Commentary

30 Questions: Can Brian Fuentes reclaim the closer's job?

Updated: March 14, 2008, 3:17 PM ET
By Pete Becker | ESPN.com

Thirty teams, 30 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each major league team.

Who will finish the season as the Rockies' closer?

Brian Fuentes started last season as the Rockies' closer. Manny Corpas finished it. I suppose this question could also have been stated: Is turnabout fair play?

I say, yes it is.

While I don't own a crystal ball, a deck of tarot cards or a tricked-out DeLorean, I do have a pretty good inkling that all the right pieces are in place for the Rockies' situation to play out that way.

New closers emerge every season.

No stat in baseball is as fickle as the save. A speedster will find a way to steal bases. A power hitter will hit home runs. A pitcher who throws in the upper 90s with a wicked slider will get strikeouts, no matter when in the game.

Saves, however, are almost entirely at the manager's discretion. If he's not willing to put you out there in the ninth, you're only getting a save if your offense padded your eighth-inning lead or if you're mopping up three-plus innings of a lopsided win. And every season, managers -- the people whose entire professional careers revolves around winning ballgames -- find reason to fiddle with their closers. Hence, we end up with a vastly different cast of closers at the end of the season than we see saw at the start.

From 2005-07, 51 relievers accumulated 19 or more saves total. That's 30 teams, three seasons, 51 at-least-part-time closers. The list includes such luminaries as Ambiorix Burgos, Tyler Walker, Chris Reitsma, and even a couple of once-and-future starters in Brett Myers and Miguel Batista. Do you know why such an eclectic group of pitchers all got a chance to rack up saves? It's because they don't have to be good to be the closer, they just have to be the least terrible option. Exhibits A, B and C to this rule are named Al Reyes, David Weathers and Brad Hennessey. I've got an entire alphabet full, but I don't think I need to use them, because Brian Fuentes is the prime rib to those names' ground chuck.

Fuentes is still a stud.

Brian Fuentes
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesBrian Fuentes had 20 saves last season, despite losing the job mid-season
It's one thing to try to guess whether Kevin Gregg or Dan Wheeler will seize the opportunities given to them; it's quite another when you're dealing with a pitcher of Fuentes' pedigree. He has struck out better than a batter per inning over the course of his career. He has allowed a batting average of no higher than .218 for three straight seasons. His ERA last season was 3.08, his WHIP 1.13, both well below his career numbers.

Think last season was an off year? Fuentes had a bad June, blew five saves while surrendering a few too many homers and then turned out to have an injury, which held him out for most of July. Did he recover? Upon his return, he held batters to a .159 average, struck out 25 in 23 2/3 innings and didn't allow a home run. This is still the same guy who has notched 81 saves in his 2½ years as the Rockies' closer.

It's not like Manny Corpas can walk on water.

Manny Corpas
AP Photo/M. Spencer GreenManny Corpas converted 19 of 22 save opportunities
Corpas has some great things going for him as a closer. He's a ground-baller, with a ground ball-to-fly ball ratio of 1.99 in two seasons with the Rockies, 2.43 in 2007. He held batters to a .224 average, a dramatic improvement from his 2006 performance of .286, though he was pretty unlucky that year, giving up a .340 average on balls in play. Either hitters got lucky, or the Rockies infielders let him down, which is quite possible for a guy who relies so much on the ground ball out, something that should concern you now that Kaz Matsui and his .992 fielding percentage (of 2007) are gone to the Astros.

Also, while Corpas gives up fewer fly balls than Fuentes, the damage they do is considerably higher. Both Corpas and Fuentes gave up six home runs last season. Corpas' damage came on 54 fly balls (one home run for every nine fly balls), while Fuentes' dingers came on 74 flies (one per 12.3). You might say that a fly ball caught is just as good as a ground ball fielded, but in the end, the best way to eliminate a batter, for a closer, is via the strikeout. And there, Fuentes has the upper hand.

Don't get me wrong, I like Corpas as a pitcher. I think he'd be a better closer than about a third of the guys who currently hold that job at the major league level. I just don't think Fuentes is a member of that third.

History has a way of repeating itself.

The Rockies have a really nice problem, with two pitchers in their bullpen qualified to do the job. Coming off a near-Cinderella finish to a late-season run in which everything seemed easy for the team (up to the point when they ran into the Red Sox), there's no reason for manager Clint Hurdle to make a change. The Rockies didn't get swept in the World Series because Manny Corpas blew a couple of leads; they never had one to give him past the fifth inning, and admittedly, Fuentes was a part of that, twice giving up runs in close games.

But what happens once a little bullpen adversity sets in? What happens if Corpas has a bad June, or comes down with a two-week case of Coors-aided gopher-itis? Does Hurdle really owe Corpas his loyalty any more than he owed it to Fuentes, who had been his guy for two-and-a-half seasons?

We do know Fuentes wants the job back: "I have complete faith in my ability to do the job throughout the year, but I also know ultimately I can close," he told the Rocky Mountain News. "It is hard to find someone who has done what I have done at Coors Field. I am not gloating but I feel I've proven myself."

We know Fuentes has done it before, which is important to a manager -- and the manager ultimately decides who stares down the final batter of the night, with two on, two outs and a losing streak in need of being snapped.

Among the things working against Fuentes is the fact that he is a free agent after this season, while Corpas is under control -- and under contract -- for the next four years. That means Corpas is likely the 2009 closer. However, that's not going to seem like a good reason to keep him in that role should he struggle. A manager's job, after all, depends on winning, and expectations are high in Colorado. (Yes, I spared you the mile-high pun. Pay it forward.) There is also the very real possibility that the Rockies trade Fuentes should the team find itself unable to recapture the magic of 2007. Fuentes would be a very attractive commodity for a contender, and not necessarily as a closer.

It should also be noted -- and this is pure, wild speculation on my part -- that it might have saved the Rockies more than a million dollars to have kept Fuentes "demoted" during the offseason, as the team won its arbitration case against the player, who would ostensibly have had a stronger case as an incumbent closer than as a setup man. Could their faith in Corpas be disingenuous? Even I'll admit this is "grassy-knoll" territory, but I do think Oliver Stone would have had a few interesting things to say about it.

So, all that speculation and conjecture aside, no, I can't predict the future. I can't tell you on what day and under what circumstances a change might happen, but I can tell you that it won't surprise me if it does happen. Considering what it takes to roster Corpas (average draft position: 116.4) and Fuentes (210.5) right now, I'd rather pass on the former and roster the latter. And then we play the waiting game.

Pete Becker is Senior Editor for ESPN.com Fantasy Games