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March 18, 2009

On the Beat

Closer Calls

by John Perrotto

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Joe Girardi agrees in large part with modern ways of thinking. He's a regular reader of Baseball Prospectus, holds a degree in industrial engineering from Northwestern University, and comes across as bright and articulate, which is why he landed a gig as a broadcaster for a year on Fox's national telecasts after being abruptly fired by the Marlins following his selection as National League Manager of the Year in 2006.

When it comes to the subject of the importance of a closer, however, Girardi is much more old-fashioned. Though sabermetrics long ago blew a hole through the theory that closers have some kind of mystical power that mere mortal relievers do not possess, the Yankees' manager does not want to hear anything about a closer-by-committee. He doesn't subscribe to Bill James' theory that a team's best reliever should be used in the most high-leverage situations, whether it is in the seventh, eighth, or ninth inning. "I could never imagine what it would be like to not have Mariano Rivera to call on in the ninth inning," Girardi said. "It would just be hard to fathom."

Rivera made his first appearance of the exhibition season Tuesday night against the Pirates in Tampa, and pitched a 1-2-3 inning against the rather unimposing trio of Steve Pearce, Neil Walker, and Jason Jaramillo. He sandwiched called strikeouts of Pearce and Jaramillo around Walker's tapper back to the mound. Rivera, though, could have struck out three people pulled randomly off Dale Mabry Boulevard (which runs outside George M. Steinbrenner Field), and Girardi and the Yankees would still have breathed a collective sigh of relief.

That's because Rivera underwent shoulder surgery at the end of last season to have a bone spur shaved. While it's relatively minor as far as arm surgeries go, the Yankees also realize that Rivera is 39 years old and has pitched in 851 major league games over fourteen major league seasons. "You never take any shoulder surgery for granted," said Girardi.

There's also a lot at stake, because the Yankees went on an unprecedented $423.5 million shopping spree in the offseason. Most of that was taken up by their signing left-hander CC Sabathia, right-hander A.J. Burnett, and first baseman Mark Teixeira as free agents. As much as that trio figures to play a major role in whether the Yankees return to the postseason in 2009 after missing it for the first time in 14 years last October, in Girardi's mind Rivera still holds the key.

Rivera has 482 career saves, second on baseball's all-time list only to the 554 notched by the Brewers' Trevor Hoffman. Rivera had one of his best seasons in 2008 when his 6.17 WXRL was second in the major leagues behind the Phillies' Brad Lidge, who had 7.62. "We have a lot of great players," Girardi said. "However, Mo is the most indispensable player we have. I don't mean that as a knock against any of our other players, but Mo is basically irreplaceable."

That is saying something, considering that the Yankees will begin the season without third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who underwent hip surgery earlier this month. Love him or hate him for the never-ending drama that seems to follow him everywhere, Rodriguez is still one of the greatest players of his generation.

Girardi shudders most violently at the idea of losing Rivera among all of the Yankees' players, however. Girardi first joined the team as a catcher in 1996, the same year that Rivera was converted from a starter to a reliever and was used as the set-up man for closer John Wetteland. A year later, Rivera took over the closer's role when Wetteland left for the Rangers as a free agent.

Today, Wetteland is the Mariners' bullpen coach, and nine years removed from his last major league pitch, while Rivera is still going strong. "He doesn't throw quite as hard as he used to, but that's the only difference between '96 and now," said Girardi. "He still throws that cutter, and hitters still can't do anything with it. I realize the day will come at some point where Mo will retire. I just hope that day doesn't come for a long, long time."

When that day does eventually come, Girardi admits that he might have to rely on more modern modes of thinking. Just three other Yankees pitchers have reached double digits in saves since Rivera became the closer in 1997; Ramiro Mendoza had 16, Mike Stanton 15, and Steve Karsay 12. "I think we would have to get very creative," Girardi said. "I just don't know how we would ever replace Mo. That would be a tough problem to solve."

---

The Red Sox have locked up three of their key players with long-term contracts in recent months that buy out not only their arbitration years, but also take them past the beginning of the six-year threshold for becoming a free agent. First baseman Kevin Youkilis signed for four years and $41.125 million, second baseman Dustin Pedroia signed for six years and $40.5 million, and left-hander Jon Lester signed for five years and $30 million.

That continues a recent industry trend of teams signing their young players to multi-year deals. "If the player's willing to compromise and sacrifice a little upside in exchange for security, for the right player we'd be willing to give that security for a little bit of cost certainty and control in free-agent years," Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein told Michael Silverman of the Boston Herald.

One person who is opposed to the concept of young players sacrificing potentially higher earnings through arbitration and free agency is agent Scott Boras. In fact, Boras' clients rarely sign for more than one year until they reach free agency. "You have to ask the question," Boras said. "Why would teams that have four years of control over a [two-year] player offer six years of security? The math doesn't work unless there is a substantial discount. Teams call it 'cost certainty,' but players rarely seem to understand that they are going to be in the league a long time anyway. If you look at players and their probability of getting hurt, those are very low numbers."

Still, such young stars as Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun and Rays third baseman Evan Longoria have readily agreed to commit for the long term. Boras believes that the young players and their agents are playing into the clubs' hands. "All teams are instructed to take their premium players and do their best to remove them from the arbitration market," said Boras. "It's good business for them to receive premium talent for a grossly devalued cost. It's good business for ballclubs, and they are very aware that these contracts are needed because the majority of young agents have few clients and few reserves to work off of for their future."

---

The Royals' team .320 on-base percentage last season ranked 26th among the 30 major league clubs. Manager Trey Hillman wants that to change in his second season on the job. After the club conducted some in-house studies, Hillman believes that the Royals can raise their OBP simply by seeing more pitches.

To illustrate the point, Hillman claims that the club's statistical analysts found that the winning team saw more pitches in 68.1 percent of the Royals' games last season. "The percentages were amazing," Hillman told Bob Dutton of the Kansas City Star. "We can help ourselves by something as simple as seeing more pitches. That's one of our objectives, without changing anyone's aggressiveness, especially the slugging guys in the middle of the lineup."

Compounding the Royals' offensive problems last season was their lack of power; their .397 slugging percentage was 25th in the majors. "Our thought process is that, with our team, especially in our home ballpark, we've got to have an on-base percentage approach," Hillman said. "I think everyone does to some degree, but we're trying to turn that up a little bit more, maybe, than other clubs."

---

While it remains to be seen how much attendance will be hurt once the regular season begins next month, Major League Baseball officials seem to be getting more concerned about the recession with each passing day, as season-ticket sales continue to lag. "I used to think we were recession-proof. I really did," commissioner Bud Selig told Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times. "This is different. Some economists are saying it's the worst downturn since the Great Depression."

Ticket sales dipped from 79.5 million to 78.6 million last season. MLB's central office has told clubs to plan for a variety of scenarios, including attendance staying the same as it was last season, dropping by 10 percent, or dropping by 20 percent. "Every other phase of the economy has been touched, including other sports," Selig said. "I'll just have to watch it."

---

Major League Rumors and Rumblings: Left-handed reliever Joe Beimel, still on the free-agent market, appears headed to the Athletics. ... The Reds are willing to trade right-hander Nick Masset, who is out of minor league options, now that the competition for the fifth starter's slot has been whittled down to right-handers Homer Bailey and Micah Owings. ... Rookie Chris Getz is close to being named the White Sox' starting second baseman. ... The Orioles plan to go with Gregg Zaun as their starting catcher, despite a strong spring showing by top prospect Matt Wieters. ... Nick Adenhart, Shane Loux, and Dustin Moseley are competing for two open spots in the Angels' rotation.

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

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