Closers on shaky ground

Updated: May 3, 2012, 12:46 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

The "better reliever" does not always get to close.

Relief Efforts

There are many examples of this throughout baseball history, the one that immediately comes to most people's minds being Mariano Rivera, who set up John Wetteland for the 1996 New York Yankees. Rivera, in that season, managed 5.4 wins above replacement (WAR), the eighth-best single-season number by a reliever since the save became an official statistic in 1969, while Wetteland finished with 2.9 WAR, substantially less than Rivera but still a healthy total.

But, statistically speaking, there is no greater instance of this than with 2007 Cleveland Indians relievers Joe Borowski and Rafael Betancourt. Betancourt managed 4.2 WAR in that year, Borowski 0.0 … meaning that, by definition, the Indians might have fared just as well with any replacement reliever as closer as they did with Borowski. Their 4.2-WAR differential represented the greatest split between closer and setup man of any pair of relievers during the saves era.

Borowski, though, saved 45 games in 2007, tops in the American League. His example shows that you don't have to be a great reliever to be a closer. You merely need a manager who has faith in you in the role.

That seems to be what's happening in the Chicago White Sox's bullpen this season, where Hector Santiago, he of the 4-saves-in-6-chances, 7.36 ERA and 2.05 WHIP, remains manager Robin Ventura's preferred ninth-inning option. Santiago was the surprise winner of the team's spring closer competition, then he converted three consecutive saves to begin the regular season, but in five appearances since, he has allowed five runs on 10 hits, three of them home runs, in 4⅓ innings, opposing hitters batting .435 against him.

Now, look at how the relievers behind him have fared:

Matt Thornton (20 career saves entering 2012): 2.38 ERA, 0.97 WHIP
Addison Reed (5 saves in minors in 2011): 0.00 ERA, 0.92 WHIP
Jesse Crain (4 career saves): 2.57 ERA, 0.86 WHIP

[+] EnlargeHector Santiago
Jake Roth/US PresswireHector Santiago probably isn't the best pitcher overall in the White Sox bullpen, but he's still the one getting the saves.

That paints Santiago as a true "Borowski," which for the purposes of this column we'll call a closer no one but his manager considers deserving of the gig. It makes the answer to the question, "Who will lead the 2012 White Sox in saves?" an unpredictable one. We can guess the leader using performance statistics, but we cannot possibly expect to read Ventura's mind.

There's a clear difference between the Santiago and Borowski situations, however. At the onset of the 2007 season, Borowski was a seasoned veteran reliever, with 336 appearances, 80 saves and two seasons as a full-time closer on his résumé. It also helps that he had a freshly inked, one-year, $4 million contract to close at the time. The "better pitcher" Betancourt, meanwhile, had 131 fewer career appearances (205 total), plus nine saves and zero prior years as a closer.

Entering this season, Santiago had all of two career appearances in the big leagues, or 470 fewer than Thornton had. (Heck, even Reed had six career appearances entering 2012.) Thornton also received sporadic chances as a closer for the 2010 White Sox team (8 saves).

So here's what we know, and here's what we can guess:

• Santiago currently has Ventura's endorsement, but he's probably the least skilled of the trio and the worst long-term bet of the bunch.
• Thornton is the most experienced reliever of the group, he was the first man called upon when Santiago was passed over for a save chance, he's probably the smartest bet for saves in the short term if a change occurs.
• Reed is widely regarded the future closer for the White Sox, he's off to a fantastic start and he's probably the best guess to lead in saves. Or, he could suffer the same fate as Betancourt in 2007; he might spend all year waiting in setup duty.

In a standard ESPN league, such closer headaches require careful monitoring of the situation, and frequent flipping of roster spots. For example, Santiago warrants the roster spot today … Thornton might tomorrow … and Reed might, say, on July 1 but not before. And the deeper the league you're in -- addressing bench depth specifically -- the more value there is in stashing Reed.

It's your call, as the right answer will vary by league.

There are "Borowskis" everywhere in baseball, however. The following teams have a setup man who, in terms of ERA, WHIP and/or strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio, has substantially outperformed the closer ahead of him, putting their saves in the questionable category:

Los Angeles Dodgers: Current finisher Javy Guerra is the owner of a 2.95 ERA, 1.26 WHIP and 8.07 K's-per-nine ratio since his big league debut last May 15, but his numbers pale in comparison to Kenley Jansen's 2.86 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 15.71 K's-per-nine since the beginning of last season. Guerra's stats are hardly deserving of calling him Borowski's equal, however, and the primary reason this debate has raged on during the past week is that he has surrendered seven runs on 12 hits in 5⅓ innings while blowing two save chances in his past seven appearances, while Jansen snuck in back-to-back saves on April 27 and 29, the latter a game in which Guerra was seen warming up in the bullpen (meaning he was supposedly available).

Besides manager Don Mattingly's endorsement, Guerra has one other advantage over Jansen: He has a 3.41 walks-per-nine innings ratio in the big leagues, while Jansen has a 4.28 walks-per-nine since the beginning of last season. Guerra might not be able to afford further struggles, and there might not be a setup man with greater fantasy upside than Jansen in the event of a role swap, but for now it appears that Guerra still has this gig.

Miami Marlins: This one isn't so much a matter of a specific setup man being a clearly better option than the closer skills-wise, but the performances to date of finisher Heath Bell and setup man Steve Cishek put the Marlins in this class. Bell, freshly signed to a three-year, $27 million contract to close, is in a miserable funk, going 3-for-6 in save chances with an 11.74 ERA and 2.74 WHIP, opponents batting .371 against him in 10 appearances. Cishek, meanwhile, has an 0.79 ERA, 0.88 WHIP and .158 batting average allowed, even if he blew the only save chance he has received this season. (To be fair, Cishek had come on in relief of Bell with the tying run on third base in that opportunity on Wednesday, and only allowed the tying run to score because of a squeeze-play single.)

Bell's contract might paint the picture of an ideal "Borowski," as it could grant him a lengthy leash. Cishek, too, might not be as dominant a reliever as the 2007 version of Betancourt, but he could be in line for fill-in saves if the Marlins decide to make a change. Consider this a must-handcuff situation, though Bell is still highly likely to get the lion's share of the save chances this season.

Toronto Blue Jays: This is a more under-the-radar "Borowski," as the injured Sergio Santos by all rights should reclaim the closer role once healthy. But in terms of current arrangements, it's difficult to deny the split in performances by fill-in closer Francisco Cordero and setup men Darren Oliver and Luis Perez. Cordero has already blown two of four save chances since taking over for Santos, and his ERA is 5.73 and WHIP 1.91. Oliver, meanwhile, has a 2.25 ERA and 0.88 WHIP in nine appearances, while Perez has 2.40/1.00 numbers in his 10 games. Cordero might not be far from losing his job -- a temporary replacement one, at that -- and if that happens, there could be a handful of sneaky saves for AL-only owners to scoop up off the free-agent list.

Chicago Cubs: Here's another situation where there aren't many obvious alternatives to a struggling closer; Carlos Marmol might have a 5.19 ERA, 1.85 WHIP and two blown saves in four chances, but projected setup man Kerry Wood has struggled as well and has dealt with injuries. Rafael Dolis, he of the 3.86 ERA and 1.29 WHIP, remains an NL-only dark horse, but he has 1.93 K's-per-nine and 0.38 K's-per-walk -- read that again, 0.38 -- ratios that are troubling. The Cubs have discussed leaving Dolis in the eighth inning following Wood's activation from the disabled list, however, so keep tabs on him in the coming weeks.

Oakland Athletics: Grant Balfour might have considerably greater big league experience than rookie setup man Ryan Cook, but their numbers thus far make Cook look like a major sleeper in AL-only leagues. A hot starter, Balfour has allowed six runs on six hits, two of them home runs, while blowing two of three save chances in his past four appearances, giving him a 4.73 ERA for the season. Cook, meanwhile, has tossed 12⅓ shutout innings while allowing only two hits, becoming one of the hottest pickups in hold leagues this year. Here's why this matters: The Athletics as an organization have never been afraid to change closers, granting the hot hand the role, and if Cook continues to impress, he might soon get a look in the ninth inning.

New York Mets: The Mets effectively acquired the Blue Jays' 2011 bullpen when they signed both Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch in December, and just as the Blue Jays did last season, the Mets might flip-flop between the two in the ninth inning multiple times this year. Francisco is off to a rocky start, his ERA 6.97 and WHIP 1.94 in 11 appearances, while setup man Rauch has thrived, posting a 2.31 ERA and 0.77 ERA in his 13 games. Both pitchers have closer experience; NL-only owners might find Rauch a valuable stash considering his hot start.

Arizona Diamondbacks: If you're looking for a direct "Borowski" bullpen comparison, the Diamondbacks might be 2012's ideal choice. J.J. Putz is paid to close, yet his 6.48 ERA and 1.20 WHIP to date pale in comparison to the numbers put forth by either of his two setup men, David Hernandez (2.92 ERA, 0.81 WHIP) or Bryan Shaw (1.64 ERA, 0.91 WHIP). Putz, however, is a better pitcher than his ratios show and the Diamondbacks are sure to be patient with him.

If you're a Hernandez or Shaw owner, you might get a sneaky save or three from either, but for now neither appears to offer much more in fantasy than holds, plus a bit of ERA and WHIP help.

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