeles Angels and Colorado Rockies, but hasn't always been rock solid for the A's, blowing three saves in 15 chances and losing eight games in 2011. He'd be an option, but not a solid one. 

What about Norberto?

One save, when he cleaned Balfour's mess, and two holds doesn't inspire a large amount of confidence in him.

Cook could be the option to close for Oakland sooner than later. He has a 95+ mph fastball and nice slider that's baffled almost every single hitter he's faced this season. It may be wise for A's manager Bob Melvin to throw him at batters in crunch time now rather than later.

Whoever Melvin decides to be the closer, whether it's Balfour, Fuentes, Norberto or Cook, he'll need to make a quick decision if one starts to show signs of weakness because Oakland needs stability right now.

The A's are 9-5 in games decided by three runs or less. Only two of those victories came without a save opportunity, and three different relievers have recorded saves in the last two weeks.

Maybe there will be an opportunity in this weekend's series against the Tampa Bay Rays for Cook to come in if the A's have a three-run lead in the ninth. At this point, it seems to be closer-by-committee, and Cook has earned the chance to show what he can do.

If he falters, Balfour and Fuentes can come in and finish off the frame. They are supposed to be the veterans after all, right?