Shorter stints, better results
Converting starters into closers a la Eric Gagne and John Smoltz is proving to be a popular trend.
Dan O'Dowd had a problem.
Jose Jimenez, the Colorado Rockies' all-time saves leader, had lost his late-innings touch but his salary was going to keep growing. Clint Hurdle had moved him into a middle-relief role and then even decided to take a look at him as a starter.
Because Jimenez was eligible for arbitration, he was positioned to get a raise off his $3.6 million salary even though he finished 2003 with a 5.22 ERA. Hanging onto him would have left less money to address the Rockies' needs elsewhere.
O'Dowd cut him loose, in part because he didn't have to sink money into pursuing a replacement like Keith Foulke, LaTroy Hawkins, Tom Gordon, Eddie Guardado, Braden Looper, Armando Benitez, Ugueth Urbina or any of the closers already on the market.
The guy O'Dowd is penciling in is Shawn Chacon, who has exactly zero career saves. He has been a starter throughout his career, pitching so well last year to earn a spot on the National League All-Star team.
"He has the weapons to close," Hurdle said. "He has the fastball he runs up in the mid-90s, and a strikeout pitch [with his hard curveball]. He handles right-handed and left-handed hitters with similar efficiency. He's intelligent, focused and has no fear ... It's a nice package."
Call it the Eric Gagne model.
The scouting report on Gagne was similar when Jim Tracy moved him into the closer's role after he failed to win the final opening in Los Angeles' starting rotation in the spring of 2002. The results have been startling -- 107 saves in 111 chances and the National League Cy Young award in '03.
John Smoltz, another long-time starter with similar stuff, has similarly thrived since coming back from Tommy John surgery as a reliever. He's converted 110 of 119 saves and believes he'll be ready to go this spring despite having his fourth career elbow surgery after the Braves were eliminated in October.
Mike MacDougal, like Gagne, is another pitcher who became an instant All-Star after he was placed in the closer's role. His high-90s fastball was effective enough in small bursts to offset the mechanical flaws that had always led to a self-destructive lack of control. Rocky Biddle, another converted starter, contributed 34 saves to help Montreal stay alive longer than anyone expected in the 2003 playoff race.
"If a guy can take a little heat, it can be a whole lot easier to finish a game than to start one," Bobby Valentine said. "Most of the time, you're coming in the game to get three outs. You get three outs and everybody shakes your hand. A starter gets three outs, then he's got to keep getting outs. He's got to face hitters three or four times. A closer might not see them that many times in a season."
When Valentine managed the New York Mets, he had known quantities as his closer in John Franco and Benitez. But he saw firsthand the possibilities for creating a closer while managing the Texas Rangers.
Jeff Russell, a starter who had once lost 18 games for Cincinnati, emerged as an All-Star starter in 1988. But Valentine needed a replacement for Mitch Williams after the trade that brought Rafael Palmeiro from the Cubs, and Russell volunteered. He wound up making the '89 American League All-Star team as a closer and piled up 186 career saves.
Dennis Eckersley, a first-ballot pick in the latest Hall of Fame election, revived his career after the wise Bill Rigney suggested to Sandy Alderson and Tony La Russa that they consider giving him a shot at finishing games rather than starting them.
After going 71-77 in his last seven years as a starter, the stylish Eckersley put together a four-year run as one of the best closers in history. He had more saves than baserunners allowed in 1990, making it seem, as Valentine suggested, that the last three outs were no big deal.
While guys like Rollie Fingers, Lee Smith, Tug McGraw and Dan Quisenberry spent their major-league careers as relievers, there have always been pitchers who thrived in short relief after failing to establish themselves as starters. The best historic example is probably Goose Gossage, who made 37 starts for the White Sox before Chuck Tanner moved him permanently to the bullpen with Pittsburgh.
Gagne's shift to the bullpen was largely the result of the depth in the Dodgers' rotation. He had made 19 starts in 2000 and 24 more in '01 but had been wildly inconsistent. Then general manager Dan Evans added Hideo Nomo, Odalis Perez, Kaz Ishii and Omar Daal before the spring of 2002. The one commodity Evans didn't provide was a proven closer.
Gagne was given a chance to fill that vacancy after he failed to land the fifth starter's job. Tracy gives Evans credit for suggesting that Gagne could succeed in a new role.
All Gagne did in 2003 was convert all 55 of his saves while striking out 14.8 batters per nine innings and holding hitters to a .133 batting average.
Brian Jordan, who was Gagne's teammate before recently signing with Texas, says Gagne has become more and more effective since becoming just as comfortable with his roundhouse curveball and devastating changeup as he is his fastball.
Hitters can't look for any of the pitches because he mixes them up so well. "He's throwing that Bugs Bunny changeup on these guys, where they're looking for 97-mph heat," Jordan said. "It's almost like you have no chance. It's just unfair."
Will anyone be saying similar things about Chacon? It's asking a lot for any pitcher to prompt comparisons to someone as dominant as Gagne, but no one should be surprised if he winds up being one of the best closers in the NL. History is on his side.
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.