The apprenticeship of an elite closer can begin at the most unlikely of places.
In the case of some of the game’s best like Mariano Rivera, it begins as a starting pitcher. Rivera broke into the Yankee farm system in a starting role, but due to his lack of secondary pitches his electric arm was summoned to the bullpen, where he worked in a setup role for incumbent closer John Wetteland, a tandem that secured the first in what would be four Yankee titles in five years.
Boston’s Jonathan Papelbon also began in the starting rotation before being assigned as the team’s closer
Like Rivera and Papelbon, Minnesota’s Joe Nathan debuted in a starting role for the Giants, before being swapped to Minnesota for A.J. Pierzynski and others, prior to Nathan developing into one of baseball’s best closers from 2004 to 2009.
This 2011 season offers a handful of talented arms that, like the veterans who came before them, will one day be household names. The ingredients for a the prototypical closer are rare, but as Ron Davis of the 1984 Minnesota Twins can attest to (tied for a MLB single-season record 14 blown saves), a dominant closer is invaluable.
Contrary to Oakland Athletics’ owner Billy Beane’s belief that a closer can be manufactured, artificially inflated with saves and then dealt for an abundance of cheap prospects, this isn’t the methodology that the other 29 MLB teams subscribe to.
Over the past decade, Beane has made a killing by dealing off closers in order to replenish his farm system. Trading elite, late game stoppers like Jason Isringhausen (77 saves in two seasons with OAK), Octavio Dotel (29 saves in 60 games w/ OAK) and Keith Foulke (43 saves in 2003 w/ OAK) have provided Oakland with a steady supply of young farm hands that keep the revolving door of closers moving.
Oakland is again in possession of another talented, young and soon to be expensive closer in Andrew Bailey. Bailey too will be traded off in coming seasons, because behind him are hard throwing potential closers, like 2008 second round pick Tyson Ross (36 K’s in 43 career IP), as well as left handed specialist Jerry Blevins (8.92 K/9) and Brad Zeigler (18 career saves/2.54 ERA).
Beane will perpetuate the cycle of sell, replace and inflate so that Oakland can remain competitive. Bailey, Oakland’s bullpen ace in 2010, hasn’t pitched yet this season with a strained right forearm, which will give interim closer Brian Fuentes a long look at the position. Trailing Fuentes will be a bevy of capable relievers waiting for an opportunity.
For teams like the Texas Rangers, giving up their closer means giving up the team’s number one weapon: uber talented righty Neftali Feliz. Since arriving in Texas from Atlanta as a part of the Mark Teixeira deal, Feliz has already reshaped the way we assess rookie closers.
Feliz’s 2010 campaign broke former Seattle Mariner Kaz Sasaki’s 2000 rookie record of 37 saves, at the raw of age of only 22. Feliz’s peripheral statistics have Ranger fans craving more.
In 2010, Feliz posted a gaudy 3.94 strikeout to walk ratio, which highlights the fact that as a rookie Feliz yielded only 66 total base runners in 69.1 innings. Nearly four weeks into the 2011 season, Feliz is yet again on pace to outperform his impressive rookie campaign.
The impressive relief performances have given rise to the idea of moving the young righty to the starting rotation, where he was originally prior to being called up to the major league level in September 2009.
Texas manager Ron Washington knows Feliz is the organization’s strongest arm, and his 2011 role was something that needed to be addressed following speculation that Neftali could return to the rotation following the departure of Cliff Lee. "Right now, for our organization, he's better in the bullpen," Washington told the Star Telegram just prior to opening day. "We haven't closed the door on him being starter. It's just not time."
In coming years, the Rangers may find that Feliz is best utilized by maximizing his innings pitched and thus entering him into the rotation. Should that situation present itself, Texas appears well stocked with capable arms who may fill the closer role.
Mark Lowe, a former closer with Seattle in 2009, hasn’t settled into his role since arriving in Arlington but Lowe’s career 2/1 strikeout to walk ratio will make him an option in future seasons. 22 year old righty Mason Tobin (2.43 career ERA in three minor league seasons) is also a solid option.
Here’s a list of 2011’s most electrifying relievers from across both leagues who have the talent to sneak into a closing role and produce:
Brian Sanches, FLA: At 32, Sanches is far from a prospect but his production warrants a crack at a closing role, considering his 2010 stat line consists of a 2.26 ERA and 1.10 WHIP through 63.2 innings pitched. Sanches is working on an impressive encore performance in 2011 by not having allowed a run in over nine innings so far.
Ramon Ramirez, SFO: Following a midseason deal from Boston, Ramirez has been nothing short of dominant. Anchoring the seventh and eighth innings for the reigning World Series champs, Ramirez hasn’t allowed a walk yet through eight relief appearances.
Antonio Bastardo, PHI: Bastardo is equipped with many of the tools necessary to get it done in a closing role: A power arm (54 K’s in 48 career innings) and a propensity to throw strikes (26/9 strikeout to walk ratio). The young reliever has been hurt on occasion by catching too much of the plate, yielding 47 career hits in 48 total innings. In time, Philadelphia may have a long term solution to their closer issues.
Aaron Crow, KC: A former first round pick in 2009, Crow has been dominant in his rookie season and is just one of the many young standouts Kansas City offers. Crow’s 2010 minor league campaign was a disaster, yielding a 5.73 ERA as a starter. An impressive spring training fostered a promotion to the big league club, where the touted prospect has flourished.
Mike Adams, SD: The towering 6’5’’ Adams put together an impressive 2010 that quietly placed him among baseball’s best relievers, to the tune of a .196 BAA, which amounted to a 1.76 ERA in 70 appearances. The veteran righty is again off to another hot start by allowing a mere one run through seven games for San Diego. Should the Padres undergo fire-sale mode by July’s trade deadline and deal Heath Bell, Adams may find himself in position to get his first chance as a big league closer.
Logan Ondrusek, CIN: This intimidating righty makes the previously Mike Adams look like Dustin Pedroia, compared to Ondrusek’s 6’8’’ frame. Cincy's reliable relief option won’t strike out hitters at a high rate, but he’s made a living at the big league’s by keeping runners off base and limiting hitters to a .225 career average.
Kameron Loe, MIL: Loe (6’8’’) also takes advantage of his stature by getting on top of pitches and inducing copious amounts of groundballs. A former starter with Texas, Loe seems to have found his niche in the backend of Milwaukee’s bullpen, striking out nine batters in only eight innings so far in 2011 while posting a combined 1.15 WHIP since joining the Brewers last season.
Outside of a select group of late game finishers, no closing job is permanent and even fewer jobs are safe. What we do know is that the 2011 season will usher in the next young star closer, but like any ninth inning, nothing is closed.
Written by Conor Gereg exclusively for thefantasyfix.com
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