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Is there a closer at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario?

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Cody Allen (photo: AP)

Cody Allen (photo: AP)

I normally don’t find myself roaming the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario on Sunday morning, and truth be told, didn’t expect it as my morning began. What started as a short and succinct IBI power poll recapping last week’s question regarding the Indians’ closer, turned into a massive look at some other major league teams and their closer tendencies with regards to cost-effectiveness and success.

Now, I’m no sabre-metrics guy, and I never will be, so I tried to stay away from that in this piece, instead focusing on cost-effective strategies that certain clubs used over the years, including the Indians.

This was an off-the-cuff undertaking, and as you’ll see as you meander your way through my piece, I only scratched the surface of what this could have turned into.

Let’s face it, after a 12-hour college football endurance test yesterday, I didn’t expect to be sitting in front of my laptop this long today…but as Alabama found out, things don’t always end as you expect them.

Let’s take a look at the Indians quest for a closer…


In our last Power Poll, I took a look at which current member of the Indians would be the Indians closer in 2014, or if you thought that candidate would come from outside the organization. The closer’s role is always a major point of contention for baseball fans in general, and Cleveland Indians’ fans in particular.

Since the Jose Mesa era in Cleveland, one of the hottest topics of conversation from year-to-year has been not only who should close games for the Cleveland Indians, but whether or not the Indians should have a ‘closer-by-committee’ to help enhance match-ups and utilize the best relievers for high-leverage situations.

There are many strategies employed by successful teams in this regard.

I’m going to focus my spotlight on three teams, the Tampa Bay Rays, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Oakland A’s. This isn’t really a scientific look, or even a metrics look, but only a focus on three teams who have had success with closers in different ways, but utilizing the same basic principles, and for the most part, have been cost-effective

The Rays have had a tendency to utilize older relievers in the role, while saving their young relievers for those previously mentioned higher leverage situations during the game. In 2007, their last losing season, 36-year-oldAlberto Reyes was their primary closer. In 2008, the Rays signed 38-year old Troy Percival to be their primary closer during much of the season, but only had one save after August 13th, giving way to 30-year old Dan Wheeler.

By the end of 2008, six players had saved two games or more, showing Madden’s ability to utilize players in match-up situations. In 2009, youngster J.P. Howell led the team with 17 saves, but this time, nine players had at least one save. In 2010, the Rays traded for 30-year old Rafael Soriano for a one year run as the primary closer. He was granted free agency after his 45 save season. In 2011, 35-year-old Kyle Farnsworth found his way to the closer role for the Rays, saving 25 games, the most by far in his career. In 2012, the Rays signed castaway Fernando Rodney, who has been the Rays primary closer for the past two seasons at sub-$3 million dollar contracts.

Was the Rays scenario always perfect?

No, but they were able to balance the closer role utilizing cost efficiency with decent options, while allowing their more stable youngsters work during more high leverage situations throughout the game. Joe Maddon was never afraid to use any of these young relievers in a closer situation if the situation presented itself.

This is a strategy perfected by former A’s and Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa, who famously moved Dennis Eckersley to the closer role in 1987, and watched him become one of the most prolific closers of all-time. Eckersley would join LaRussa in St. Louis, and LaRussa would use a similar strategy over the years of finding older guys trying to rebound. In 1998, a transition year, Juan Acevedo and Jeff Brantley shared the role. In 1999, they dealt forRicky Bottalico, who was coming off a bad year in Philadelphia. In 2000, they received the 33-year old Dave Veresin a trade with the Colorado Rockies, and in 2001, Veres saved the most games, but LaRussa moved to a committee thanks to injuries and occasionally match-ups.

In 2002, LaRussa turned to Jason Isringhausen, a former starter that was moved to closer in previous season. He would be the Cardinals primary closer until 2007, and at quite a cost. In 2008, LaRussa transitioned from Isringhausen to the 35-year old Ryan Franklin through 2010, before giving way to youngster Fernando Salas, who was really just a transition to 30-year old Jason Motte. Of course, Edward Mujica was signed to become their closer last season after elbow surgery to Motte.

The Cardinals are infamous for utilizing their young stud starters as high leverage relievers while they are earning their stripes to start. Guys like Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn made this progression, as well as several others.

Then there are the A’s. In 2002, they traded for Toronto closer Billy Koch, a proven guy that came with a decent, sub-$3 million dollar price tag. They traded him to Chicago and received Keith Foulke in that deal for one year, at $6 million. In 2004, they started with Arthur Rhodes, but traded for Octavio Dotel in the three-team deal that movedCarlos Beltran to Houston.

In 2005, the A’s began moving away from high-priced closers when the moved rookie Huston Street into the role as the season progressed. He was outstanding for two seasons making league minimum, but injuries would hamper him in 2007 and 2008.

In 2007, the A’s turned to old Tribe farmhand Alan Embree. He wasn’t great, but he was a veteran that held down the job. Street returned in 2008, and was lights out, but began struggling in the summer and eventually lost the job to a 28-year old rookie named Brad Ziegler.

In 2009, they turned to another rookie, 25-year old Andrew Bailey, who was their primary closer from 2009-2011, and fairly effective, again at league minimum. In typical A’s fashion, rather than pay him arbitration money, they dealt him for Josh Reddick from the Red Sox, and moved on to Grant Balfour, who they were already on tap to the tune of $4 million a year.

Again, you can see that the A’s moved from high-price veterans, to league minimum youngsters, to Grant Balfour, who was a relative cost-effective two-year, $8 million dollar signing in 2011, with a club option for a third year. There was some gamble there, but many thought he’d make in the $10 million dollar range, so they grabbed a bit of a bargain, then dealt Bailey so avoid having two guys at that salary.

Many of the players listed were very cost effective, with the exceptions being Eckersley (at the time), Soriano and Isringhsausen, as well as those early guys with the A’s, who moved from a veteran closer to league minimum type guy as Billby Beane began solidifying his Moneyball strategy.

The rest tended to be low-cost guys trying to earn their keep either after successful previous years as a starter or a non-closer.

What do you think the Indians will do?

Their history is interesting.

In 2000, they received Wickman as part of the trade that sent Richie Sexson to Milwaukee. He immediately became the Indians closer until he missed the 2003 season. He would continue to be the Indians closer for the most part until he was traded to the Atlanta Braves in 2006. His salary varied from $2 ½ million to $6 million, so his cost effectiveness varies from year to year, as he took a $3 million paycut from 2004-to-2005, after he missed 2003, and only pitched in part of 2004, two years in which the Indians were stuck with his $6 million payroll hit.

The year Wickman was dealt, they didn’t really have an option available to take his place, utilizing Rafael Betancourt, Fausto Carmona and finally settling on Tom Mastny, who was successful for a decent stretch, before imploding.

Enter the Joe Borowski experiment. He signed with the Indians for two-years, at $8 million overall, and while his ERA was bad, in 2007 he was the epitome of an old starter with young guns supporting him. He saved 45 games, and the Indians made the playoffs. He wasn’t the best reliever, but he accentuated Dos Rafael (Betancourt andRafael Perez) and the rest of the pen, as Bob Wickman had done in 2005.

In 2008, with fans clamoring for a trade or signing, the Indians did nothing, entering the year with Borowski again. He was injured to start the year off in 2008, and eventually went on the DL after blowing a couple of saves. Rafael Betancourt took over for a month, before Borowski returned in late May and reclaimed his role. He would slowly be eased out of it as the season progressed, and he was finally released after giving up a game-winning homer on July 1st.

Jensen Lewis would finish the year as the closer.

The Indians decided to spend to get a closer, and they signed Kerry Wood to a two-year, $20 million deal in 2009. He saved 20 games in a dreadful year for the Indians, then gave way to Chris Perez in 2010, before he was dealt to the Yankees.

Perez has been the closer for both Antonetti’s and Francona’s tenure, and his cost-effectiveness disappeared after his first full season as closer.

Enter 2014.

The top option in this week’s power poll was in-house option Cody Allen with 30% of the vote. Allen, who doesn’t fit the mold of the Rays and the Cardinals, is a stud reliever that has never been utilized as a closer, but is likely the best reliever currently on the roster. He really is a lightning rod of discussion, as several folks either feel that he can’t handle the job because of his lack of experience, or because he should be utilized at other points of the game, like the Cardinals and the Rays models.

The second option in this week’s power poll at 25% of vote was “someone not currently on the roster,” suggesting that several IBI readers were like either a top closer free agent, or potentially a sleeper candidate at a low cost. It’s likely the Indians key focus right now as we head into the winter meetings.

The only other double-figure option is former top candidate Vinnie Pestano at 12%. Pestano was the closer-in-waiting in previous years, but struggled with health and velocity in 2013.

What might Terry Francona do?

In his first year of managing with the Phillies, Ricky Bottalico was already entrenched at the position in 1997. In 1998, when he got hurt, he turned to journeyman 35-year-old Mark Leiter, who was a starter prior to 1998. In 1999, Francona turned to Wayne Gomes, a player the Phillies had drafted with an electric fastball, and was projected as a closer from the start. He struggled, and in Francona’s final year in Philly, he would turn a 36-year old former closer trying to find his way, 36-year old Jeff Brantley.

You can see that in Philly, he used many different types of options, from an incumbent, to a journeyman starter, to a rookie stud, to a former closer trying to find his way.

Boston would hire Terry Francona on December 4, 2003 as their next manager. On January 7, 2004, Foulke signed with the Red Sox, that was reported on December 17th. It wasn’t a massive deal, even in 2004 standards, as Foulke took a $2 ½ million dollar paycut even after saving over 40 games for the A’s in 2003, but it was a deal ripe with incentives. Foulke was in a market that didn’t want to pay him a ton of money, so a team that was knocking on the World Series door was certainly enticing for Foulke. Foulke would appear in 11 of the 14 games in the postseason, including all four games of the World Series, and had a three-game span in the ALCS in which he threw 100 pitches over five innings. He was on the hill when the Sox won the series that year.

Francona loved him.

Foulke was struggling mightily with knee problems in 2005, and he ended up giving way to 39-year-old Mike Timlin, who was outstanding in the role, and relegated Foulke to the set-up man.

Enter Jonathan Papelbon in 2006, and the rest is history.

So what did Francona do in Boston?

On December 17th, two weeks after joining the Red Sox, they came to terms with a stud closer in Keith Foulke (it wouldn’t become official until January 7th). It was literally the first major move that Francona was a part of with the Sox.

When he struggled, he turned to a career reliever with some time spent as a closer in the past in Mike Timlin.

In 2006, Foulke was all set to be the closer, but when he struggled recovering from knee issues in 2005, he turned a potential stud starter in Jonathan Papelbon into a closer. It was believed that it was a temporary move, but Papelbon would never relinquish his role throughout the rest of Francona’s tenure.

Francona’s strategy is to use the most effective pitcher that he has at the back-end of games.

It’s really that simple.

He’s utilized every methodology since becoming a manager, meaning that it’s not likely he utilizes the Rays and Cardinals blueprint unless it is the best option available.

Consider the Indians options.

Might they go out and get themselves a potential stud closer via free agency, as Francona and the Red Sox did in 2004?

The Red Sox were patient in a market that was not conducive to closers receiving big money. Theo Epstein was then able to bring Foulke in at a decent, incentive-laden deal.

Can the Indians do that this year?

It’s a mystery with regard to how much money is available to the Indians, but with their payroll already reportedly in the low $80 million, they clearly don’t have a boatload of money available.

Who’s available?

The best closer available is Joe Nathan, and he’s reportedly in line to make anywhere from $10-million to $13 million a year. He’s 39-years old, so I can’t imagine that anyone would go in for him for more than two years. Would the Indians do that? I can’t fathom it, unless his deal comes way down. Would Francona sign him though to a one-year, sub-$10 million deal if he was available and the Indians were able to address other issues in a cost-effective way?

Based on his past, I’d say yes, and I think Chris Antonetti would be on board as well.

Will they?

No.

Fernando Rodney and Brian Wilson are both available, and according to several sources, Chris Antonetti has talked to both.

Rodney was a cost-effective option for the Rays as mentioned previously, earning $2 ½ million last year for the Rays. He certainly will want more, and he certainly was a question mark for the Rays as the season came to the close. Still, I think the Indians will be interested at the right price. Speculation for Rodney is in the two-year, $7-10 million range.

Wilson rebounded nicely in a set-up role with the Dodgers last year, and is back in for a closer role this year. Rumors are rampant that he’s about to sign with the Tigers (I actually thought they already signed him), but I don’t think anything has been confirmed as of yet.

Wilson wants a multi-year deal, but if he can’t get the money he wants because he didn’t close, he may be able to grab a one-year deal, to the tune of $7-10 million.

Both would be enticing candidates for the Indians, and again, I think the Indians would be on board if they can work out their starting pitching issues and bench fill in other ways than free agency.

Will they sign these two?

Like Nathan, without their numbers dwinding, I don’t see it happening.

You can throw Grant Balfour in the mix as well, but like Nathan, Wilson and Rodney, will be looking or a multi-year deal in the $7-10 (or more) million dollar range.

Like the others, I think the Indians will be in the mix, but ultimately have to pass because of the money.

The unknown though?

There are rumors circulating that the cliff in which money may drop is fast approaching after the winter meetings, and with four guys all battling for the same type money, we could see a supply-demand issue, especially with a bunch of closers hitting free agency next year.

I still think those guys will get their money.

What about journeymen-esque relievers that the Indians could turn to?

Edward Mujica was a temporary fill-in for the Cardinals this year, and with a bevy of youngsters and the return of Motte, Mujica was let go without much of a push. He’s a former Tribe-hand, but thanks to his new mojo, will be looking for a multi-year deal. Rumors have him at that magical $7 million dollar range, but after really looking at the other options, I just don’t see it.

He’ll likely be in the real-life land of Joe Smith money, and while Smith is likely the better of the two, I’d say $5 million would be his ceiling. There is interest for sure from several other teams, but if he drops to $3 million a year, and in this market, I could see that, I wouldn’t hesitate at all to sign him to a two-year, $6 million deal.

That kind of money would allow Francona to use him as both a closer or set-up guy, if someone else presents themselves as a better option as spring or the season presents itself.

Joaquin Benoit is available, and he wasn’t horrible for the Tigers in 2013. He’s very similar in many ways to Mujica in that he’s been a reliever for several years, but never really a closer. He’s been around for a lot longer though, and he has more of a proven track record. Look for Benoit to have a ceiling of $7 million, and a floor of $5 million. Like Mujica, he could see that money come down a bit, especially considering Benoit’s age (36) heading into next year.

He’s another guy I’d be intrigued with for a nice one-year deal below $5 million.

Not likely, but an interesting market.

There are lots of other interesting names out there, starting with Jesse Crain, who is likely lined up in the same area money wise as Mujica and Benoit. Crain was unbelievable through July before a shoulder injury knocked him out of the season.

Crain throws a ton of strikes, is efficient, and was untouchable last year.

Of course, he didn’t make a pitch after July, making him an interesting watch money-wise.

The thing with Crain is fairly simple to me. Every site and every writer lists him as an Indians’ potential because he’s more or less a bit of a sleeper because of the injury.

I agree for the most part, but to think he’s a sleeper at this point, and to think that the Indians are the only team that will offer him good terms is fairly ridiculous. There are a BUNCH of teams that are going to call upon Crain’s agent, and while many think he’ll sign a one-year deal in the sub-$5 million realm, I don’t necessarily agree.

I could see a team that legitimately wants to roll the dice go after him with either a one-year, $5 million dollar deal, or go multi-years from $3-5 million a year, and lace it with incentives. He’s young enough and has been good enough that his salary could escalate.

Let me put it to you this way. If Mujica and Crain were both available, who would you choose? I’m sure that some would say Mujica because he’s a sure thing, but Crain has the better upside.

The Indians aren’t the only team that will note this.

Of course, there are mysteries based on that injury, but all reports are good, and Crain would present Francona with the ability to use him as a potential closer, or set-up guy, depending on who emerges.

There are several other interesting names out there that could be brought in as either a closer, or a solid back-end option, and it’s clear that the Indians will do that.

In house, I think you’ll see the Indians take a look at several candidates, including Allen, Pestano, Matt Capps andBryan Shaw. There are other guys, like Preston Guilmet, who has closed in the minors, but I don’t think he has the velocity to be a major league closer. There’s Austin Adams, who really is intriguing because of his velocity and K-Rate, but he still has a ways to go. There’s C.C. Lee, who will start the year in the pen, but maybe not as a closer, who really could be the sleeper here. There’s Bryan Price, who had a really nice season and many people are high on, although I see question marks.

Yes, there’s Carlos Carrasco, who has the ability, and certainly has the stuff. He saw a marked improvement once he was moved to the pen.

The other option not mentioned is a trade, but predicting that is nearly impossible, but I think, highly likely. I’ve said from that start that losing Cabrera at this point is a good thing, regardless of how he plays this year, and what he does in the future.

The option is there to deal him for a reliever, and if the right one is available, I could see the Indians pulling off that sorta deal. It COULD give the Indians several options as well, as their payroll would open up a bit on top of the player they receive.

Look for the Indians to be aggressive in the hunt for a closer, whether it’s via trade, signing or in-house, and it won’t likely end until someone is paid a lot to do it, or battles it out in spring training.

Both the Indians as an organization, and Terry Francona as a manager, will have one closer.

Who will it be?

It truly could be anyone. While that may stress the fans out, don’t let it. Francona has always had a decent success rate of finding a closer once it was a player he had a choice over.

Look for that trend to continue in 2014.

Check out http://www.clevelandsportsinsiders.com for other Cleveland content from several IBI writers, including Browns, Cavaliers, Ohio State and some other off-the-cuff Indians’ content, or stuff that was written prior to me joining IBI. I have a major piece I did in 2010 about the All-Aught Indians starting today, and will be posting daily for the next month!

Enjoy, and leave comments. It’s not a site I intend to grow to the pantheons, just a place to have some fun. Call it your local watering hole of websites, where we can sit down, have a beer or two, and talk sports.

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