If there is one overarching theme to the 2012 season so far, it is that closers are dropping like flies. By my count, 13 different teams have already replaced the closer they intended to start the season with and we aren’t even at the quarter pole yet. Based on the reaction of most fans, losing a good closer is like losing a vital organ and being stuck with a bad closer is like being trapped in a bad marriage.
Keeping those over-the-top reaction in mind, let’s now take a quick look at how the teams that have lost their closer have fared:
Tampa Bay – from Farnsworth to Rodney: Despite losing the overachieving Farnsworth to injury, the Rays have been perfectly fine with Fernando Rodney, who they picked up off the scrap heap before the season after being a grease fire in Anaheim for the last two seasons. In fact, Rodney might be the most dominant reliever in baseball right now.
Toronto Blue Jays – from Santos to Cordero to Janssen: Santos was a bit off before he got hurt, but the Jays replaced him with Francisco Cordero because he is an “experienced closer.” The “experienced closer” just lost the job after giving up a walk-off grand slam to Brandon Inge. Now Janssen is in the role and figures to be just fine.
New York Yankees – from Rivera to Robertson: Losing the greatest reliever of all-time is rough but the Yankees are in great shape because they have Robertson, despite his recent blown save, and a fallback plan of highly effective Rafael Soriano.
Boston Red Sox – from Bailey to Aceves: To absolutely no one’s surprise, Andrew Bailey was felled by injury before the season. The Sox have threatened to flip-flop on their replacement plan a few times, but Aceves has been perfectly serviceable in his work as closer, though his stats are inflated by two particularly epic flameouts.
Chicago White Sox – from Santiago to Sale… sort of: The Pale Hose oddly chose to go with Santiago despite him being a relative unknown. That decision didn’t pan out, but the ChiSox have been more than fine since pulling the plug as they’ve gotten solid replacement work from Addison Reed and Matt Thornton, though they still felt compelled to bring Chris Sale out of the rotation and into the closer role, who has yet to get a chance to prove that move smart or stupid. If that fails too, the White Sox can just turn back to Reed or Thornton.
Kansas City Royals – from Soria to Broxton: Soria was another pre-season loss, but Broxton has stepped into his shoes and filled them and then some (that is not a Broxton fat joke, as far as you know). Oh, and Broxton probably isn’t even the second-best reliever in that bullpen.
LA Angels – Walden to Downs: The Halos had little patience for Walden after he lost the ability to throw his slider anywhere near the plate. Longtime setup man Scott Downs has taken over the gig and still hasn’t given up a run this season.
Washington Nationals – Storen to Rodriguez/Lidge then just Rodriguez: Young closer Drew Storen was lost just before the season, so the Nats turned the closer spot over to a platoon of Brad Lidge and Henry Rodriguez, an arrangement that worked out well for a brief time. Lidge then went down with an injury of his own and now Rodriguez is handling closing duties all by his lonesome and not even remotely missing his counterpart.
Miami Marlins – Bell to Cishek: Big splash free agent capital-C Closer Bell has been a bust with a capital-B. He got demoted to middle relief earlier in the week with Cishek being named his nominal replacement, it is far too early to pass judgment on him, though he did blow his first save attempt since being made the “official” closer last night.
Cincinnati Reds – Madson to Marshall: Ryan Madson fell into the Reds’ lap as a free agent but then fell onto the operating table for Tommy John surgery. Sean Marshall has been good but not great in his stead.
Chicago Cubs – Marmol to Dolis: Marmol has been going off the rails for years and finally crashed his way out of the closer role this week. Relative unknown Rafael Dolis slammed the door in his first two chances as the new closer.
Los Angeles Dodgers – Guerra to Jansen: Guerra had eight saves but blew three chances. That isn’t awful, but the Dodgers couldn’t live with it since they had Jansen and his ridiculous strikeout rate waiting in the wings.
San Francisco Giants – Wilson to Casilla: Brian Wilson and his famed beard barely go going this year before needing Tommy John surgery. He was replaced and arguably upgraded upon by Santiago Casilla.
Ineffectiveness, injury, whatever the case may be, 13 teams have a different closer than they started the season with. How many of the new closer’s have failed? One, Cordero in Toronto, and arguably Aceves in Boston, though it is premature to make a call on two of the cases. The point here I think is pretty obvious, replacing a closer, whatever their pedigree isn’t as hard as one would think. One can then infer from that the next logical conclusion that if finding a quality back-up closer is so easy, then a lot more pitchers are capable of closing than we care to admit. So why is it we burn so many calories worrying about who gets the call in the ninth inning of a close game? Just look at the list above, nearly half the league had to break glass in case of emergency to find a new closer or even two new closers. They almost all landed on their feet.
And that doesn’t even take into account teams like the Orioles who had to temporarily replace their closer, Jim Johnson, and got strong work from the cast of characters filling in for him. The Diamondbacks had a similar story when J.J. Putz was unavailable for a brief time. Again, replaced with the greatest of ease. It just goes to show that it isn’t so important that you have one outstanding reliever so much as having several good relievers so that you have options.
Closers, setup men, middler relievers. Whatever the role, the truth is relief pitchers are volatile commodities. No matter how good a reliever is, they can fall off into oblivion in a hurry. You don’t have to look any further than Heath Bell to see how that works. Yet teams still throw huge amounts of money at the likes of Jonathan Papelbon and then don’t use him in two extra innings losses to division rivals in three days. That’s a double whammy, paying megabucks for a guy that can seemingly be easily replaced and then not using him.
If all of this doesn’t teach teams that the “Closer” role is obsolete, I don’t know what will.