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In capable closers they trust

3/8/2014

With the close of the Age of Mo, we're living in the new era these days. Last year's season-long Viking funeral held for the greatest reliever the game has known didn't just end a peerless career, it brought to light how few superstar closers the game actually boasts any more. Craig Kimbrel? Yes, he's all that. And then? Greg Holland of the Royals? Joe Nathan of the Tigers? Is that it?

It might be, but that's a symptom of several positive developments. First and foremost, nobody cares how big your stack of saves was. Whether you're talking Bobby Thigpen's 57 saves in 1990 or Francisco Rodriguez's 62 in 2008, the real takeaway from those tallies is ... so what? Whether we're talking 30 saves or 40 or 50, whatever the number behind your save-generating guy's name, it's better understood that these artifacts of record ball are a function of team-generated opportunities, not individual ability.

Take Kevin Gregg. He's pretty much the active incarnation of a replacement-level closer after averaging less than 0.5 WAR per year and 29 saves in his last five seasons as a closer. Fished off the discard pile last year, Gregg notched 33 saves in a partial season as the Cubs' closer. That hasn't earned him so much as a non-roster invitation to a big league camp so far -- almost the same situation he was in last year.

Or John Axford -- Mr. Snidely Whiplash 'Stache couldn't hold onto the job in Milwaukee after his league-leading 46 saves in 2011. He's had two poor years in a row, but he's the Indians' closer du jour until any one of four other guys takes the job for himself. That doesn't sound like an adventure of discovery, a search for the mystical essence of closerdom; it sounds a lot more like an old-fashioned fight between talented pitchers for a job.

Or David Aardsma -- remember him? He had consecutive 30-save seasons for the Mariners in 2009-10. He hasn't notched a save since, mostly because of injuries, but he was replaced, because you're not replacing a saves total, you're finding somebody else who can pitch.

That isn't to say teams don't still make high-profile closer pickups to address a publicly identified need. The Tigers' decision to sign Nathan was the most obvious example this past winter, a clear signal that the organization wasn't going to wing it the way they had in 2013, lurching between options, even bringing Jose Valverde back before entrusting the role to Joaquin Benoit down the stretch. Nathan had nailed down 93 percent of his save opportunities for the Rangers the past two years. Impressive? Sure, but it wasn't appreciably better than Benoit converting 92 percent of his opportunities last year.

So what need did signing Nathan really address for the Tigers, for the couple million more per year than Benoit cost the Padres? I would argue it's less a matter of either guy's performance than of Dave Dombrowski simultaneously tackling three considerations: Signing Nathan very publicly addressed the concerns of Tigers fans frustrated with a few years of uncertainty about who their closer might be, quickly silenced media criticism about a perceived weak spot on a team expected to do better, and it also makes Brad Ausmus' job as a rookie skipper just a little bit more scripted. It's a move that's about putting people's minds at ease, not necessarily making that much of a difference than if they'd kept Benoit and given him the same 50 save opportunities over a full season that Nathan should get.

In contrast, the Rays, arguably the most creative sabermetrically minded organization in the game, reap many of the same benefits by plugging in Grant Balfour. But they acquired their dose of ninth-inning certainty for almost $4 million less per year than it cost the Tigers to sign Nathan, and for less than their previous closer, Fernando Rodney, wound up costing the Mariners. Setting aside Balfour's availability because the Orioles bugged out of their two-year deal with him in December, Tampa Bay getting him relatively cheaply reflects my second point: An increasing number of teams understand it's smart to get lots of people capable of notching lots of saves if you give them the chance, rather than spending a ton on just one guy.

That's because these days, the market is populated none too coincidentally by teams that aren't so hung up on anointing one particular reliever as their bullpen savior and sinking the lion's share of bullpen expense on him alone. And why should they? The success most teams are emulating is that of many of last year's playoff teams. Consider what happened when the Pirates lost Jason Grilli last summer: They were fine, because they'd long since traded for Mark Melancon. Combined cost? A little more than $3 million.

Last spring, the Cardinals had to replace injured closer Jason Motte with nondescript journeyman Edward Mujica most of the way. They didn't suffer, and they made so much out of Mujica's already banking 37 saves that they replaced him with rookie Trevor Rosenthal in the last week of the season. Total cost, Motte included? A little more than $9 million, counting Rosenthal.

And you already know that last year the Red Sox had to sift through multiple late-game options because of injuries to Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey before surprising themselves by catching lightning in a bottle with Koji Uehara down the stretch. Total cost? $15.4 million for those three, or a little more than what it costs the Phillies to pay Jonathan Papelbon by his lonesome ($13 million per year). And if (or when) Uehara doesn't repeat his magic this year, so what? Well, guess who signed Edward Mujica. Combined, they won't cost $10 million in 2014.

These examples provide a lesson: You win with depth, by employing multiple guys capable of getting those last three outs. Different teams are going about that in different ways.

Sure, the A's traded for Jim Johnson's walk year, and he'll get the save opportunities until he gives them a reason not to, but they also added key set-up man Luke Gregerson to complement a pen already featuring Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle. The Dodgers might let Kenley Jansen notch saves, but with former closers Brian Wilson, Chris Perez, Brandon League and J.P. Howell also in their pen, it isn't like they need to fret over a shortage of vaunted closer's moxie if Jansen goes down. In examples such as these, one guy might be granted the magic “C,” but almost anybody could wear it.

Indeed, just about everyone has a reasonable alternative or two to their designated saves-generator any more. Some teams even seem to welcome a bit of uncertainty. Does anyone really think Tommy Hunter will still be the Orioles' closer at the end of July? Then there's Chicago's twinned nonsolutions for late-game magic. Sure, Jose Veras might be the designated saves-generating dude du jour in Wrigley, but will that last even as far as the trade deadline and his next trade to a contender he'll set up for? If the great urban planner Daniel Burnham urged future Chicagoans “make no little plans,” the Cubs and White Sox have economized by trimming "little" out of that when it comes to their closers: Make no plans.

The old argument over whether only some people can close has its answer: Lots of people can close, and do, and lots of those people are better than reliable, reliably available, and reliably replaceable Kevin Gregg. Teams aren't pinning their hopes on the guy; they're picking a guy to get most of their saves while also making sure they're accumulating the depth to change horses as needed. It might be the antithesis of the celebrity-driven Age of Mo, but if it makes for more resilient bullpens and teams, that sounds like a better brand of baseball.