Case closed: Need 30-save man

Hard to make playoffs without lockdown reliever

March 27, 2011|By Phil Rogers

In the end, after Neftali Feliz had made three spring starts, seemingly getting stronger as he moved toward his first big-league start, the Rangers decided they couldn't afford to defend their American League pennant without a proven closer.

But at least a couple of teams, the White Sox and Braves, will try to reach the playoffs while using relatively untested closers. The non-tender of Bobby Jenks and retirement of Billy Wagner left big holes, but their former teams used their resources for other needs and will rebuild their bullpens with parts on hand.

Matt Thornton, one of the top setup men in the AL the last three years, opens as Ozzie Guillen's closer, with Chris Sale and Sergio Santos in the wings. The Braves count on second-year power arms Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters, who played huge roles in helping them to the playoffs in Bobby Cox's final season.

Among them, Thornton, Sale and Santos have 22 career saves. Kimbrel, Venters and Peter Moylan have five. The goal for Guillen and Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has to be to add 30-plus saves onto someone's career resume in 2011.

Otherwise teams with great upside could be compromised.

You can win without knowing who is going to slam the door night in and night out. But it's a lot easier to reach the playoffs when you do have a top closer.

Since the playoffs were expanded in 1995, 24 teams have reached the playoffs with one reliever picking up 30-plus saves. Six of those teams have gone to the World Series, the most recent being the Rays in 2008.

The 2002 Yankees and '03 Marlins won the World Series after regular seasons in which no reliever had 30-plus saves. But Mariano Rivera and Ugueth Urbina nailed down the October outs, not some beginners.

Jenks was a beginner for the '05 White Sox, who rolled through the playoffs 11-1. But that team wouldn't have been the power it was without a long regular-season run from Dustin Hermanson, who saved 34 games before wearing out.

Save totals can be a deceiving way to evaluate bullpens, as there's a chicken-and-egg relationship in play. A bad team with a good closer is still a bad team (and that closer might not get 30 saves). A so-so closer on a good team can pile up saves, as Hermanson did.

But suffice it to say, of the 120 playoff teams in the 15 seasons that baseball has used its three-tier, eight-team postseason format, 96 have had a 30-save man.

Rangers President Nolan Ryan and general manager Jon Daniels had no doubt weighed the numbers before reaching the decision to keep Feliz in the bullpen, where he went 40-for-43 in save chances during his Rookie of the Year season.

Manager Ron Washington didn't want to try to piece together a bullpen with Mark Lowe and Darren O'Day having troubling springs and Frank Francisco having been traded to the Blue Jays (where he might open the season on the disabled list) for Mike Napoli.

"We looked at all the options of the rotation with him in it and him not and the bullpen with him in it and him not," Washington said. "The need is greater in the bullpen."

Both Feliz and Sale are likely to transition into the rotation a year from now, as next winter's crop of free agents could include Jonathan Papelbon, Heath Bell, Jonathan Broxton, Matt Capps, Francisco Rodriguez, Ryan Franklin and Brad Lidge (not to mention Francisco Cordero and Joe Nathan, whose deals include 2012 club options). But they are needed in the bullpen for now, and that's not a need to take lightly.

Dubious distinction: No team ever has paid more than $22 million to make a player go away. That's what was left on Russ Ortiz's contract when the Diamondbacks released him in June, 2006.

"I broke a record," Ortiz told the San Francisco Chronicle last week. "I have that going for me."

Ortiz had signed a four-year, $33 million deal a year earlier but never regained his stuff after suffering a stress fracture in a rib during 2005, the first year of the contract. He contends that a released player never should feel guilty if he's trying.

The Giants reportedly were weighing a potentially record-breaking release of Aaron Rowand before Cody Ross suffered a badly strained calf muscle, which will have him on the DL to start the season. Rowand, owed $24 million over the next two years, has been crowded out by the likes of Andres Torres, Aubrey Huff, Brandon Belt and Ross. He has had an unproductive spring (.205-0-3 in 39 at-bats entering the weekend), foiling the Giants' efforts to trade him.

Ready to roll: The Tigers are a tough team to evaluate as they head toward the season. No one really knows whether it's safe to count on Miguel Cabrera, but he and newcomer Victor Martinez could make some beautiful music hitting together.

The last thing manager Jim Leyland needs to worry about his ace. Despite a ton of 120-plus pitch counts the last four seasons, Justin Verlander is a Cy Young Award winner waiting to be crowned. He has gone 37-18 the last two years and has been so dominant this spring that Nationals special assistant Pat Corrales compares him to Bob Gibson.

The notoriously slow-starting Verlander took an 0.86 ERA into his final spring tuneup for Thursday's opener against CC Sabathia at Yankee Stadium.

"He took it on himself to be more prepared for Opening Day," pitching coach Rick Knapp said. "He certainly is going about his business in a different manner."

The last word: "It's so easy to him. When he learns to hit, he's going to be unbelievable.'' — Hanley Ramirez on 21-year-old Marlins teammate Mike Stanton, who hit two three-run homers off Red Sox right-hander Clay Buchholz in his spring debut.

progers@tribune.com

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