Well, this should be interesting:
Rather than select a dedicated closer to replace Joe Nathan, the Twins will begin the season with a closer-by-committee.
"We are a committee," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "Our closer role is a committee."
Gardenhire mentioned right-handers Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch and Jesse Crain and left-hander Jose Mijares as possible members of the committee. Francisco Liriano, a fifth-starter candidate who had been a reluctant candidate for the closer's job, will not be part of the group.
"Liriano's a starter," Gardenhire said.
Ultimately, the Twins would like to name a dedicated closer from among those four -- but it may take some time.
In the interim, Gardenhire will choose his nightly closer based upon matchups, availability and trends.
"We're going to try just about anything," Gardenhire said.
Though Minnesota has yet to name its fifth starter, Gardenhire did say that "Liriano's ahead of everybody."
For Gardenhire, it seems, figuring out who will start games may be easier than deciding who will finish them.
"I've never had to do it," Gardenhire said. "It's going to be an experience trying to mix and match as best we can. But I've got some capable arms that we're going to rely on."
If you're playing Strat-O-Matic, this is exactly how you do it.
Managerially, there's nothing particularly complicated here. Or rather, it's complicated but no more complicated than what a manager's used to. Matchups, availability and trends ... Hasn't Gardner been dealing with exactly those things for eight years while managing the Twins in the seventh and eighth innings? One of the reasons managers love closers is that they get to stop thinking after the eighth inning. Ahead by three runs? Ahead by one run? Three left-handed hitters coming up next? Three right-handed hitters?
Doesn't matter. I'm bringing in Joe Nathan, and if we lose nobody will ask any uncomfortable questions.
But if you've got four options and the one you choose gets hammered? You probably shouldn't listen to sports-talk radio after the game, and you might even want to skip your press conference.
Of course, Ron Gardenhire is not managing a Strat-O-Matic team. As Bill James has written,
The problem has a lot more dimensions in real life than it does in a Strat-O-Matic league. In Strat-O-Matic you can target your best reliever to the most critical innings with very few restraints. In real life there are very serious and immovable restraints on this usage ...
The phenomenal effectiveness of pitchers like Papelbon, Rivera and Gagne is created in substantial part by the facts that 1) they pitch a very limited number of innings, and b) they do so on what is, for the most part, a highly predictable schedule.
They pitch about three times a week, and they know when they're going to be in the game an hour before they come in, overstating the case a little bit. It makes a huge difference. You take them away from that schedule to target them at more high-leverage innings, they're not the same.
A lot of people in the sabermetric community have ignored these effects -- and other dimensions to the problem as well, which we won't get into ...
Bill was specifically responding to the contention that closers shouldn't be limited to one-inning save opportunities, but his points are relevant here, too. It's not that Gardenhire's various relievers can't be as good in the ninth as they've been in the seventh or eighth. What Bill might argue, I think, is that there's an advantage to having a precisely defined, one-inning role, an advantage that might balance (at least) whatever advantages you might gain from matchups and "trends" (whatever that means).
Which all seems a little pie-in-the-sky to me. I mean, Bill might have data to support those claims. I just haven't seen it. If it's my team and I've got Ron Gardenhire's experience, I would welcome the chance to prove to the world how smart I am, spotting those trends and whatnot.
Which is easy for me to say. I won't have to answer all those pesky questions after a loss. Gardenhire does hope that one of those guys takes over, and I can't say that I blame him.