One bonus of working for a Gannett newspaper: Access to USA Today content.
The staff at USA Today does a fine job of producing big picture baseball analysis that impacts several teams, and a lot of their stuff fits pretty well here on the Yankees blog (and every once in a while, my stories appear in USA Today without me knowing about it, so we’ll call it even). The USA Today sports staff is breaking down this year’s class of baseball free agents, beginning with Jorge L. Ortiz examination of the relief pitchers. The Yankees will almost certainly be in the market for at least one or two of these guys, so let’s take a look.
Here’s the break down from USA Today:
Top shelf: The leading closer candidates in this year’s market all have some mileage on them, as Joe Nathan, Grant Balfour and Joaquin Benoit will start next season at age 36 or older. And Fernando Rodney, who dropped from arguably the game’s top closer in 2012 to an often-scary proposition last season, will be 37 when the 2014 season rolls around.
That means there’s plenty of experience and some question marks among the candidates to fill a role that some regard as overrated, but one that often proves the difference between an uplifting win and a deflating loss.
Ask the Detroit Tigers, who saw a seemingly certain 2-0 lead in the American League Championship Series slip out of their hands when David Ortiz hit an eighth-inning grand slam off Benoit to tie Game 2. The Boston Red Sox went on to win 6-5 and claimed the series in six games.
The Tigers still remain interested in bringing back Benoit, a career setup man who had just 13 saves in 10 seasons before becoming the closer midway through last year and converting 24 of 26 chances. His return could also make it easier for the Tigers to nurse along fireballing prospect Bruce Rondon until they deem him ready to close.
For more of a sure thing, clubs could turn to Nathan, the top closer on the market even at 38. Nathan converted 80 of 86 save chances the last two years with the Texas Rangers but established his All-Star credentials with the Minnesota Twins in the AL Central. The division features two contenders — Detroit and the Cleveland Indians — currently seeking a closer. And for the record, Nathan is 36-for-36 in career save chances against the Tigers.
Other teams looking to fill a void at the end of the bullpen include the Tampa Bay Rays, Seattle Mariners, Chicago Cubs and possibly the New York Yankees, depending on whether they’re committed to going with David Robertson as Mariano Rivera’s successor.
If not, Balfour may be an option. The Oakland Athletics seem ready to let him go and find a replacement internally, and the high-strung Australian — who went 38-for-41 in save chances in his first full season as a closer — would relish the New York intensity.
Middle class: Rodney’s history of command issues and inconsistency — his ERA was above 4.00 five years in a row before his monster 2012 season — make him a manager’s nightmare at times. But he still throws in the mid 90s, can make batters look foolish with his wicked changeup and is just one year removed from a 48-save, 0.60-ERA, 0.777-WHIP year.
This offseason’s class of free agents has a pretty good number of experienced closers, so interested teams may not have to overpay as long as they’re willing to accept some flaws.
Chris Perez, for example, wore out his welcome in Cleveland for reasons that went beyond his so-so save percentage (he went 25-for-30) and 4.33 ERA in 2013. Criticizing the home fans and being found guilty of marijuana possession will expedite many a player’s exit out of town. Still, he’s just 28 and has 132 career saves, so he’s bound to attract some suitors.
Similarly, former closers like Jose Veras and Edward Mujica will get a look from clubs who value their experience, even if they see them more as setup men. Both enjoyed some success in their first chance at closing, each setting career highs for saves.
Neither one finished the season in that role, though. After logging 35 saves through August, the 29-year-old Mujica fell on his face in September (11.05 ERA), losing his confidence and the closer job. He was an afterthought in the postseason for the Cardinals.
Veras, saved 19 games for the Houston Astros before being traded to the Tigers, for whom he set up Benoit. At 33, Veras still throws in the mid-90s with a late-breaking curveball that’s virtually unhittable when he can command it.
Worth a flier: If you can stomach his tired act, Brian Wilson would have to be atop the list of intriguing late-inning candidates for teams seeking a value deal. After a second Tommy John elbow surgery, there are still questions about Wilson’s ability to last a season or pitch three nights in a row.
But he showed his velocity is back in a late-season stint with the Los Angeles Dodgers, then looked great in the playoffs, striking out eight in six scoreless innings. Wilson would be nearly two years removed from the operation by the beginning of next season and, while his attention-grabbing ways can be distracting, Wilson works hard and is always in great shape.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, former Yankees wunderkind Joba Chamberlain is hitting the market after yet another disappointing season (4.93 ERA, 1.74 WHIP). Now firmly entrenched as a setup man, Chamberlain, 28, throws 95 mph and above consistently, and his slider is a swing-and-miss pitch. In the right setting away from New York, he may yet turn into something.
Recycling bin: Former closers don’t die. They just become setup men. That has been the path taken by Francisco Rodriguez, who saved 10 games for the Milwaukee Brewers before finishing with the Baltimore Orioles, and Carlos Marmol, who seemed to find his mojo late in the season with the Dodgers.
Kyle Farnsworth, who saved 25 games for the Rays two years ago, concluded the season setting up for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Kevin Gregg held on to his closer role with the Cubs despite criticizing he club, but he figures to be on the move.
Market watch: Every year the market is flooded with dozens of relievers looking for jobs, and there are plenty to be had, considering most clubs carry at least seven pitchers in their bullpen.
Closers get most of the attention and the bigger dollars, and this year’s class is pretty deep, although it doesn’t have that one lights-out pitcher in his prime who will command a four-year deal (think Jonathan Papelbon after the 2011 season or Rodriguez coming off his record-setting year in 2008).
Options abound among setup men and specialists, such as lefties Javier Lopez, Boone Logan, J.P. Howell and Oliver Perez.
Among the right-handed setup men, Jesse Crain is coming off an All-Star season that was shortened by a shoulder injury, while veterans like LaTroy Hawkins, Joe Smith and Chad Qualls remain valuable contributors who will find their way into somebody’s bullpen.
Associated Press photos