This winter, the Boston Red Sox signed free agent Bobby Jenks to a two-year $12 million contract. The New York Yankees went three years and a whopping $35 million for free agent Rafael Soriano. The Minnesota Twins brought back arbitration-eligible Matt Capps for $7.15 million.
All three are set-up men – or at least were envisioned as such by their respective teams. Why would these teams spend so much money on eighth-inning relievers? First of all, because they can. The Yankees, Red Sox and Twins rank first, third and ninth, respectively, in overall 2011 payrolls.
But beyond that, it seems smart (and rich) teams have discovered it pays to have a proven backup plan for the closer’s role. And in the case of the Twins, such thinking has already paid off, as Capps, an accomplished closer for the previous four years, moved seamlessly into the closer’s job when veteran Joe Nathan, struggling to regain his consistency following elbow surgery in March 2010, relinquished those duties.
Already, not even three weeks into the season, 2011 is looking like the year of the closer crisis, and some good teams, including some potential contenders, have been victimized by their lack of a decent Plan B in the ninth inning.
Chief among them: the Chicago White Sox, whose bullpen blew six saves in the team’s first 12 games. The White Sox went into the season hoping veteran Matt Thornton and rookie Chris Sale, both left-handers, could split the closer’s duties, but both have been dreadful, sporting ERA over 7.00.
“I don’t have a closer,” Guillen blurted in a memorable press-conference tirade last week, knocking over a chair as he stormed out of his office. “I wish I knew who I can bring in the ninth.”
(Of course, it was Guillen who essentially ran Jenks out of town after a six-year run as the White Sox’s closer, which made him available for the Red Sox to snatch up as their set-up man – and their Plan B in case veteran Jonathan Papelbon struggles.)
Also, the St. Louis Cardinals this week yanked struggling right-hander Ryan Franklin — who has blown four of his five save opportunities this season — out of the closer’s role, but lacking an experienced backup they are expected to use a committee to handle those duties for the time being.
Elsewhere, the Los Angeles Angels have already switched closers, replacing veteran Fernando Rodney with rookie Jordan Walden, while the Milwaukee Brewers (John Axford) and Los Angeles Dodgers (Jonathan Broxton) are facing possible crises in the ninth inning, given the struggles of their current closers.
The Philadelphia Phillies and Oakland A’s have managed to survive while waiting on their regular closers – Brad Lidge and Andrew Bailey, respectively — to return from injuries. For the A’s, veteran Brian Fuentes — another example of a shrewd, Plan B pick-up this winter — has converted five of six save opportunities, while veteran Jose Contreras has gone a perfect three-for-three for the Phillies.
In fact, in an unscientific survey, fewer than half of the 30 teams in the majors currently enjoy a sense of season-long stability in the closer’s role — although we grant this was a highly subjective exercise.
Of course, no team has more stability at closer than the Yankees, although the great Mariano Rivera actually blew a save last night. Closer crisis in the Bronx? Nah, we suspect they’ll stick with Rivera a little while longer.