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Sometimes it's the body that lets a player down. For example, last season, Mike Gonzalez was slated to be the Baltimore Orioles' closer but his shoulder wasn't right, and he made just three outings before landing on the disabled list. Joe Nathan of the Minnesota Twins didn't even make it that long, tearing an elbow ligament in March, forcing the closer to undergo Tommy John surgery and ending his season before it began.
Sometimes, though, it's not the body, but rather the mind that causes a player to see an unexpected drop-off in performance. That's what seemingly happened to Jonathan Broxton of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2010.
From May 7 through June 9, Broxton's outings were as good as it gets. In 18 appearances, he had one win, 15 saves and pitched two other scoreless ninths in games that his team ultimately went on to win in extra innings. He was invited to the All-Star Game, and got the save there as well, as the National League won for the first time in the lifetime of that girl from "True Grit." Everything was going Broxton's way -- but from that point on, well, things didn't pan out.
From July 18 through Aug. 12, Broxton was, in a word, awful. He went 1-4 with three blown saves. His last outing in that time frame was against the Philadelphia Phillies. Broxton entered the game ahead 9-6 to start the bottom of the ninth, and five batters later, the Phillies had a stunning 10-9 victory.
Confidence is not only something that a closer needs to have in himself, but his manager needs to have it in his pitcher as well. It's a two-way street, and I'm not talking about Huston. After that game, Joe Torre's confidence had run dry and he decided to pull Broxton from the team's closer role. He was clear to point out to reporters that there was nothing wrong physically with the pitcher, but that "he just needs to go out and have a couple of good outings to get that feeling back. This game gives you enough pressure, and he adds to it."
For the rest of the season, Torre went primarily with Hong-Chih Kuo as his closer with a few saves going to converted catcher Kenley Jansen. Broxton never did find himself, and the whispers began to get louder and louder. Will Broxton ever close again? As bad as he was in the second half of last season, I have to believe the answer is a resounding yes.
Joe Torre is gone, and Don Mattingly has taken over as manager of the team. He immediately put the issue to rest, assuring all who would listen that Broxton is his closer. On the team's official website, Mattingly said, "I'm counting on him pitching good, and I told him that. I'm not concerned with anything that happened last year. I'm counting on Jonathan being the closer and pitching well and being what he's been his whole career."
And let's be honest -- what choice does Mattingly have but to say that? If he shows any hesitation or hems and haws in the slightest, all he accomplishes is to exacerbate whatever lingering lack of confidence Broxton may be feeling after his second-half collapse. Kuo can't close day in, day out thanks to four elbow operations over his career. Jansen, although ranked No. 17 on my colleague Jason Grey's list of Top 50 fantasy prospects for 2011, is incredibly raw.
Plus, even if Mattingly may eventually turn to someone else as the summer drags on, you can't overlook the financial aspect of things. Broxton will earn $7 million this season and free agency looms in the offseason. Showcasing Broxton early on might result in enticing some suitors calling on Los Angeles. He'll have far more value via trade as a guy who has once again proved his closer capabilities than being buried in a set-up role.
So would I draft Broxton? Absolutely. The top-10 upside is too good to simply cast aside. Every closer goes through a rough patch or two in his career. Heck, just last season, the great Mariano Rivera had an ERA of 7.36 and an opposing BAA of .310 after Sept. 10. He's still being drafted second among closers in ESPN standard drafts for 2011.
What about the guy being taken first? It's Brian Wilson, who in 2009 had a mid-May slump that saw him lose three games, blow two saves and record an ERA of 9.53 with a .375 BAA. He more than proved last season that he could put a horrific stretch of failure behind him.
So, like Don Mattingly, I definitely will give Jonathan Broxton the benefit of the doubt. But don't break the bank to get him. Mattingly isn't your typical new skipper, who is coming into the organization from the outside. No, he was there last season and saw the meltdown with his own eyes. It won't take much to start those butterflies a-churning in his stomach if Broxton stumbles out of the gate.
A guy like Mark Teixeira can hit .136 for April and still find himself in the starting lineup every day because there are eight other hitters who can help keep the New York Yankees run total high while the first baseman struggles. But a closer is essentially out there all by himself. He can end a season before it begins with a few blown saves, and a first-time skipper isn't going to want to see his team take up residence in the cellar.
Last year, I wrote an article on June 30, and identified Broxton as a closer who might be on the verge of losing his manager's confidence due to his penchant for allowing the first batter he faces to get a base hit. We saw how that came to fruition.
Because the memory of that post-All Star collapse is still fresh in the manager's mind, be sure to keep an eye on that trend for 2011. If Broxton can record a few 1-2-3s early on, then the slate will truly be wiped clean, and you can expect a favorable fantasy season from Broxton. Your faith in him will be paid back and then some.
However, at least early in the campaign, the leash will be a short one. Even if he does nail down a few saves, if the Giants and Rockies get a few baserunners on before Broxton steps it up and ultimately retires the side, I think you'd be best served taking an early look at what the market in your league will bear.
As the English writer William Hazlitt wisely said, "As is our confidence, so is our capacity."
AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. His book, "How Fantasy Sports Explains the World" will be released in August. You can e-mail him here.
Follow AJ Mass on Twitter: @AJMass