Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Baseball [Print without images]

Wednesday, January 8, 2003
Updated: March 13, 5:45 PM ET
Red Sox going with the closer-by-committee approach

By Sean McAdam
Special to ESPN.com

It's an old idea made new. It's considered an experiment even though it's been tried plenty before. It's innovative, but somewhat retro, too.

It's a bullpen led by committee rather than achored by a single closer, and the Boston Red Sox are going to give it a try.

Deeming Ugueth Urbina too expensive for their budget, the Red Sox waved goodbye to Ubrina's 40 saves and have reconstructed their bullpen, aiming for quanity, and they hope, quality.

Ramiro Mendoza
Ramiro Mendoza could very well find himself closing games for the Red Sox in 2003.

Instead of Urbina being designated for ninth-inning duty, the Sox will this season be able to call upon any number of options: Ramiro Mendoza, Alan Embree, Bobby Howry, Mike Timlin and Chad Fox.

Every pitcher in Boston's crowded house has served in the closer's capacity before. Howry saved 28 games for the White Sox in 1999, the same season in which Timlin recorded 27 saves for Baltimore. Mendoza was occasionally called upon to finish games in his six seasons with the Yankees and has 16 saves in his career. Embree and Fox, too, have closed, though infrequently.

The strategy seems a daring one for a team with designs on a playoff spot, but general manager Theo Epstein and manager Grady Little feel the benefits far outweigh the risks.

And they're not alone.

"I like it,'' says Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi flatly. "I think they're on to something.''

"I think it's great,'' adds Oakland GM Billy Beane.

There's some irony in the fact that three of the game's youngest general managers all heartily endorse a philsophy that was revelant as recently as the 1970s. That was before baseball locked itself into a mentality that one pitcher -- and one pitcher only -- could safely be counted upon to record the final three outs of a game.

"I think it's a bunch of crap to have one closer,'' says one major league GM. "You pay that guy $5-6 million to pitch 60-70 innings a year. Is he that much of a slam dunk guy? There are very few that are anymore.''

Indeed, while Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman and Robb Nen constitute the elite group of closers, there's a significant dropoff after that trio. Take Urbina, whose 40 saves were bettered by just two American League closers last season.

Yet, of those 40 saves, 32 were obtained with leads of two runs or more. And in the 12 times that Urbina had one-run saves to protect, he failed four times.

"I think we've created this mindset of what we're supposed to do and everybody's following it, whether it makes sense or not,'' said Ricciardi. "If you feel like you have a dominant closer, then go with him. But if you don't ...''

Breaking new ground
The Red Sox are expected to head into the 2003 season with a closer-by-committee bullpen. Here are the amount of saves each pitcher in their pen recorded last season and in their entire career:
Pitcher 2002
saves
Career saves
R. Mendoza 4 16
A. Embree 2 6
M. Timlin 0 114
B. Howry 0 49
C. Fox 0 2

If you don't, then "flexibility'' and "options'' are the operative buzzwords.

"I'll leave it up to Grady to find usage patterns in the pen,'' Epstein said. "(But) the way we've built the pen is with versatility and flexibility in mind. On any given day, we want Grady to have lots of options to attack game situations and opposing lineups.''

If the Sox need a double play in the seventh, Little can call on Mendoza and his sinker ball. If he needs a strikeout in the same inning, he can go with Embree and his 95 mph fastball.

Change isn't necessarily a bad idea for the Red Sox, who were the only AL team with a winning record to have a losing record (15-22) out of its bullpen in 2002.

"I think we get so locked into things that we don't always use common sense,'' said Beane. "Does it make any sense to have your best reliever waiting in the bullpen when the game's tied in the seventh or eighth? By the time the ninth inning comes, it might be a three-run game. A lot of guys can get those last three outs. Why waste your best pitcher there?''

For too long, Epstein and others contend, baseball has become a slave to conformity. One GM recalls watching a game last season in which the opposition used a lefty set-up man in the eighth inning, only to switch to a right-handed closer in the ninth, despite the fact that three left-handed hitters were scheduled to hit.

"We get afraid to do something because conventional wisdom tells us it can't be done,'' said Ricciardi.

But it wasn't long ago that closers routinely pitched multiple innings. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the most dominant relievers in the game -- Rollie Fingers, Rich Gossage and Bruce Sutter -- frequently entered games in the seventh and remained on the mound until the final out was recorded. On the Sox's current staff, Mendoza and Embry can be counted on to pitch several innings at a time.

To be sure, there's an economic benefit to the committe approach. Urbina made $6.7 million last season and had he gone to salary arbitration, could have commanded as much as $9 million for 2003. Instead, the Sox will pay Mendoza, Embree and Timlin less than that figure combined.

I think we get so locked into things that we don't always use common sense. Does it make any sense to have your best reliever waiting in the bullpen when the game's tied in the seventh or eighth? By the time the ninth inning comes, it might be a three-run game. A lot of guys can get those last three outs. Why waste your best pitcher there?
Billy Beane, A's GM

For small-market teams in particular, the idea of a multi-headed closer has appeal.

"I never want to pay a closer $6-7 million when I can pay that to an everyday player,'' said one executive who must watch his payroll carefully. "Baseball is at a point now where you'd better be creative.''

In Oakland, Beane hasn't adopted the committee idea, but clearly sees the closer as a replaceable part of the bullpen puzzle. This will mark the fourth straight season he has employed a different closer, going from Billy Taylor to Jason Isringhausen to Billy Koch to Keith Foulke.

Little may find he will have to manage egos as well as innings as the experiment unfolds. Today's players are notorious for their need to have specified roles and the inherent uncertainty of the committee approach is bound to unnerve some.

"You have to cultivate that,'' said a rival general manager, "and let them all know that there are 3-4 guys who can pitch the eighth and ninth innings.''

Undoubtedly, many will be watching to see how things unfold in Boston. If it works, expect more teams to follow. If it doesn't, some teams may be reluctant to abandon the single-closer approach. Baseball may not be as prone to immitation as, say, the NFL, but teams are quick to copy what works.

"I don't see this as risky at all,'' Epstein said. "It's worked before.''

Sean McAdam of the Providence Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.