Monday, December 27, 2010

Where do "Championship Closers Come From?"

With all the talk of closers lately, and the most recent Octavio Dotel rumors, I thought it would be worth looking at how "Championship" Closers are found. Alex Anthopoulos has repeately stated that he wants to build a perrenial contender in the AL East, and that he would like potential all-stars at each position. This obviously ties in with the 2010 off season, as there is an obvious gap at closer.

Most closers only have very short runs as "Dominant."  As Jays fans, we need look no further than B.J. Ryan, who was only good for long enough to cash in. This is more often the case than not. Francisco Rodriguez is moreso a tabloid story at this point than he was when he set records in LAA. Brad Lidge is barely keeping his job in Philly. The Red Sox are rumored to be shopping Jonathan Papelbon.

At first glance, one would assume that the Jays should try and cobble a bullpen together and transition players through the role. But, after a closer (not closer) look, it would offer the most benefit to the team to develop someone to take over the position.

Where to start? Looking at some recent champions is a great place to begin.

SF Giants: Brian Wilson was originally drafted as a starter at LSU, but underwent Tommy John surgery shortly after signing. He was moved to a relief role to save his arm and bring him to the majors more quickly.

NYY: Mariano Rivera was an international free agent signing. He was a short-stop who was moved to starting pitcher. He even started some games for the Yankees. Rivera also has undergone Tommy John surgery. Rivera was moved to the bullpen when his velocity increased (During the mid-90s???)

PHI: Brad Lidge was acquired via trade from the Astros. He was another big-upside pitcher who could not stay healthy in the minors. After having his rotator cuff rebuilt, he became a full time reliever.

BOS: Jonathan Papelbon was drafted as a closer, but immediately converted to a starting pitcher, which he was throughout the major leagues. He was tossed into the 'pen after he failed to win a starting gig out of spring training in 2006, and happened to win a permanent role as closer.

STL: After Jason Isrinhausen suffered a season-ending hip injury, Adam Wainwright stepped in for a shoprt stint as a (Fairly dominant) Closer. Wainwright was drafted and developed as a starter, and he was used in the St Louis bullpen as a way to keep him in the majors when there was no opening for him. (FYI: Isrinhausen was drafted as a starter, but had 3 arm surgeries, and was moved to relief. He was a free agent signing)

CHW: Bobby Jenks was claimed by the Sox off waivers after he brought beer on the bus for one of the Angels minor league affiliates. He was drafted as a starter, but again, elbow troubles forced him to move to relief.

So, in the last 5 years, every world series winning closer was developed by the major league team that won. (If you don't count Isringhausen, which I don't since he didn't pitch in the playoffs) In fact, you have to go back to the 2004 Red Sox  to find a World Series Champ with a closer acquired through free agency (Keith Foulke)

The next part of the question involves finding a player in the Jays organization that would fit the mold that seems to have been established in becoming a top closer (Developed as a starter, arm trouble, lively fastball? The last is questionable because Rivera gets the job done without it)

Many scouts, analysts and fans would be quick to throw Zach Stewart's name in to the mix. I would disagree as he, and Brett Cecil have proven that Pitchers drafted as closers can, and do make great starters. I can't think that anyone would want to move Cecil back to the 'pen.

David Purcey is an excellent candidate, and was able to take on progressively higher-leverage roles last year. At this point his is the favourite to emerge among current candidates.

Dustin McGowan fits the mold perfectly, but his health is still in jeopardy. If he could get healthy, I'd love to see him get a chance in relief.

Scott Richmond now has shoulder problems on his resume, but never relied on an overpowering fastball.

Jesse Litsh is an odd case. He has a Rivera-like cutter, and can also dial it up on his fastball (He's been clocked in the low-mid 90s) He can mix in a change. He may not have the body-type for the job, but he has the repertoire. He also has elbow-problems in his past. I didn't expect to ever say this, but he could be an excellent closer.

Kyle Drabek is also a name that many aren't considering now, but if his arm troubles ever were to come back, he would have the "stuff" for it.

Marc Rzepczinski could end up taking the Wainwright route to the Closer's role, if he can't win a job in spring training.

There is also a host of qualified starters in the minor leagues, but I think you get the point. The Jays need some stability at the back of the bullpen, and the best way to find it is to build from within. I'm becoming fonder and fonder of the Jesse Litsch idea, so much so that I may dedicate a separate post to it soon. JESSE LITSCH FOR CLOSER!! ..."And here comes Rojo to lock things down for the 9th..."

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  1. Any other pitchers that I've missed as closer candidates?

  2. I've always liked the Purcey as a closer idea. but would still like him to get another season under his belt. But you may be onto something very new and well thought out with Litch. He throws strikes, has the cutter/ fastball repertory that effective closers do. He may not have the look. But that could work to our advantage as some will underestimate him.... the more I type the more excited I get at this idea....... brilliant idea!
    The pen will then look like:
    Villaneuva - general situations and mop up
    Jansen/ Carlson - leverage situations or 7th
    Purcey/ Frasor/ Camp - high leverage situations or 8th
    Litch - Closer

    You could also throw one of Roenicke, Richmond, Mills (as a situational lefty), Jo Jo Reyes into the mix for the last spot.