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February 3, 2000

AL Central Notebook

In Closing

by Christina Kahrl

You're probably just as tired as I am of a winter full of old saws. Right now, two in particular strike me as silly, particularly in tandem: "these days, rosters are already sewn up, and spring training is just there to get people ready," and "everyone has to have an established closer to win."

That last one is virtually the Eleventh Commandment, to hear some people. Jerome Holtzman invented the save as a way of quantifying the contributions of a class of players--relievers--who weren't getting their due. Tony LaRussa perverted the concept, and rotisserie sensibilities reinforced a misplaced sense of value. Now, confusing a counting stat for a skill has been elevated to a fine art.

Fortunately, not every team in baseball is as gullible as Jerry Colangelo's. Some teams have come to terms with the idea that indefinable qualities like "moxie" or "makeup" should be reserved for sassy teen starlets. Let's call this the Moesha Theory of reliever value, or why fans should pay to see Rod Beck get his own show on UPN instead of showing up at the ballpark. I think Red Sox fans would have much more fun watching the Shooter resolve life-and-death dating dilemmas, or ponder whether or not to cheat on the big algebra test on Friday, a lot more than they'll enjoy watching him blow saves.

Some teams have figured out that style is not substance, and that nothing is more important than being able to pitch. While we've already pointed out how unsettled the first-base situation is around the American League's Central Division, perhaps what's really interesting is how unsettled the bullpens are, from who's going to close to who's going to get to finish up after another LaTroy Hawkins pyrotechnic extravaganza.

The Cast

You could argue that the division's lone established closer is Todd Jones. He's got more career saves, 128, than any other pitcher in the division; more than everyone on the rosters of the Twins, Indians and White Sox put together. Nobody should mistake him for the best relief pitcher in the division, or even on his own team when he has Doug Brocail "setting him up." The rest of the Tigers' pen? From the right side, the very flammable Danny Patterson and Masao Kida, and maybe the inconsistent Matt Anderson. Maybe. The lefties? If C.J. Nitkowski isn't in the rotation, that's a good start. Sean Runyan if he's healthy. Jim Poole will be in camp, on his seventh or eighth life.

The pitcher with the second-most saves in the division is the Royals' Ricky Bottalico, with 95. He'll probably be an improvement on Jeff Montgomery and Scott Service, but then, so would Larry Flynt. Herk Robinson has brought in Jerry Spradlin, and chances are that at least one of Jose Santiago and Orber Moreno will get cracks at setting up. After that, it's a free-for-all, with guys like Brad Rigby and Mac Suzuki trying to stick around, and retreads like Bill Risley, Ken Ryan and Tyler Green fighting for resurrection. The most feeble fight will be for the token left-hander: this is Tim Byrdak's moment, unless Billy Brewer's latest roster raid works.

The other guys in the division with the most closing experience are Bobby Howry with the Sox (37 saves); Paul Shuey (19), Ricky Rincon (18) and Steve Reed (16, but in 50 opportunities--another one of the hidden benefits of a career in middle relief) with the Indians; and non-roster invitee Bobby Ayala with the Twins (59).

But the save totals mean absolutely nothing in terms of evaluating player value. The really good relievers in this division are among the game's best: Brocail; the Chicago's trio of Howry, Keith Foulke and Sean Lowe; the Indians' tandem of Shuey and Steve Karsay--these are the relievers who had the biggest impacts on their teams (just check out Mike Wolverton's Relief Evaluation Tool). It isn't just that these guys turn out to be better pitchers than the erstwhile "closers", or that they're pitching more innings in more important situations. It's that they represent a real truth that hopefully their organizations and others will act on: a quality bullpen is built on quality pitchers, not Moesha.

So browsing through the division, I see another reason to look forward to spring. Plenty of people will be fighting for plenty of jobs. To my mind, this is good on two different levels. First, it makes following spring-training games all the more interesting, meaningful and compelling. Will the White Sox end up with both a right-handed and a left-handed sidearmer (Chad Bradford and Kelly Wunsch, respectively) in their bullpen? Can Sean DePaula beat out Cuban boy/man/geezer Danys Baez, or will they both lose to Scott Sanders? Which retreads and which kids will get jobs in Kansas City or Minnesota? Don't laugh off the old men, because for every Don Wengert, there's a Billy Taylor waiting for and deserving his first break.

Second, and this is probably the mean-spirited cuss in me, I find the absence of overpriced window dressing like Jose Mesa and his ilk very reassuring. It means that these teams will have new relief heroes or goats, and new and potentially deserving players will get a chance to get their major-league careers going. While it might be easy to say that the absence of big-name closers reflects how the division has been little more than a thoroughbred running in a sack race for the last five years, spring's already around the corner. I can't help hoping it brings a more mature reflection on the value of quality relief pitching as opposed to quality reputations.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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