30 Questions: Tampa Bay Rays
Is a closer-by-committee a recipe for disaster?
If you're hanging out on a reality show with Jose Canseco, the words you never want to hear are "You leave me no choice you're fired!"
If you're at a concert enjoying your favorite band, the words you never want to hear are "Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the stage, Sir Elton John!"
If you're getting ready for your fantasy draft, and have an eye on a promising young rookie pitcher who has a chance to follow in the footsteps of Andrew Bailey and Huston Street and garner 20-plus saves in his debut season, the words you never want to hear are "We're going with a closer-by-committee."
Jake McGee, a 24-year-old left-handed pitcher for the Tampa Bay Rays, was making his way through the team's minor league system, steadily progressing toward a future spot in the major league rotation. Then, in 2009, Tommy John surgery derailed his progress. However, McGee came back strong in 2010, with a K/9 rate of 10.2 in 88 1/3 innings as a starter in Double-A.
That solid performance earned him a promotion to Triple-A, where the team placed McGee in the bullpen with the idea of perhaps using him for the stretch run à la David Price in 2008. McGee responded incredibly well, with 27 strikeouts in 17 1/3 innings pitched, and a WHIP of 0.69. He was rewarded with a September call-up to the show -- and again, he responded.
In his debut, he fanned Derek Jeter, one of six strikeouts he'd record while facing 20 batters in eight outings. Although he did not get named to the playoff roster, that was more a result of the numbers game rather than an indictment of Joe Maddon's confidence in the kid's ability. In fact, this spring, with Rafael Soriano gone to the New York Yankees and a pressing need to find a new closer, Maddon permitted McGee to throw his hat into the ring.
"Jake's got a high-end arm," Maddon said on the team's official website. "My biggest concern, is he ready emotionally to handle that, and if it does not go well, how's he going to react?"
The pressure in spring games isn't nearly as great as it is once the games start to count, but considering that McGee is trying to prove he can handle being the closer, as well as making sure he makes the roster, his 1.13 ERA certainly points in the direction of his being ready.
But Maddon clearly doesn't feel he needs to make the call just yet. "I'm liking the way this is looking right now. I think we're going to have several candidates to get the last out. Honestly, I'd have no hesitation pitching anybody."
That anybody includes not only McGee, but also Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta and even J.P. Howell, who missed 2010 with a torn labrum. Ladies and gentlemen, Joe Maddon leaves me no choice. Please welcome to the stage, your Tampa Bay Rays 2011 closer-by committee!
Now, not every declared closer-by-committee results in a season-long tag-team affair in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and the fantasy value of each reliever in the mix is severely depressed. More often than not, a single arm does emerge as the go-to guy before too long.
Just last year, when Joe Nathan tore an elbow ligament in March, Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire announced he would utilize the old C-B-C. The plan was to have Matt Guerrier, Jose Mijares, Jesse Crain and Jon Rauch all take turns in the role, depending on the situation. However, Rauch ended up with "first dibs" and went 6-for-6 in save opportunities from April 6-17 and there went the committee.
Still, it should be worth noting that even though Rauch won the job outright in April, it was clear that the Twins weren't secure in his ability to keep it going all season long, which is why they acquired Matt Capps at the trade deadline and handed him the ball in the ninth inning the rest of the way.
That's the thing with the C-B-C. Even when a victor emerges, as often happens, a fantasy owner still walks on eggshells until October, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Look at the 2009 Atlanta Braves, where Bobby Cox decided to "not decide" between Soriano and Mike Gonzalez as his closer.
Through the end of June, Gonzalez had nine saves and Soriano had six, at which point Cox finally settled on Soriano. The rest of the way, Soriano closed out 21 victories, as opposed to just one for Gonzalez. Yet, the Braves clearly didn't have a ton of long-term confidence in Soriano, so they signed Billy Wagner to be their closer that offseason and sent Soriano to Tampa Bay in exchange for Jesse Chavez.
It all comes down to earning the confidence of Maddon, who has consistently shown a willingness to share the wealth in terms of saves throughout his time as Tampa Bay's manager.
Maddon's hand was forced when "his guy," Troy Percival, had back surgery before the 2009 season and just couldn't continue to pitch after the month of May. However, this year's closer carousel looks a lot more like Maddon's inaugural year at the helm, 2006.
That spring, there were a bevy of candidates for the job headed into the season: Dan Miceli, Chad Harville, Shawn Camp, Jesus Colome and Chad Orvella all were in the discussion at one time or another, and as you can see above, it was three other relievers who ended up splitting the limited number of saves that the team ended up earning.
The moral of the story? Like many managers before him, when placed in a C-B-C situation, Maddon is looking for someone to distance themselves from the pack and grab the closer's job by the horns. However, he's also proved to be very comfortable with shuffling the deck should that not happen. He's not going to force things, especially when the leading candidate is a very green Jake McGee.
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"Jake, eventually, I think can morph himself into that particular role," Maddon says. "But I don't want to just thrust that upon him right now."
If it was just a matter of choosing between two possible options, I'd say to roll the dice. But with that dreaded C-B-C in place, there are too many places for the closer's job to ultimately land. Eventually, I believe McGee will be the man in Tampa Bay, but until Maddon finally agrees that McGee's time has come, it's probably best to steer clear of this bullpen and look for your saves in other, more stable situations.
AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. His book, "How Fantasy Sports Explains the World" will be released in August. You can email him here.
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