Sports Outside the Beltway

The Red Sox Closer Search

The Red Sox need a closer. This is regarded as fact. It is not. The Red Sox have three (four if you count Tim Wakefield) closers on their roster right now. In reality, any of their pitchers can close. These three, however, have done the job before.

  1. Jonathan Papelbon – The obvious first choice to close is the kid who was lights out in that role last year. Papelbon as a twenty-five year old took the ball in the ninth inning and shut down opponents consistently. When the Red Sox rotation imploded in July, the whole bullpen became ineffective. It also led to overuse, which shut down Papelbon in September. The Red Sox effort to shore up their rotation with Daisuke Matsuzaka and their pursuit of Roger Clemens lends credence to the idea that Jonathan Papelbon might not have a place in the rotation. And if the starters can get through an average of six and a third innings per start, Papelbon can be reserved for fewer innings.
  2. Mike Timlin – Yeah’s he’s 41. Yeah he was marginally effective last year. But Timlin has been remarkably effective with the Sox, as the elder statesman of the pen. Last year pre-rotation implosion, Timlin was quite effective. His pre-All Star Break workload was 34 games, 31 and a third innings of work and a nifty 2.59 ERA. His RA was a very effective 3.16. He struck out 5.2 batters per nine innings, which is low. And his K/BB ratio was 2. Also low. The peripherals were slipping. Still he was an effective reliever. When the rotation began to fall apart he got used more frequently. And his peripherals went in the tank. The Red Sox used him in 34 games post all star break. But the All Star Break is not the midpoint of the season. The Red Sox played ten more games in the first “half” of the season. Timlin’s 34 games were out of 76 games played by the Red Sox, almost every other game. Keeping him limited to sixty games on the year will make him a much more effective pitcher than the dreadful 6.06 post all star break ERA. Maybe not closer material, but he has done the job and can handle some of the high leverage situations.
  3. Curt Schilling – I don’t advocate it. Curt’s innings are better pitched at the start of games. If healthy, his stingy walk rate and bulldog mentality is ideal closer make up. He has done the job in emergency duty. Would he be willing? That I don’t know. Would he be able? Definitely.

In addition to these three, the Red Sox could attempt to catch lightning in a bottle again, and trot out Jon Lester as the closer. Theo Epstein has said on the record that the Earl Weaver pitcher development model of pitchers, where young starters get adjusted to major league pitching by throwing out of the bullpen. The recent veteran acquisitions by the Red Sox of Brendan Donnelly and JC Romero, as well as holdovers Mike Timlin and Julian Tavarez, and Japanese newcomer Hideki Okajiwa, leaves one slot open for either an established closer, a converted starter or a minor league reliever.

It also leaves the door open for Roger Clemens to join the team in June. Papelbon, Donnelly and Timlin can manage the late inning duties, and either Kyle Snyder, Lester or Julian Tavarez can start, with the fifth starter either shifting to the pen or going down to Pawtucket when Clemens arrives. The now annual rite of winter is familiar to Sox fans, who last year became enamored with the idea of bringing back ole Rocket Roger. Roger chose to go back to Houston, rather than jilt the Sox and return to the Yankees. As such, the option for him to choose Boston is still available. Houston has moved on from him, so Clemens can reasonably choose the Yankees, the Sox or Texas. The Yankees rotation is reasonably set and impressive with Randy Johnson, Mike Mussina, Andy Petitte, Kei Igawa and Chien-Mien Wang. Just as Boston’s rotation looks set with Schilling, Tim Wakefield, Josh Beckett, Matsuzaka and Papelbon. Both teams have young talents (Philip Hughes for the Yankees and Lester for the Sox) waiting in the wings. It’s up to Clemens, and that won’t be answered until the New Year.

The Sox are more analyzed than an overcrowded psychiatric ward. Epstein’s return (sans gorilla suit) and the new loose lips sink ships policy has done nothing to diminish that scrutiny. But the idea that the Sox desperately need a closer is a story sold to the ravenous media horde by the front office. And like any official who knows that his every statement is subject to incessant parsing and analysis, Theo Epstein is capable of media manipulation to accomplish his aims. Is the Papelbon to the rotation story one that merely serves the purpose of distracting the rest of the baseball universe to the true aims of the Red Sox? Their actions, signing a shortstop and a middle reliever, trading for another middle reliever and dramatically adding a front of the rotation type starter and agreeing to a now tenuous deal with an outfielder illustrate that the so-called top priority of the front office – getting a closer – may not be that high of a priority. Classic rope-a-dope.

Cross posted at Ennuipundit

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Interesting take. I still think the Sawx want a real closer. Getting Matsuzaka makes it easier to move Papelbon back to the pen. But if he stays in the rotation, i think they want a bonafide closer for the year, and i dont see Timlin or Schilling fitting that role. Look at the Arroyo trade. Even when you think you have too much pitching, you dont. The way this off-season’s been going, we could find out tomorrow the Sawx have traded for Mike Gonzalez.

btw, is this the Yanks blog?

Posted by Travis G. | December 20, 2006 | 12:45 am | Permalink

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