There may be no better example of this, and the overall precariousness of the position, than this season in the National League East. Four of the five teams have new closers this season.
The Washington Nationals lost Drew Storen, who finished tied for sixth in the majors last season with 43 saves, to elbow surgery and gave the role to setup man Tyler Clippard, who has excelled. The Philadelphia Phillies and Miami Marlins spent big bucks in the offseason for new closers. One, Jonathan Papelbon, has been good, and the other, Heath Bell, has struggled. New York Mets closer Frank Francisco, a free agent acquisition, fell to injury a month ago. The Atlanta Braves have the mainstay, the league’s best closer in Craig Kimbrel.
The likely two best of the bunch so far this season have been Kimbrel, followed by Clippard. Entering Friday’s game, Kimbrel is posting fantasy-like numbers, 15.3 strikeouts per nine innings, 0.68 walks and hits allowed per inning and 28 saves in 29 opportunities. Other than two recent bad outings, Clippard has been dominant, not to Kimbrel’s extent, but with 15 saves in 16 chances as the Nationals’ primary closer, at one point going 17-plus innings without allowing a run and only four hits.
What’s most telling about both players — and Storen, for that matter — is that they were developed by the teams from within. Kimbrel was drafted by the Braves in the third round of the 2008 draft and shepherded along as the team’s future closer. Storen was drafted in the first round of the 10th overall pick in the 2009 draft with the intent to bring him into the majors quickly as a closer. Clippard took the more traditional route for a closer, a failed starter converted into a reliever earlier in his career by the Nationals.
On the other hand, the Phillies spent $50 million to acquire Papelbon, a smart move when the team is expected to contend as the they were to start the season. But when a team struggles and could sell off parts if it doesn’t contend, an expensive closer isn’t as useful and the large contract stands out. The Nationals have gotten production to Papelbon’s, if not better, from Clippard for a fraction of the cost. The Marlins spent $27 million to lure Bell, and he has a frightening 6.00-plus ERA and six blown saves already.
The final three outs of the game are often considered the toughest to notch. Closers often say that hitters are more locked in and focused in the ninth inning and scout the closer more. It’s an expensive position for that stress-filled reason. But with what has happened in the division this season, maybe this is proof that it’s more efficient and cheaper to develop a closer from within the system than to splurge for one on the open market.