Merkin Valdez, Hong-Chih Kuo, Edwin Jackson: Three Future Closers?

Ryan FayContributor IMay 8, 2008

Finding the next great thing is always a fun endeavor.

With that in mind, let's look at a few non-closers who could excel in a closers role, if given a chance.

Merkin Valdez, San Francisco Giants

By now, Merkin Valdez was supposed to be the ace of the Giants' pitching staff and one of the better pitchers in the league.

Things haven't worked out as planned.

Valdez struggled to develop the breaking pitches needed to survive as a starter, and worse yet, he needed Tommy John surgery after the 2006 season. 

The Giants still think highly of Valdez. They carried him on their opening day roster this year even though he didn't throw a single pitch at any level in 2007 while recovering from Tommy John surgery. The Giants either had to carry Valdez from the get-go this year or risk losing him through waivers. 

They know he has an arm that's too good to give away, and so far Valdez has validated their confidence in him. In 15.2 innings, Valdez has allowed two runs on 12 hits. He's walked six and has struck out 13.

Valdez, 26, has retained his electric stuff. His fastball has averaged 95.8 MPH this year and there's more in the tank if need be. He's also mixed in a few change-ups and sliders.

Current Giants closer Brian Wilson isn't in any immediate danger of losing his job, but he hasn't been lights out either. He's blown two saves, has a 3.86 ERA, and a 1.570 WHIP.

Over the course of a season, those types of numbers won't provide a lot of job security on a team that figures to win few games to begin with. 

If Wilson is ever yanked from the closers role, Giants manager Bruce Bochy suggested Valdez could be the guy to replace him.

"That's where I see him eventually, possibly sooner rather than later, the guy helping out in later innings," he told the San Francisco Chronicle, last month.

Hong-Chih Kuo, Los Angeles Dodgers

Kuo is a survivor. At 28, he's already had a pair of Tommy John surgeries. It hasn't had an ill-effect on his stuff as he's racked up 33 strikeouts in just 24.1 innings this season.

Kuo fits the mold of many closers. He brings the heat—mid-90s with ease—and has never been good enough to stick as a starter.

He's already been in and out of the rotation this season, but has been lethal out of the pen, including a three-and-two-thirds of an inning stint earlier this week, in which Kuo struck out eight of the 13 hitters he faced.

With his stuff and his penchant for striking hitters out (141 in 119 career big league innings), it's easy to see Kuo closing.

What's not easy is seeing him doing it for the Dodgers, who currently have 38-year-old Takashi Saito cemented in the role. Saito has converted 89.4 percent of his saves in his Dodger career and is in no danger of losing his job.

Since he's 38, Saito is on the tail end of his career, but it's assumed that Jonathan Broxton will take over for Saito when the day comes.

Broxton has been one of the National League's best eighth inning relievers over the past couple seasons, though he has blown 11 saves in his career while converting just five.

Edwin Jackson, Tampa Bay Rays

Jackson—like Valdez—was supposed to be fronting a major league rotation.

While Valdez battled injuries, Jackson has battled ineffectiveness. The 24-year-old has a 5.57 ERA in over 300 major league innings. This year is no different as Jackson has had a mix of great starts and clunkers and it has added up to a 4.98 ERA and a 1.490 WHIP.

With his chances at excelling in the rotation looking increasingly slim, why not try him in the bullpen with the goal of grooming him to replace 39-year-old Troy Percival in a year or two?

The Rays lack a closer in waiting, and they have several top pitching prospects to find room for in the next few seasons. There's only so many rotation spots to fill, especially with Scott Kazmir, James Shields, and Matt Garza entrenched in theirs.

Jackson has two pitches—a mid 90s fastball and a wicked slider. If he's able to stop worrying about developing a better third offering, he can focus on the two good ones he already has.

If he can improve his control, he has the stuff to be a good closer. 

These three pitchers all have the important intangibles that are required to be a stand-out closer at the major league level. Only time will tell if that's what they become.