PAINTING THE BLACK: "Closing Time Coming Early in Some Camps"
To say clubs put an extreme emphasis on outs 25, 26 and 27 of a ballgame is an understatement. By the same token, those outs aren't any different, in theory, than 1, 2 and 3 of the first inning. You don't have to be some crazy man, firing fastballs with your hair on fire. You also don't have to go through any crazy rituals found in the movie "Major League" with Jobu at your side.
The ninth inning is predicated on a few keys: throw strike one, "slow" the game down with runners on base, and always get the third out with your team up by at least one run. Sounds easy right? Teams with established, "lock down" closers enjoy the luxury of "shortening" the game to eight innings. However, spring training in 2014 will feature a few teams holding closing battles to find their ninth inning man. Here's a breakdown of six clubs looking for a new stopper:
(* - career saves are in parenthesis)
The favorite - RH Tommy Hunter (4)
The contenders - RH Ryan Webb (0), RH Darren O'Day (4)
With Jim Johnson departing, Hunter should make the natural transition from eighth inning setup man to closer. He's got all the necessary numbers to justify it, especially in 2013 walking only 14 hitters in 86.1 IP while featuring a WHIP under 1.00 (0.98 in ‘13). His offspeed stuff plays much better one time through the lineup opposed to his starting days from Texas and that helps "lengthen" his fastball to keep hitters off-balance.
O'Day, as long as he can stay healthy, should be similar to Angels setup man Joe Smith in that his sub-to-sidearm delivery will throw many batters off trying to find a release point. He's got enough swing-and-miss movement on his pitches (59 K in 62 IP in 2013) that he'll challenge Hunter in camp. More than likely, he gives Hunter a breather on days Hunter won't close.
Webb is an intriguing option due to his arsenal producing a ground ball rate over 50%. Keeping the ball in the ballpark is essential to pitching in the back-end of a bullpen, and the right-hander has proven he can handle an increased responsibility. He slots more towards the seventh inning out of camp.
The favorite - RH Joakim Soria (160)
The contenders - RH Neftali Feliz (74), RH Tanner Scheppers (2)
Almost an embarrassment of relief riches remains for the Rangers after Joe Nathan signed with the Tigers this offseason. This closing battle hinges on the health of two former dominant men: Neftali Feliz and Joakim Soria.
Feliz showed he was healthy in 4.2 shutout innings at the end of 2013 and flashed close to the mid-to-high 90s fastball we're accustomed to seeing. Soria, by contrast, struggled off the disabled list with his control, something he's never experienced in his MLB tenure.
The biggest thing to pay attention to in camp is both Feliz and Soria's control. Feliz has publicly stated his intense desire to retain the role that garnered him 72 saves from 2010-2011. "Overthrowing" is something to always look for with a guy who's trying to get back to old form and Feliz is a perfect candidate. Soria, a master of getting ahead of hitters and keeping walks to a minimum in his closing tenure with Kansas City, needs merely to regain the confidence in his great sinker and cutter, as well as consistently throwing his big curveball for strikes. Soria's career 1.06 WHIP in 339 IP lends me to believe he's due for a bounce-back 2014 campaign.
Scheppers could have the best stuff out of both Feliz and Soria. However, just because you throw hard doesn't mean you'll miss barrels, something he'll need to show consistently in spring training. I like him in a late-inning role again in 2014, slotted behind the aforementioned pair.
I'd look for the decision between Feliz and Soria to come down to who's the healthiest, most in command of their stuff, and capable of working a couple back-to-back clean late-inning situations late in camp.
The favorite - RH Jesse Crain (4)* (est. return April 1)
The contenders - RH Josh Fields (5), RH Matt Albers (0), RH Chad Qualls (51)
If you're looking for the closest closing competition, Houston is ground-zero. In a perfect world, every candidate would be healthy going into camp, but Jesse Crain currently hasn't thrown off the mound due to a biceps injury. I put an asterisk next to Crain because, when it's all said and done, he is the most consistent option among the four pitchers. He'll still need to show he's 100% on his game before being handed the closer's job, but knowing his electric stuff and veteran mindset, I like his chances.
Here's where things get dicey. The best pure stuff out of any of these guys is clearly in the right arm of Josh Fields. He finished the 2013 season as the official closer once Jose Veras was traded and flourished to five saves while punching out 40 in 38 IP. Youth is always an issue in such a high-profile role and manager Bo Porter will definitely consider that with experienced arms like Qualls and Albers in competition.
Qualls bounced back in a big way with Miami in 2013 by rediscovering his command. His 51 career saves are most among any of the candidates by a long-shot, but his fastball and offspeed pitches aren't nearly what they were in years past. No doubt he'll be a key to the back end of the Astros bullpen for sure, but doesn't possess, at this stage in his career, enough to be the closer out of camp.
Albers, coming over from Cleveland, possesses more value as a setup or seventh inning option because of his sinking fastball and double-play inducing ability. With no career saves to his name and career 1.45 WHIP, he doesn't get away with as much as a Crain or Fields would, but could fill in once in awhile should the need arise.
The one number that throws up a huge red flag at me is Fields giving up 8 HR in 38 IP. You can't be giving up long balls and costing leads that late in a game. The separator for Fields, however, is pure power. Think Trevor Rosenthal in the 2013 playoffs. Fields really has the chance to get to that level if he can keep the ball in the ballpark and his walks in check. If Crain isn't healthy by Opening Day, Fields is the man.
The favorite - RH LaTroy Hawkins (101)
The contenders - LH Rex Brothers (19)
The loss of Rafael Betancourt opened the door for Rex Brothers to jump on the scene in a big way. Amassing 19 saves while striking out 76 in 67.1 IP, the left-hander blows hitters away with a lively fastball that can play up in the zone even through the thin air of Denver. So why are we having a conversation about a closing battle in Colorado? Manager Walt Weiss likes the consistent, dependable LaTroy Hawkins to begin the season as the stopper instead.
This closing "battle" to me, really isn't a battle. While Hawkins will open the season in the ninth inning, expect Brothers to get opportunities in which the lineup he'd face is more favorable to him. To me, these numbers and facts illuminate more of a grooming process for the young lefty, waiting in the wings as he refines his command (4.8 BB/9) and gains more experience.
Hawkins, 41, with 101 career saves, isn't overpowering as in his younger days. Yet, he continually pounds the zone enough to be ahead of Brothers at this point in the race. Any manager will tell you, they'll take a veteran who knows the ropes early to let the "young apprentice" polish the finer points of being a dominant ninth inning guy.
CHICAGO WHITE SOX:
The favorite - RH Nate Jones (0)
The contenders - LH Scott Downs (26), RH Matt Lindstrom (45)
Former 100-mph closer Addison Reed is now in Arizona. What do the Sox do? Turn things over to another 100-mph flamethrower in Nate Jones? The beauty of this bullpen situation is that veteran candidates Scott Downs and Matt Lindstrom are best suited for setup roles and succeed much more in those situations.
So, naturally, take the kid with no career saves, but the blistering heat right? Let's not get ahead of ourselves and think Jones couldn't experience some of the same struggles that Reed did in 2013. Downs could be a valuable guy not only from a hold perspective, but he'll steal some save opportunities in which the lineup is more favorable for a lefty to face it. However, Downs has never maintained a closer's role for an entire season. Lindstrom hasn't had an ERA under 4.39 when owning the job. Yet, Lindstrom also is the more reliable option between him and Jones long-term, at least where we stand in spring training.
Chicago isn't going to let a repeat of 2013 happen out of the gate. If Lindstrom is throwing better than Jones all through camp, Robin Ventura and the Sox front office won't hesitate to let the youthful Jones work out the kinks while Lindstrom takes the early reign. Ultimately, I believe the smart money is on Jones to inherit the ninth inning while keeping the more "rigorous" setup spots for seasoned guys like Downs and Lindstrom.
The favorite - RH Jose Veras (26)
The contenders - RH Pedro Strop (4), LH James Russell (2), RH Arodys Vizcaino (0)
The buzz in spring training for the Cubs in 2013 was the arrival of Japanese sensation Kyuji Fujikawa to overtake Carlos Marmol's closing job. It happened, but not for long. Tommy John surgery took Fujikawa's year and the Cubs endured a closer by committee until Kevin Gregg took over. It's not a way to make a successful bullpen to compete in a very tough NL Central.
Have no fear Cubs fans - look for the high-drama ninth-inning trend to end with Jose Veras bringing his mid-90s fastball, knee-buckling curve and (don't freak out, it's not as crazy as Marmol's) violent follow-through to the friendly confines of Wrigley Field.
Manager Rick Renteria ended really any spring closing battle by naming Veras his closer at the Cubs Convention, but the real intrigue is the in-house options that will follow him. I'd be very surprised not to see Pedro Strop or phenom Arodys Vizcaino get some closing opportunities sometime during this season.
Being in Cubs camp last season, I got the chance to watch Vizcaino through his rehab. What an explosive arm! If he's healthy and is able to command his high-90s heater, Vizcaino could be the sleeper reliever of the year. He and Strop throw extremely hard while possessing great swing-and-miss breaking stuff.
Expect Strop to get the lion's share of early-season ninth inning chances when Veras needs a day off, but also LH James Russell to see a few opportunities as well.