MLB: This Is Going To Be Close—Ranking The Closers Of The AL Central.
For the reigning AL Central Champion Minnesota Twins the question is can Joe Nathan, who missed the entire 2010 season after having Tommy John surgery last spring, return to form and prove he is still one of the best closers in the American League?
While in Chicago, the division runner-up in 2010, the question is who will replace Bobby Jenks at the end of the White Sox bullpen—will Matt Thornton get the call or will White Sox newcomer Jesse Crain finally make the move to closer?
For Detroit, Cleveland, and Kansas City the closer role appears to be set as training camps are set to open this week.
Here's my look at the division's closers and potential closers heading into 2011.
No. 8: Matt Thornton—Chicago White Sox
With Bobby Jenks signing as a free agent with Boston, the Chicago White Sox will open spring training without a closer.
It looks to be a three-man competition between Thornton, Jesse Crain and Chris Sale to replace Jenks who averaged 59 appearances and 33 saves since 2006, Jenks' second in the league.
Thornton made the 2010 All-Star Game based on his effectiveness for the White Sox pitching in the seventh and eighth innings.
His eight saves in 2010 were a career high for the seven year veteran. He led all American League relievers with at least 30 innings pitched with 12.02 strikeouts per nine innings last season.
For his career he has pitched 400.1 innings in 410 games and has a 3.55 ERA.
At 34 years old the White Sox like the job he's been doing in the setup role and chances are this is where he will remain.
No. 7: Jesse Crain—Chicago White Sox
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Jesse Crain has been a workhorse out of the Minnesota Bullpen for the past six years. There's nothing more he would like than to face his former team in the ninth inning with the game on the line.
Including 2007, when he only appeared in 18 games because of a torn rotator cuff, he has averaged 59 appearances and 59.1 innings since 2005. While in Minnesota he expressed his desire to become a closer. The problem is the Twins have one of the game's best closers in Joe Nathan. When the Twins lost Nathan for the season last spring it became obvious Crain was not in the mix to replace him. The Twins gave the job to Jon Rauch, and then traded for Matt Capps in July.
In his career Crain has pitched 382.0 innings in 376 games with a 3.42 career ERA.
This could be the right situation for Crain to make a career change from set-up man to closer. He will have to win the position in spring training—with only three career saves his chance to secure the closer role will be a long shot.
No. 6: Chris Sale—Chicago White Sox
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Chris Sale made a bee line to the majors in 2010.
Taken with the 13th pick in the 2010 amateur draft, Sale made only 11 minor league appearances before making his major league debut on August 6th against the Orioles.
In 21 games he pitched 23.1 innings with a 1.93 ERA, converting all four save opportunities for Chicago.
While at 22 years old Sales appears to be the real deal, he only pitched a combined total of 33.2 innings last season.
While it is supposed to be an open competition for the closer's role, Sale appears to have the inside track.
It's possible the White Sox will open the season with a closer by committee until someone establishes themselves and takes over the role.
Sale should emerge as the closer, look for him to save 20 - 25 games for the White Sox in 2011.
No. 5: Chris Perez—Cleveland Indians
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In 2010 Chris Perez established highs with 63 relief appearances, 23 saves and a 1.71 ERA in 63 innings in his short three-year career.
In his first full year with Cleveland Perez' 23 saves were the second most for any Cleveland closer since 2000 when the Indians finished below .500. Perez converted 23 of 27 opportunities—33.3 percent of the Indians victories.
The Indians have not had the same closer in consecutive years since Bob Wickman from 2001 to 2006. Perez will break that string in 2011.
Look for Perez to save between 20 and 25 games this season.
No. 4: Matt Capps—Minnesota Twins
The Twins acquired the All-Star closer right before the trade deadline last season from Washington.
While his 42 saves in 2010 were the most in his six year career and were the second most among AL Central pitchers, only 16 of them were for the Twins.
In his three previous seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates he averaged 22 saves with a 3.51 ERA.
In his career he has 109 saves with a 3.37 ERA.
The Twins will probably split the closer responsibility between Capps and Joe Nathan to open the season.
As soon as Nathan can prove he is fully recovered from Tommy John surgery look for Capps to fill the void left behind with the departures of Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier from the Twins bullpen.
Because he can become a free agent in 2012 and the Twins will pay him $7.15 million in 2011, there is a very good chance Capps may leave the Twins in the same way he arrived, as part of a trade deadline deal in July.
For these reasons Capps will only have between 15 and 20 saves for Minnesota in 2011.
No. 3: Jose Valverde—Detroit Tigers
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In his first year with the Detroit Tigers Jose Valverde saved 26 of 29 opportunities with a 3.00 ERA in 63.0 innings.
Since 2005 he has averaged 29 saves a year with a 3.20 ERA pitching for Arizona, Houston and Detroit.
The eight year veteran has 193 career saves in 223 opportunities with a 3.15 ERA.
Valverde led the National League in saves with 47 in 2007 for Arizona, and 44 in 2008 with Houston.
Depending on how many opportunities his team mates provide him, look for Valverde to get between 25 and 30 saves in 2011.
No. 2: Joe Nathan—Minnesota Twins
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The Twins acquired Nathan along with Francsico Liriano in a November 2003 trade that sent catcher A.J. Pierzynski to the San Francisco Giants.
Since 2004 only Mariano Rivera has more saves than Joe Nathan in the American League, and that includes the fact Nathan did not pitch in 2010.
The Twins are hoping Joe Nathan can return to form. If Nathan struggles at all look for Minnesota ease back on his appearances and lean more on Matt Capps.
Since joining the Twins Nathan has averaged 41 saves and a 1.87 ERA.
If, and this might be a big if at 35 years old, Nathan can pitch effectively look for him to earn between 25 and 30 saves in 2011.
No. 1: Joakim Soria—Kansas City Royals
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In 2010 the Kansas City Royals only won 67 games, incredibly Joakim Soria saved 64.2 percent of them.
His 43 saves were the most of any closer in the AL Central division last season.
Since joining Kansas City in 2007 Soria has saved 47.8 percent of the Royals' victories. In those four years Soria has more saves than any other pitcher in the AL Central, and the third most in the American League.
At $4 million in 2011 the Royals have a bargain with Soria—now if only his teammates could provide a few more opportunities.
The two-time All-Star will continue to shine in 2011, look for Soria to save close to 40 games again, but the Royals will still finish closer to the bottom of the division than the top.