- Phil Rogers
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In baseball, it's never a good thing when your question marks start at the end -- of the game, that is.
Just ask the Philadelphia Phillies.
Tired of the scourge that was Jose Mesa in the ninth inning, Phillies general manager Ed Wade didn't just go out and get an excellent closer. He got two, adding Billy Wagner and Tim Worrell, who ranked third and fourth in the National League in saves a year ago.
Suddenly the Phillies have become favorites to end Atlanta's run of 12 consecutive division titles.
This is not a good thing for a team with playoff aspirations. But it's not an uncommon one this spring. At least nine teams with the potential to win 90-plus games are in danger of being let down by leads that slip away in the eighth and ninth innings.
The most glaring of these is Minnesota. The Twins are the anti-Phillies. They subtracted two quality relievers in Eddie Guardado, who was 86 for 96 in saves over the last two seasons, and LaTroy Hawkins, arguably the top setup man in the majors for the same time period.
"It was pretty easy to manage when you could go to the eighth inning with Hawk and the ninth with Guardado,'' Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire said. "Well, it's never easy to manage, but that was a pretty good feeling.''
Both were lost to free agency over the winter -- with Hawkins signing a three-year, $11-million deal with the Cubs and Guardado going to Seattle for $13 million over three years.
While losing those two, the Twins re-signed left fielder Shannon Stewart. General manager Terry Ryan didn't have enough money in his budget to sign any of those free agents until Philadelphia took Eric Milton's $9.3 million salary off his hands.
That trade was made on Dec. 3. Hawkins had signed with the Cubs earlier the same day.
"We needed to free up some resources,'' Ryan said. "I never did make LaTroy an offer. He had signed with the Cubs before I had the flexibility to do anything. I did make an offer to Eddie but we ended up signing Shannon. We got that contract done just before the deadline, actually ... Unfortunately LaTroy signed before we could make an offer. I don't blame him.''
Gardenhire expects 29-year-old right-hander Joe Nathan, who was acquired from San Francisco in a trade for catcher A.J. Pierzynski, to fill one of the two holes at the end of the bullpen. He compiled a 2.96 ERA over 78 appearances for the Giants a year ago, but has only one career save.
Left-hander J.C. Romero, who disappointed in 2003 after an excellent '02, and right-handed rookie Jesse Crain are the front-runners for the other job. That most likely will be as a setup man for Nathan.
"We've had a great bullpen here, no doubt,'' Gardenhire said. "But the funny thing is that two years ago that was what everybody said was our biggest question. Nobody said it was going to be a strength. It just developed. That happened once and we've got a chance for it to happen again.''
Here's a quick look at other teams with ninth-inning issues:
Keith Foulke, who led the AL with 43 saves a year ago, jumped when Boston gave him a four-year offer. GM Billy Beane had billed Joe Valentine as his closer of the future when he got him along with Foulke in a trade from the White Sox, but subsequently traded Valentine to Cincinnati. He moved to fill the void by signing left-hander Arthur Rhodes to a three-year contract.
Rhodes, a career setup man, has never had more than four saves in a season and is 17-for-44 in save situations over his 13-year career. He becomes the latest link in a chain that has seen the A's switch primary closers for four years in a row now, from Jason Isringhausen to Billy Koch and Foulke, without the bullpen being a problem.
Koch, who signed a two-year contract after being acquired from Oakland, no longer is the flamethrower who struck out 93 in 94 innings for the A's in 2002. His fastball has been in the 92-94 mph range this spring but he has been effective, throwing strikes and challenging hitters.
While the Sox have an attractive option in lefty Damaso Marte, who actually has led their team with 21 saves over the last two seasons, pitching coach Don Cooper insists they need Koch to be the closer. If he can make the transition from intimidator to pitcher, then the bullpen can be a strength.
Give GM Bill Bavasi credit for anticipating Kaz Sasaki's decision to return to Japan. That announcement followed the addition of Guardado, seemingly to be Sasaki's setup man. Instead he moves into the closer's role, working in a large ballpark that suits his style.
The oversized left-hander brings a health concern with him from Minnesota. He's been bothered this spring by a sore left knee, which could be a sign of serious trouble to come.
While the Mariners can't afford to have Guardado miss six weeks, not while they're trying to hang with Oakland and Anaheim, it would be fun to see the overpowering Rafael Soriano in a bigger role. Shigetoshi Hasegawa, an All-Star as a setup man last year, adds critical depth.
Like the Twins, San Francisco is missing its top two relievers from a year ago. But the loss of Worrell and Nathan, who made 78 appearances and picked up 12 wins, could be partially offset by the return of Robb Nen, who was last seen failing to finish off the Anaheim Angels in the 2002 World Series.
Nen has had three different shoulder surgeries since then, getting work on both his labrum and his rotator cuff. He may have to open the season on the disabled list, but the Giants have been encouraged by his recent work. He looked good in a simulated game on Monday and is scheduled to work in at least one more before possibly making his Cactus League debut next week.
In terms of insurance, the best options that GM Brian Sabean has provided is journeyman Matt Herges, who has 11 career saves and is with his fourth team in four years.
Houston's bullpen combination of Wagner, Octavio Dotel and Brad Lidge should have been the difference in a three-team NL Central race a year ago but the hyperactive Jimy Williams wore out his top relievers. He'll look to his starting rotation more now that he has Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte working alongside a healthy Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller.
That's a good thing because the Astros are going to badly miss Wagner, who converted 86 percent of his saves over the previous eight years. He logged more innings in 2002 and '03 (75 and 86) than ever before in his career. That means there is more slack for Dotel and Lidge to take up.
Dotel, once the New York Mets' top pitching prospect, has the stuff to be an outstanding closer but was erratic (16-for-23 in 2000) in the one stretch filling in for an injured Wagner. Lidge, who struck out 97 in 85 innings as a rookie, becomes the primary setup man and Williams will look to Dan Miceli to replace Lidge in the seventh.
Miceli's distinction is that in 2003 he became the first person in major-league history to pitch for teams in four different divisions in one season.
He's a right-hander, but is most effective against left-handed batters. This is going to be one interesting season in Houston, isn't it?
Tony La Russa doesn't have many reasons to feel good about his pitching staff these days, which has continued to be short-sheeted by the commitment to building a monster lineup. But a healthy Jason Isringhausen gives La Russa peace of mind.
"Izzy's healthy this spring and that is huge,'' La Russa said.
Isringhausen was slow to recover from shoulder surgery in 2002, missing the first 63 games of '03. The bullpen sputtered without him and La Russa had to be careful in how he used him upon his return, which was a problem in a critical five-game, four-day series in Chicago. He bears watching this season but appears to have gotten over the hump. He better have as the Cardinals can't afford to let many leads get away if they're going to stay with the Cubs and Astros.
After an extended recovery from Tommy John surgery, Matt Mantei is on the verge of re-establishing himself as a top closer. He had 29 saves last year, going 22-for-23 in save situations with a 1.42 ERA from July 1 to the end of the season.
But Mantei must prove himself over the course of a full season. His elbow injury led to shoulder problems, which often left him unavailable on back-to-back days, so he'll be closely monitored again.
Young right-hander Jose Valverde gives Bob Brenly two good options. He went 9-for-9 in save situations while Mantei was out and held opposing hitters to a .137 average, second only to Cy Young winner Eric Gagne among major league relievers. The cost-conscious Diamondbacks are reportedly shopping Mantei. He'll certainly be available in a midseason trade if they have slipped out of the race.
The world champs are another team that has suffered a double whammy. Florida lost its two primary closers from 2003, with Ugueth Urbina becoming a pricey free agent and ownership deciding to non-tender Braden Looper. GM Larry Beinfest signed the well-traveled Armando Benitez to fill the void.
Benitez says he's "real hungry'' to prove that he can still be a top closer and looks on this chance as a gift from God. "New career, new life, new team,'' he says.
Hey, it could be worse. The Marlins could have gambled on Mesa.
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.
At least nine potential contenders enter this season with major questions about their ability to close out games.