Who’s the Closer in 2014?
Much will be made over the next several months of who should be the Indians’ closer for 2014. While there are those who will tell you that the seventh and eighth innings are just as important, every baseball fan has lived through at least a season where his team dominated a game for eight innings only to see a 3-0 count on the first hitter in the ninth inning and feel that churning begin in his stomach because he knows that everything good that has happened for eight innings is about to be flushed down the toilet. Yes, I’m looking at you, Joe Borowski.
The good news is that there are options. The Indians used a total of seventeen men out of the bullpen last season, (not including Ryan Raburn) and enough of them showed promise to feel optimistic about the state of the pen in 2014 regardless of who is resigned or traded. The Indians have also resigned Matt Capps for next season. While he is not a dominant reliever, he has a history when healthy of getting guys out and can definitely play a key role if he arm is sound.
In order to determine who will be the closer, it is probably easiest to first state who will not be the closer. Let’s examine the options and see who we can eliminate.
- The Indians will not spend big dollars on an “established closer.” The memories of Kerry Wood are too recent for anyone to try that again. Nor will they trade for one. The only closers who become available on the free agent market or via trade at a reasonable cost are the ones who have some sort of issue. Speaking of which…
- Chris Perez will probably not be the closer. Despite imploding down the stretch, Perez will be awarded a salary in arbitration that will be way out of line with what a small market team wants to pay a closer. If the Indians felt like the ninth inning would be automatic with Perez next year, the might consider overpaying. But after the way his year ended and all the sideshow antics that he brings, I would be surprised if he is on the team in April.
- Vinnie Pestano will not be the closer. While I am optimistic that Pestano will rebound and contribute, logic dictates that he begin next year working the sixth or seventh inning and earn his way back into one of the high-leverage roles.
- Joe Smith and Matt Albers are free agents whose returns are uncertain. Neither has a lot of experience closing or the “stuff” usually associated with the role. I would love to have Smith back if we can get him for a salary similar to what he made this year, but he just seems like an eighth inning guy to me.
- Nick Hagadone will not be the closer. Do we really need to explain?
- Marc Rzepczynski will not be the closer. He filled his limited role very nicely, but that shouldn’t inspire us to believe he can handle more. There’s a reason the Cardinals gave up on him.
- Carlos Carrasco will not be the closer. He has a lot in common with Jose Mesa, and this is an idea that makes me stroke my chin and ponder, especially after he was so good out of the bullpen in September. The Indians would rather have him starting in Columbus than relieving in Cleveland, for reasons I can’t fathom. He has to be out of options soon, so I would go with what works rather than what the book says should work.
- Blake Wood, Josh Tomlin, Rich Hill, Preston Guilmet, and C.C. Lee will not be the closer. They just won’t, trust me. Since we are systematically eliminating everyone who relieved last year, we should also state that Ryan Raburn will not be the closer, although he did have a WHIP of 0.00 and average a strikeout per inning last year.
That leaves two viable options for the job: Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw. Both were vital members of the bullpen last year, and I expect them to be the two main guys next year. We saw in prior years when Pestano was just as valuable as Perez that who gets the eighth is just as important as who gets the ninth, so who ends up closing between Shaw and Allen is probably just a matter of what feels right to Terry Francona.
Numbers-wise, both guys have all the characteristics you want in a closer or a set-up guy. Both have low WHIPs, (Shaw 1.17, Allen 1.25 in 2013), both average more than a strikeout an inning, and both have decent control, although not excellent. If I was making the choice, this is one point that I would consider: Allen has just one year of service time, which means that he will not be eligible for arbitration for a couple of years. Shaw has three years of service time, which means that he is eligible for arbitration now and will be eligible for free agency in three years. What that means is that if Shaw is appointed the closer, the economics of the game dictate that he will immediately become exponentially more expensive. If he remains a setup man, however, his salary will increase at a much slower rate. Look at how much more money Chris Perez makes than Joe Smith, even though they have roughly the same service time.
Allen, however, will not have such leverage for at least a couple of seasons. As an example, Craig Kimbrel, who has arguably been the most dominant closer in baseball the past couple of years, earned only $655,000 this past year, his third full season. By that standard, we can expect Allen to be affordable for at least a couple of seasons no matter how dominant he becomes.
At the end of the day, it seems likely that both Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw will be at the back-end of the Indians bullpen for at least the next year or two. Who pitches the eighth and who pitches the ninth will be unlikely to have significant impact on the won-loss record. Given that, it makes most sense to allocate roles with an eye toward minimizing payroll costs for as long as possible. Allen as closer and Shaw as the main setup man is the most likely combination that accomplishes that goal.