Sox to have several candidates vie for closer's role

With Jonathan Papelbon expected to join the rotation, the Red Sox are presently lacking a proven closer heading into '07.

Originally Published: January 17, 2007
By Sean McAdam | Special to ESPN.com

It might be a little like building a brand new McMansion and neglecting to put on a roof. Or springing for a luxury car and choosing not to spring for the seats.

That is what the 2007 Boston Red Sox look like -- for now. With a payroll that will almost certainly exceed the luxury tax threshold -- assuming the team eventually comes to an official agreement with nomadic free agent outfielder J.D. Drew -- and will push $140 million, the Red Sox head to spring training without a closer. Or, more accurately, without a proven closer.

This might not be unprecedented, but it surely is unconventional, especially for a team with Boston's economic resources. This is the same franchise that spent $209 million on three other players this winter -- Drew, Julio Lugo and Daisuke Matsuzaka.

"Every team is going to have holes [before spring training]," said general manager Theo Epstein.

Pitcher
Boston Red Sox

Profile
2006 SEASON STATISTICS
GM W-L SV BB K ERA
59 4-2 35 13 75 0.92

But the Sox's hole is at a particularly critical position. It's one thing to be undecided about your second baseman or pondering a platoon in right field. It's another to be unable to designate who will secure your late-inning leads. And nothing is more demoralizing to a team than watching a one- or two-run lead slip away in the ninth.

Only a few months ago, of course, the Red Sox thought the closer's position would be one they wouldn't have to worry about for years. Jonathan Papelbon, a surprise choice to close out the Sox's third game of the season after Keith Foulke struggled in the opener, converted his first 20 save opportunities and went on to post 35 saves with a 0.92 ERA.

At last, the Red Sox had a bullpen weapon to match the Yankees' Mariano Rivera.

But at the All-Star break and again in early September, Papelbon suffered from weakness in the shoulder joint. After the second incident, in which he suffered a slight shoulder subluxation, he was shut down for the remainder of the season.

Soon after, the Sox announced that to protect the shoulder from future problems, Papelbon would shift back into the starting rotation, where a pitcher's workload is more routine and regimented.

In so doing, they created a gaping hole at the back end of the bullpen that, even with their winter spending spree, couldn't be plugged. Unlike the previous winter when Billy Wagner and B.J. Ryan hit the free agent market, the choices were far riskier this time.

The Sox looked into both Eric Gagne and Octavio Dotel and decided that, in both cases, the physical question marks outweighed the potential rewards.

Trade talks involving Washington's Chad Cordero, Pittsburgh's Mike Gonzalez and Texas' Akinori Otsuka have been similarly fruitless.

New pitching coach John Farrell said the team would have as many as four candidates for the role when the team reports to Fort Myers, Fla. next month, identifying Mike Timlin, Craig Hansen and newly signed Joel Pineiro as three of the contenders while refusing to otherwise handicap the race.

Farrell acknowledged that March and September are the two toughest months in which to evaluate players. In spring training, it's impossible to replicate regular season closing opportunities since most major league position players are gone from Grapefruit and Cactus League games by the fifth or sixth innings.

"We'll have to come up with some criteria [for the competition]," said Farrell. "One will be the ability to command the fastball. Another will be being able to control your emotions."

But there are issues with all three current options.

Timlin has been an invaluable workhorse for the Sox for the last four seasons, averaging nearly 75 appearances a year. But Timlin will be 41 before the season starts and over the course of his 16-year major league career, has been far more effective as a set-up man than a closer.

After a poor second half (6.06 ERA) due in part to fatigue stemming from his participation in the World Baseball Classic, it's doubtful that he could handle the workload for an entire season.

Pitcher
Boston Red Sox

Profile
2006 SEASON STATISTICS
GM W-L SV BB K ERA
40 8-13 1 64 87 6.36

Hansen, a dominant closer in college, regressed last season and was demoted twice. Hitters batted .305 against him and lefties raked him at a stunning .344 clip. He has yet to rediscover the bite on his slider that he showed at St. John's and it would seem inconceivable that he could make the transition from seventh-inning work to ninth-inning responsibilities in time for the start of the season.

That leaves Pineiro, who pitched himself out of the rotation in Seattle and looked better in relief in the final month of last season. Pitching in shorter stints, Pineiro's velocity improved and Red Sox scouts believe he can handle the mental demands of the role.

The very fact that the Sox signed him to a deal in which the major incentives are tied to games finished indicates they plan to give him every chance to win the job. But for a team with championship aspirations -- and a payroll to match -- it is wise to entrust such a critical task to a pitcher with exactly one major league save?

One thing is for certain: the Red Sox won't again try the failed "closer-by-committee" experiment that nearly capsized the 2003 season. Under that plan, the Sox took the radical approach that the most important outs weren't always the final three -- a reasonable enough theory -- and that the ninth-inning responsibilities would be dictated by matchups.

But by their own admission, the Sox didn't have a deep enough -- or experienced enough -- corps of relievers and the current bullpen has some of the same questions.

It's conceivable that a longshot candidate could emerge, as commonly happens. No one, for instance, expected Derek Lowe to save 42 games in 2000.

Still, with just over four weeks left before pitchers and catchers report, a rather large piece of an otherwise carefully constructed puzzle is missing.

Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.