Commentary

It's unsafe around closing time

Several contenders are heading down the stretch with unreliable closer situations

Updated: August 20, 2009, 5:33 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

It isn't necessarily true that to win a World Series you need a dominant closer.

What is necessarily true, though, is that to win a World Series you need a closer who doesn't cause the entire fan base's hair to fall out every time he starts to warm up.

But whether either of those adages is or isn't true, necessarily or unnecessarily, it's amazing how many contenders are teetering down the stretch with closers who aren't quite winning any Goose Gossage look-alike contests.

Consider this: Last year, six of the 12 teams that finished at least 10 games better than .500 had closers with ERAs under 2.50. This year, of the 15 teams within five games of a playoff spot, only three -- the Cardinals (Ryan Franklin), Yankees (Mariano What's-his-name) and Red Sox (Jonathan Papelbon) -- have closers with ERAs under 2.50.

"You know what?" one scout says. "Every closer in baseball except Mariano [Rivera] and [Joe] Nathan has issues. And that's not good."

Well, it's not fatal. But it's not conducive to October ticker-tape showers, either. So let's take a look at the five contenders with the most dangerous closer issues right now:

[+] EnlargeKevin Gregg
G Fiume/Getty ImagesKevin Gregg, recently removed as the Cubs' closer, is 1-2 with an 11.25 ERA and three blown saves in August.

CHICAGO CUBS

Out of that Cubs closer gig goes gopherball machine Kevin Gregg. In comes walk machine Carlos Marmol. But just that flip-flop alone doesn't solve this team's late-inning problems.

Gregg's 12 home run balls had him on pace to give up a staggering 17 bombs -- which would be the most in modern bullpen history by a reliever with 20 saves. But even more ominously, only one team in the division-play era has won a World Series with a closer anywhere near that gopherball-prone -- the 1987 Twins, with Jeff Reardon (14 homers allowed that year).

But Marmol has his own glitches. He's averaging a ridiculous 8.31 walks per nine innings. And during the past 40 years, no team has made the postseason with even a part-time closer who had that ugly a walk rate. So Column B doesn't look much better than Column A.

"They may have to look at something else, because that's not going to work," one NL executive says. "Marmol is just too damn wild. And Gregg leaves too many cookies in the middle of the plate. The guy who might be their best option is Angel Guzman. But he's never done it."

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

Not that this should scare anybody in Philadelphia. But no team in the history of the modern save rule has won a World Series with a closer whose ERA (7.21), opponent batting average (.299) or WHIP (1.83) was as high as Brad Lidge's is this year.

And now more upbeat news: No team during that time has won a championship with a closer who reached double figures in blown saves, either. And Lidge is on pace to blow 11 saves this year. (Asterisk alert: Jason Isringhausen blew 10 saves for the 2006 Cardinals, but he wasn't closing by the time they reached the World Series.)

So as October draws closer, the Phillies face a critical question: Is Lidge still capable of straightening himself out? And if not, what's the alternative?

"I don't think they're in as much trouble as the Cubs," says one scout, "because at least they've got a lockdown eighth-inning guy in [Ryan] Madson. And Lidge's stuff is still OK. But he's throwing too many sliders. His command is awful. And I think he's still got some aches and pains in his legs he's trying to pitch through."

A rival exec said, "I know they like Madson in that set-up role, and they don't want to change that. But when you get to October, everything's out the window. If you've got to dump Lidge [as the closer], that's what you've got to do. You can't worry about feelings that time of year."

TAMPA BAY RAYS

The Rays got to the World Series last year via the mix-and-match bullpen hodgepodge route after Troy Percival went down. They're trying it again this year.

They've already had eight different relievers save at least one game. And they've had 14 different relievers finish a game. So one thing you can say about Joe Maddon, besides the fact that he sure looks cool in black hair: He's no push-button manager.

The good news for them is that, believe it or not, 14 teams in the division-play era have made it to the postseason in years in which at least eight different pitchers saved a game. But the bad news is, only three of those teams -- the 2003 Red Sox, 1991 Braves and 1992 Braves -- have won a postseason series.

And the worst news is, none of those 14 won it all. So as much as some people in this sport would love to disprove the necessity of the one-monster-closer concept, reality isn't cooperating very well.

The funny thing is, though, that the Rays have had a remarkable flair for making this work. They've blown only one save in the ninth inning all year -- and it was by a pitcher (Isringhausen) who isn't even on their active roster anymore.

Nevertheless, says one scout, "They might be No. 1 on this list for me, because the pitchers they're using back there are not really 'closers.' It's just a collage of guys trying to do a job. On the right day, it can work. But on other days, you say, 'What are they thinking?'"

FLORIDA MARLINS

Here's something that's never a good sign: when your opponents have a higher batting average and on-base percentage in the ninth inning than any other inning.

That's a stat that applies to your 2009 Marlins. And it hangs over a team trying to shock the world and sneak into the postseason with a $36.8 million payroll.

The Marlins' first-half closer was Matt Lindstrom, a man with a 6.15 ERA who has allowed 16.57 baserunners per nine innings this year despite great stuff. Their second-half closer has been Leo Nunez, another guy with terrific stuff who has thrown just 51 percent of his pitches for strikes this year -- and has served up nine homers.

"Nunez has a great arm, but he's a thrower, not a pitcher," one scout says. "To me, he's kind of like a better version of Jesus Colome. And Lindstrom is a guy with good stuff, but he doesn't trust it and he has no idea where it's going. So I'd be searching the woods for somebody [better] if I were them. A guy like [John] Smoltz would have been a perfect acquisition for them."

LOS ANGELES ANGELS

This is where this list gets tricky. We almost awarded the final spot to the White Sox, a team whose closer (Bobby Jenks) is 26-for-30 in save opportunities this year but whose other numbers are trending in all the wrong directions.

Instead, though, we're going with the Angels and Brian Fuentes, even though, on the surface, it might seem insane to be picking on a guy who is one save shy of leading the league in saves (with 35).

Well, it wouldn't be the first time we've been accused of insanity. But hear us out on this: Fuentes has the highest ERA (4.10) and is tied for the most blown saves (five) among all AL closers. He has allowed the highest opponent batting average (.250). And he's essentially running neck-and-neck with Jonathan Papelbon for the highest WHIP (1.27).

Now throw in the fact that Fuentes' set-up crew has been so shaky that the Angels have the third-worst bullpen ERA in the league. And that his team already has played 51 games decided by one or two runs. And that, during his past 10 appearances, Fuentes has a 12.00 ERA and more gopherballs (three) than strikeouts (two). And it's enough to get him on this list even though we ought to mention that, before his recent blowup, Fuentes hadn't given up a run since May.

"That guy scares the heck out of me," one scout says. "He's lost a little off his stuff, so now his deception is not as deceptive. He used to be a lot more deceptive when he was throwing 3 or 4 miles an hour harder."

Now, for some reason, you never want to hear a word like "scares" in the same sentence as "closer" when you flip that calendar to October. So for some of these teams, there's a lot to contemplate during this next month and a half.

It might seem too late in the year to switch closers. But remember, the 2003 Marlins displaced Braden Looper as their closer and went with Ugueth Urbina in the last week of September -- and won it all. And this time in 2005, Jenks had never saved a game in his big league life -- then morphed into Rollie Fingers in October. Ditto Adam Wainwright for the 2006 Cardinals.

"So you don't have to have That Dominant Guy," one exec says. "You can do it by playing the hot hand, too."

Ah, but who's that hot October hand going to be? That's a question a manager can't always answer in August. But some of these managers had better find that answer by the time the leaves turn orange -- or else.

Wagner

Ready to rumble

• Wig-Wagging: A scout who covers the Florida State League reports, after watching Billy Wagner throw, that there is "no doubt" Wagner could help somebody in the big leagues if the Mets can find a trade partner.

"I saw him twice, and he was impressive," the scout said. "He was throwing 92 to 94 [mph], and he was throwing strikes. The breaking-ball command was not real good. But everything else was the old Billy Wagner."

Two teams that other clubs' scouts believe have some interest are the Rays and Marlins. But Wagner's $10.5 million contract (which has more than $2.5 million remaining through the end of the season, plus a $1 million buyout of his 2010 option) likely would be too pricey for both of those teams. But other clubs believe that the Mets will have to eat a major chuck of that money if they expect to land a decent prospect in return for Wagner.

• For whom the Bell toils: The Padres talked to a bunch of clubs about closer Heath Bell before the trade deadline. But you can scratch Bell's name off your August shopping lists. We're hearing that Bell hit the waiver wire this past weekend and got claimed by multiple teams -- whereupon the Padres pulled him back immediately. (They did the same with Adrian Gonzalez, by the way.) So Bell won't be returning to a Rumor Central column near you until after the 2010 season, if then.

Hendrickson

• Off the Mark: But here's a bullpen piece who did get through waivers, according to sources monitoring the waiver wire: Baltimore's Mark Hendrickson. The Orioles talked extensively to the Rockies about Hendrickson before the trade deadline. But there have been no indications the clubs have rekindled that conversation of late. The Rockies are one of those teams that figure to see where the Wagner bidding leads before readjusting their sights to the Hendrickson bullpen tier.

• For starters: So how come the Cardinals pursued John Smoltz to fill a bullpen hole -- then wound up putting him into the rotation? Because all the clubs pursuing Smoltz were told he still preferred to be a starter -- at least in the short term.

The Rangers backed off because they were interested in him only as a reliever. The Dodgers, in the end, appeared to have only lukewarm interest, even though they needed another starter. And although the Marlins also wanted Smoltz as a late-inning bullpen weapon, there are indications they were willing to let Smoltz take another shot at starting if that's what it took to get him to Florida.

But the Cardinals also were willing to grant that wish. So in the end, the lure of a packed ballpark, a first-place team and a chance to reunite with old friends Mark DeRosa and Adam Wainwright led Smoltz to St. Louis.

• In the Cards: Speaking of the Cardinals, the addition of Smoltz is just another reason one rival GM called them "the best team in the league right now."

Holliday

Just try to find a major hole in the Cardinals these days. We dare you.

Since Matt Holliday showed up to play "this year's Manny," they've averaged five runs a game, with an .800 team OPS.

Their closer, Ryan Franklin, has a 1.13 ERA.

And who has a better 1-2-3 in its rotation? Wainwright has ripped off 11 straight starts of two runs or fewer allowed. Chris Carpenter is 8-0 in his past nine starts, and he didn't win the other start because of a blown save. And the Cardinals have won eight straight games started by Joel Pineiro. So they're 24-3 in games started by those three since July 1.

"That's a very balanced club now," one scout says. "Their pitching is good. And Matt Holliday and Mark DeRosa have completely changed the dynamic of that team. They both can hit. They're both gamers. They're both winners. I wouldn't be shocked if they won it all."

• The Royal family: The Royals placed Gil Meche on trade waivers Wednesday, meaning they'd be able to deal him starting Friday afternoon. But clubs that have felt out the Royals say they've shown very little interest in trading any of their four best pitchers -- Meche, Brian Bannister (already waived and pulled back), Joakim Soria (also on waivers this week) and, obviously, Zack Greinke.

Meche

The Royals have told other clubs that those guys have more value to them right now than they'd have in a deal. But not everyone on the outside agrees.

"I don't understand their position," said an official of one contender. "You take a guy like Soria. They could get three really good young players for him easy. He's young. He's under control. He's a lights-out closer. And with their team -- face it, with all due respect, they don't have a lot of games to close. So if they put him out there, he'd be huge. There would be a lot of teams interested. Look at the Cubs. Look at the Rays. They'd be all over a guy like that. It would be a great way [for the Royals] to rebuild their team. But they're just not interested."

• Hold that X-Ray: Clubs that have Carl Crawford on their offseason radar are getting the impression these days that the Rays aren't as certain to deal him this winter -- heading into his free-agent walk year -- as many people think.

The Rays clearly view hot outfield prospect Desmond Jennings (.315 AVG., .394 OBP, 45 SB this season between Double-A and Triple-A) as Crawford's energizer heir apparent. But Jennings' ETA isn't necessarily April 2010. And the Rays picture their current nucleus as being in its win-now window. So an official of one team says he expects Crawford to be traded only if "they're blown away" by somebody's offer.

Nevertheless, is it possible some team might make an offer like that? Absolutely -- especially a club that feels as if it can sign Crawford long-term.

• Senior trip? Jamie Moyer's unhappiness with the Phillies over losing his spot in the rotation makes us wonder whether they might look to trade him during the winter to a team looking for a mentor for a young staff. And if they did, says an official of one NL team, there actually might be a market, even though Moyer would pitch at age 47 next season.

"I'd take him," the official says. "I mean, it's not like you'd be running the risk of an arm injury because it's not exactly power stuff. For him, it's about feel. And as long as he shows he's still got that feel for pitching, why not?

"To me, he'd be a great fit for a team like Washington. Get him around Stephen Strasburg and some of those young guys, and they couldn't have a better role model."

We can't forget, though, that Moyer is guaranteed at least $6.5 million next season -- a figure that would grow to at least $8 million if Moyer makes three more starts and works another 30 2/3 innings.

• National treasure: What's the Nationals' plan for Strasburg, now that we know he won't be making any attendance-boosting cameos in D.C. this September? Send him to the Florida Instructional League, then to the Arizona Fall League, then let him come to spring training with the idea that if he makes the team, great, and if not -- well, whatever.

But the biggest part of that plan is to gear down expectations -- that this guy has to go out and instantly win 20, start piling up Cy Youngs and save the franchise during his spare time.

"This kid can not live up to his hype -- because no human being could," team president Stan Kasten said. "But we don't expect, or need, him to live up to the hype. All we need him to do is develop the physical and athletic gifts he has. If that gets him in front of this rotation, that would be super. But we're putting no expectations on him whatsoever."

• Let the hype not begin: Meanwhile, it's only 9½ months until next year's draft -- which means the Bryce Harper hype machine is already cranking. But before we all start buying into the Next A-Rod madness building around the 16-year-old Sports Illustrated cover boy, heed the words of one AL executive who says his team's reports on Harper aren't that inspirational:

"Oh, he's big and he's strong. But to be honest, this summer, he's looked a little overmatched at the plate. He definitely has a big ceiling. Nobody denies that. But I'm not sure he's what he's been sold as being."

Morales

• The first degree: When the Angels said during the winter that they had no fear of running Kendry Morales out to first base if Mark Teixeira walked, a lot of people in baseball were skeptical. But not anymore. Three-quarters of the way through the season, Morales is hitting .303 with 26 homers, a .574 slugging percentage and a .925 OPS. There isn't a single AL first baseman -- including Teixeira -- who can match him in all those categories.

"I always used to think [Morales] was kind of a lazy kid," one scout says. "But this guy can hit. I don't know how good a hitter he'll be right-handed. But left-handed, his hands work as good through the zone to the ball as anybody I've seen. Before, when he came off the bench, he just went through the motions. But the more he's gotten a chance to play, the more he's become a really good hitter. Dangerous, dangerous power."

• Beware of F-Rod: As the Rangers creep within sight of their first playoff journey since the Clinton administration, one NL scout says he has figured out what their smokeballing secret bullpen weapon, Neftali Feliz, is turning into:

"He's this year's K-Rod," the scout says, harking back to when Francisco Rodriguez dropped out of the sky to help lead the 2002 Angels to the World Series parade floats. "No matter who it is up there, he strikes you out. He's got one of those arms that could throw a marshmallow through a battleship."

• Flying coach: Speaking of those Rangers, as we reach late August, it's becoming clear they made one of the most important, and most underrated, additions that any team made during the winter -- by hiring Mike Maddux as pitching coach.

Almost five months into the season, this staff ranks fourth in the league in ERA and second in the league since the All-Star break. It's also second in the AL in shutouts and has the lowest ERA by any Rangers staff at this point since 1992. Most important, it seems as if every pitcher on their staff has improved.

"I know [team president] Nolan [Ryan] gets a lot of the props for this," says an executive of one club. "But Mike Maddux has changed the total thought process of that staff, and it's worked. One thing this guy is, is a teacher. And when you can do that and implement it, that's what it's all about."

• The not-so-big O: Lost in all the hoopla over Derek Jeter's setting baseball's record for most hits by a shortstop (2,675) is the active player who almost beat him to it.

Omar Vizquel (2,669) was only four hits behind the record holder, Luis Aparicio, when Jeter zoomed by him. And if Vizquel had started more than 19 games at short in Texas this year, he'd have set that record -- temporarily, anyway.

But it's a reminder to all of us of what Vizquel has been in his day -- namely, a Hall of Famer. Remember, this is a man so sure-handed, he has had as many seasons (three) of five errors or fewer (in at least 135 games) as all other shortstops since 1900 combined. And although he might not have been Cal Ripken at the dish, Vizquel amazingly will rank No. 2 on the all-time shortstops hit list.

"I remember when he first came up in Seattle," one longtime exec said. "We used to say he was the best-kept secret in the American League, even though he might never hit .210 or .220. But he made himself a lot better [hitter] than that. And with the glove, he's just been so consistent for so long. To me, if Ozzie Smith is a Hall of Famer, then Omar Vizquel is a Hall of Famer."

• Great Scott: Finally, has there ever been a greater master of revisionist history than Scott Boras? Just in case anybody might even suspect that he took some kind of "defeat" by getting "only" $15.1 million for Strasburg after asking for $50 million, he's now claiming that 50-mil talk was merely another gigantic media fabrication.

Actual Boras quote to USA Today: "I don't know where that came from."

Huh? When that quote was read to an official of one team that inquired about Strasburg before the draft, he laughed uproariously.

"Well, I'll say this," he replied. "I never heard the words, '50 million,' come out of his mouth. But we did hear many splendid things about Daisuke Matsuzaka [who just happened to sign with the Red Sox for $52 million]. I guess that was just some kind of coincidence."

Late-nighter of the week

No. 7 on David Letterman's list of Top 10 Signs That New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg Has Gone Nuts:

    "Just gave Yankees a billion dollars to build another new stadium."

Tweet of the week

Over at our Twitter desk, we caught this tweet from always-brilliant Seth Meyers (@sethmeyers21) of "Saturday Night Live":

    "The 'Strasburg Deadline' sounds like a '70s spy movie. I think it was based on a Len Deighton book."

Headliner of the week

Finally, this just in from the hilarious lunatics at Sportspickle.com:

    TONY LARUSSA BRINGS IN CAPRICORN
    TO PITCH TO A LEO

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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