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Is there a need for a pure closer?


Special to ESPN.com

Sept. 7

One rival manager watched Joe Torre close games without Mariano Rivera and said, "I know there's no one like Rivera on the planet, but the way Joe mixes and matches with Mike Stanton, Steve Karsay and Ramiro Mendoza is almost as effective. It makes one wonder why more teams don't use three, four and five relievers."

It's made a lot of people wonder for awhile why there is such an obsession with the pure closer, come hell or high water, to such a degree that teams will pay $7-9 million for a three-out specialist. One AL GM recently observed "everyone has a closer or two, sometimes you just have to take the time to indentify him."

Eddie Guardado
Eddie Guardado has excelled in his first full season as a closer.

Did the Dodgers think Eric Gagne was the answer? Of course not. When they were talking with Toronto and Oakland about deals, they tried to push Gagne instead of Luke Prokopec, who is now out for the 2003 season. Look how Anaheim's Mike Scioscia and Bud Black gerrymandered their bullpen when Troy Percival missed a month. Did the Twins really believe Everyday Eddie Guardado was an All-Star stopper?

And when teams and managers get tied to one closer and one closer only and he goes south ... or when a manager feels so dependent that he uses his closer five days in succession for fear that he might lose with someone else ...?

"Rivera is an anomaly," says one AL GM. "The same is probably true of Trevor Hoffman, John Smoltz and Billy Wagner. That's about it. To pay anyone else $8 million is bad business. Look, I love Billy Koch because he can pitch two or three innings and he's willing to pitch every day, but he's blown seven save opportunities." Oh yes, and after Hoffman, the National League save percentage leader is Mike Williams.

We may soon see several teams eschew the notion of the $7-9 million closer and go to the Jim Leyland Pittsburgh model, where he used to have six relievers, any of whom might be asked to get the most important out in the seventh inning or the final out of the ninth inning. Leyland won three straight NL East titles in 1990-92, and his save leaders, in order, were Bill Landrum (13), Landrum (17) and Stan Belinda (18).

"There are probably a lot more pitchers out there that could do this role than we realize, using Gagne and Guardado as examples," says an AL executive.

There are some of the likely candidates who are already in similar roles. Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild thinks Juan Cruz could close. The Indians have already moved Danys Baez to the role, and believe Triple-A left-hander Carl Sadler could do it, as well. Calling around offered this list: Felix Rodriguez of the Giants, Luis Vizcaino of the Brewers, Victor Zambrano of the Devil Rays, Tim Spooneybarger of the Braves, J.C. Romero of the Twins, Octavio Dotel of the Astros, Scott Williamson of the Reds, Dennis Tankersley of the Padres and Cliff Politte of the Blue Jays.

Then, there's the list of candidates that require some creativity. Joey Hamilton touched 96 mph in St. Louis this week, and some of his past pitching coaches have believed that he would be best served using his best stuff for one or two innings at a time. Say the same about Jamey Wright of the Cardinals, as well. Some scouts think Todd Ritchie is a totally different pitcher in two-inning stints. The Expos would like to make Tony Armas a closer. As would the Pirates with Bronson Arroyo.

"Where is it written in stone that the last pitcher can't work two innings, then let someone else finish the next game?" asks Red Sox manager Grady Little, who also was impressed with Torre's use of his three pitchers not named Rivera. In fact, Little was so impressed, don't be surprised if the Red Sox, who will lose Ugueth Urbina to free agency, don't re-sign Alan Embree, go sign a couple of makeshift closers and use them with Bobby Howry and whoever else they have with the Leyland model.

Looking for a new manager?
No one knows exactly how many managers will be out of jobs come the offseason. Mets owner Fred Wilpon insists that manager Bobby Valentine and GM Steve Phillips are safe and has accepted public responsibility, although there are some who wonder if Wilpon won't exercise his right to change his mind and make at least one change. There has been speculation that Giants GM Brian Sabean and manager Dusty Baker will not co-exist another season in San Fransisco, although owner Peter Magowan believes they will both be back with the club next season.

There have been rumblings that Lou Piniella's unhappiness with ownership's refusal to add any help during the season may lead him to trying to get out of the last year of his deal with the Mariners, which would make a very attractive candidate should the Cubs or Mets be in the market. There also are several people in the Tampa Bay organization that claim that Piniella would love to come home and work for the Devil Rays, and clearly the Rays need him. But GM Chuck LaMar was hesitant to go after Piniella before, which makes one wonder if he'll try to keep Piniella out again.

"There are going to be an extraordinary number of managerial openings," says one AL GM, "but I challenge anyone to put together a list of 10 really good candidates."

If and when there is a change in Texas, John Hart has told fellow general managers that he will need to hire a name, and he has had contact with Buck Showalter. Diamondbacks bench coach Bob Melvin is considered the frontrunner in Milwaukee, but three weeks from the end of the season everything else is pure speculation.

Piniella almost got a last second addition in Ron Gant. But when Padres GM Kevin Towers talked to Gant, the veteran outfielder expressed interest in returning to the Padres next season, and since Towers considers Gant a strong, positive clubhouse force, he respected Gant's desire to stay and hopes to re-sign him for 2003.

A's Big Three top the charts
Not only are the Mariners and Athletics the only teams with winning percentages above .600 in this century (2000-2002), but since Barry Zito arrived in the majors on July 22, 2000, the winningest pitchers in the AL are Zito (43), Mark Mulder (42) and Tim Hudson (40). The NL leaders are Curt Schilling (50), Randy Johnson (45) and Tom Glavine (42). (All totals are through games of Sept. 6.)

Will Twins be able to keep roster intact for '03?
It was assumed that with the contraction threat eliminated, revenue-sharing increased and attendance rising with the Twins success that owner Carl Pohlad would allow GM Terry Ryan to keep his very talented team together. But Pohlad told the local media that to keep this team in 2003 would take payroll into the mid-$50 million range, which he may not be able to do.

So, that means Ryan still may have to trade one or two arbitration-eligibles (Jacque Jones, Doug Mientkiewicz?) or, with his increased pitching depth, trade either closer Eddie Guardado and give the job to J.C. Romero, or deal a starter. Brad Radke has a no-trade clause in his contract and while Rick Reed has been superb (seven wins and only five walks in 67 innings pitched since the All-Star Game), his market value isn't that high, so left-hander Eric Milton might bring the most back. That would open the door for another lefty, Johan Santana, who is considered to have the highest ceiling of any starter on the staff, at least by other teams.

Angels getting production from various sources
David Eckstein won't finish in the top five in the MVP voting, and won't finish ahead of teammate Garret Anderson in the balloting. But he clearly is Anaheim's most indispensable player. "He is," says outfielder Darin Erstad, "what makes us tick."

Mike Scioscia says Eckstein "is the smartest player in the league. It's amazing how much he's improved and made himself a good shortstop. He does every little thing well, and he works so hard to make himself better."

One of the striking characteristics of this Angels team is how much certain individual players have improved. Two years ago, most scouts thought Adam Kennedy would never be better than a below-average defender.

"Now," says Scioscia, "he's one of the best defensive second baseman in the league. Adam is also very smart, and he's obsessed with being good defensively. Look at what Scott Spiezio has done to make himself a better right-handed hitter. In spring training, we intended to platoon Scott and Shawn Wooten because Scott couldn't hit right-handed. After all the work he's done with (batting coach) Mickey Hatcher, he's now very good right-handed." Spiezio batted .238 with a .661 OPS against left-handers in 1999-2001. This season he's batting .352 with a .908 OPS through Friday.

First-pitch strike leaders and trailers
Leaders
Curt Schilling, Ari, .701
Jon Lieber, ChC, .687
Roy Oswalt, Hou., .680
Vicente Padilla, Phi., .664
Paul Byrd, K.C., .660
Greg Maddux, Atl., .644
Brian Lawrence, S.D., .640
Mark Mulder, Oak., .640
Roger Clemens, NYY, .637
Derek Lowe, Bos., .636

Trailers
Julian Tavarez, Fla., .514
Kazuhisa Ishii, L.A., .516
Kirk Rueter, S.F., .523
Kenny Rogers, Tex., .523
Russ Ortiz, S.F., .523
Hideo Nomo, L.A., .529
Mike Hampton, Col., .534
Dan Wright, ChW, .534
Shawn Chacon, Col. .534
Danys Baez, Cle., .535

(Through Sept. 4)
(Source: Elias News Bureau)

O's both good and bad
The Orioles' fade can be traced to the disappointment of their three veteran starters -- Scott Erickson, Sidney Ponson and Jason Johnson -- having 16 wins between them on Sept. 7 as they set club records by wins (Rodrigo Lopez, 14) and saves (Jorge Julio, 25) by rookie pitchers. Lopez may start to shut it down soon, however, as between winter ball and the American League, he's well over 300 innings in a 10-month period.

On a far better note, shortstop Mike Bordick has played as well as he ever has defensively, and breaking the all-time errorless streak led Mike Flanagan to note that in fewer games than Rey Ordonez's streak, Bordick had nearly 60 more chances.

Lefties are best
Now that Ted Lilly, who the A's believe has a higher ceiling than Jeff Weaver, is about to rejoin the Oakland rotation, the A's will have three left-handed starters, all of whom have contrasting styles. A's GM Billy Beane, like Dodgers GM Dan Evans, is a great believer in the advantage of lefty starters. Let's see: Minnesota vs. lefties has a .243 average and .312 on-base percentage. Here are the major-league splits for 2002.

  Lefties Righties
Starts 1,003 3,129
W-L 385-347 1,072-1,134
Opp. BA .260 .268
Opp. SLG .411 .433
Opp. OBP .325 .333
(Through Sept. 6)
(Source: Elias News Bureau)

Around the majors

  • During the season, Astros owner Drayton McLane had indicated interest in finding a way to bring back Mike Hampton. That way might be an angle for the Astros to work a deal by sending Richard Hidalgo to Colorado. If the Astros could acquire Hampton, that would give them a veteran to go along with Roy Oswalt, Wade Miller and Carlos Hernandez. The Astros also have interest in Rockies center fielder Juan Pierre.

  • It's amazing that over the last five years, the Giants have played only 11 games that were meaningless.

  • Pudge Rodriguez critics point to eight runs scoring on wild pitches with him catching and the fact that his inability to block balls in the first half due to inflexibility are a reason the Rangers staff leads the league in wild pitches. But Pudge feels he is getting healthy, wants to keep catching, and still hopes to stay in Arlington, if possible, although informal feelers seem to indicate simmering interest in Pudge on the free-agent market.

  • Eric Munson has made huge strides at Triple-A Toledo, but with Carlos Pena at first base and the Tigers tied to Dmitri Young, Detroit may have to end up offering Munson in a deal.

  • Derek Zumsteg of the Baseball Prospectus researched a fascinating statistic: that when Edgar Martinez is in the Mariners lineup for two or more at-bats, Mike Cameron hits .270 with a .854 OPS. When Edgar is out of the lineup, Cameron hits .220 with a .762 OPS.

  • It should come as no surprise that Orioles owner Peter Angelos wasn't going to budge off his $2.5 million offer to first-round pick, left-hander Adam Loewen, not when his last three No. 1 picks who pitched -- Beau Hale, Chris Smith, Richard Stahl -- were all on the disabled list this season. The Cubs and Indians are still waiting to hear from agent Scott Boras to see if they can sign their No. 1 picks, Rutgers right-hander Bobby Brownlie and Stanford righty Jeremy Guthrie, respectively. Speaking of draft picks, Oakland's Jeremy Brown, a sandwich pick and the big catcher from the University of Alabama, finished the season with 10 homers, 50 walks and a .989 OPS in 180 at-bats with Class A Visalia in the California League.

  • One of the reasons the Giants jumped at re-acquiring Bill Mueller is that he allows them to play David Bell at second base and Jeff Kent at first against left-handed pitchers.

  • Congratulations to the Lowell Spinners of the New York-Penn League. They are the first minor-league team ever to sell every possible ticket for three consecutive seasons. The last time they did not have a standing room sellout was in the last century, August 2, 1999.

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