The news that the San Francisco Giants could lose Brian Wilson for the balance of the season sounds grim. It isn’t as if there weren’t warning signs coming into the season: Declining velocity and an increasing reliance on his slider made it clear he wasn’t the same pitcher whose late-game endurance and power helped propel the Giants to a 2010 World Series win.
We’ll have to see what the second or third opinions the Giants are seeking will reveal. But in the meantime, what will the Giants do with their late-game leads?
If manager Bruce Bochy follows up with his initial comment that he’ll go with a bullpen by committee, it should mean save opportunities will go to righties Santiago Casilla and Sergio Romo, with lefties Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt possibly in the mix as well. Bochy and the Giants have been here before, of course, if just for a month last season. That was when Wilson broke down in August with a strained elbow, and made it back in time for only the last 10 days of the season. Casilla notched most of the save opportunities in Wilson’s absence, although since Romo was also on the disabled list that August, you can’t automatically chalk this up to simple preference for Casilla.
Will we really see a closer-by-committee in action? In Bochy’s long experience as a major league manager, he hasn’t exactly had much chance or demonstrated any willingness to experiment with his team’s save opportunities in this way. Bochy has a well-established track record of relying heavily on one designated closer, but that’s largely a function of opportunity. During his 12 years managing the Padres, Bochy almost always had Trevor Hoffman to close for him.
That was true in every one of Bochy’s seasons skippering the Padres save one: 2003, when Hoffman was out with shoulder surgery for most of the year. And that time around, Bochy really did compensate for the lack of a closer with a bullpen by committee, at least initially. For two months, journeymen Brandon Villafuerte, Jay Witasick, Jaret Wright, Matt Herges and Jesse Orosco all notched saves, including the last two of Orosco’s long career. But even on a team going nowhere (the Pads would lose 98 games), nobody liked this solution much. Rather than stick with it, the Padres signed Rod Beck in June, and got 20 saves from the Shooter over the next three months.
That wasn’t the only time Bochy has had to change gears with his closer in-season, though. In 2007, Bochy’s first year managing the Giants, he once again wound up in a “manager’s choice” scenario. Two months into that season, the Giants dealt Armando Benitez in the wake of a lot of public recriminations over Benitez’s performance. In the absence of anyone even remotely resembling an established closer, Bochy might have gone with a committee. He didn’t, making utility pitcher Brad Hennessey his stopper. Hennessey had all of one career save beforehand, but he notched 19 more before getting replaced by Wilson toward the end of the season. Wilson went on to fame, a ring and Taco Bell commercials; Hennessey never got another save in the major leagues.
So, in both of these situations, Bochy basically reverted to convention, whether that was identifying a designated temporary closer in the case of Hennessey in 2007, or having one brought in as Beck was in 2003.
What does that mean going forward? Last season, during Wilson’s monthlong absence, Bochy split save opportunities between Casilla and Ramon Ramirez. He wound up favoring Casilla, but as I said, Romo was hurt and out of the running for part of that time. We’ll see how much more than polite, for-public-consumption consideration for his top relievers Bochy’s comments about a committee wind up being. But if you want to bet on what’s going to happen in the next couple of weeks if Wilson really is out for the year, bet on Bochy picking one pitcher to close.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.