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Casting call

Red Sox know they don't need star closer to compete

Posted: Tuesday January 30, 2007 11:58AM; Updated: Tuesday January 30, 2007 12:45PM
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Manny Delcarmen, 24, made 50 appearances during his first full season in the majors in 2006 and will be part of the Red Sox's closer derby this spring.
Manny Delcarmen, 24, made 50 appearances during his first full season in the majors in 2006 and will be part of the Red Sox's closer derby this spring.
J. Meric/WireImage.com
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Red Sox fans take note: the Bears made it to the Super Bowl with Rex Grossman at quarterback. Many years ago I covered the Miami Dolphins when David Woodley (a.k.a. Wobbley, in honor of the standard mode of his forward pass) was their quarterback. They, too, made the Super Bowl. So did the Ravens with Trent Dilfer, the Chargers with Stan Humphries and the Rams with Vince Ferragamo. Everyone prefers a Joe Montana, but history tells us you don't need a Hall of Famer at quarterback to be a Super Bowl team.

This being Super Bowl week makes for a good time to examine why the Boston Red Sox are embracing a similar corollary when it comes to baseball and closers. While the closer might not engender the same glamour or responsibility as the quarterback, he does attract disproportionate credit or blame, like a quarterback, for his team's success or failure. But history, especially recent history, tells us a great closer is not a prerequisite for winning.

The Red Sox, naturally, would love their own version of Mariano Rivera or Trevor Hoffman. But because they don't have one in their employ and because the free-agent market did not offer anything close to a reasonable facsimile, the Red Sox have been smart enough to realize, "We'll figure it out and find somebody -- and we can still win."

"By the end of spring training we will have one [closer] and we will have guys in defined roles," Boston GM Theo Epstein says. "And by the end of the year, who knows who the closer might be? It might be some kid who gets put in that role on the second day of the season, like [Jon] Papelbon last year, or somebody from outside the organization, or somebody who started the year in Double A. We don't know.

"I doubt even the Cardinals expected Adam Wainwright to get the last out of the World Series, unless maybe he was throwing a complete game. But there he was."

Rare are the closers who succeed at the job over many years. Otherwise, if you're looking for a short-term answer in today's era of specialization, a decent closer can be found almost anywhere without having to give up players or big money. Here's one way to look at it: Jose Jimenez, Antonio Alfonseca, Mike Williams and Danny Graves all have saved 40 games in a season, but not Rollie Fingers or Goose Gossage. Who? Precisely the point.

Anyone with two pitches (one above-average), a short memory, a decent stomach and a hot hand can close games for a while. No experience necessary. Mark Wohlers once told me the only difference between a good year and a horrible year for a closer is about four blown saves. And just about any pitcher is going to close those games with a three-run lead in the ninth with nobody on base.

Here's another way to look at how closers have come to be overrated: take a look at the closers for the past six world championship teams and their resume at the time of the title:

Closer Year Team Age Career
Saves
All-Star
Appearances
Byung-Hung Kim 2001 D'Backs 22 34 0
Troy Percival 2002 Angels 32 250 4
Ugueth Urbina 2003 Marlins 29 206 2
Keith Foulke 2004 Red Sox 31 175 1
Bobby Jenks 2005 White Sox 24 6 0
Adam Wainwright 2006 Cards 24 3 0

So if anybody tries to tell you this spring Boston can't win because it doesn't have a closer, just tell them it will have one soon. The Red Sox will have a spring training competition among Brendan Donnelly, Mike Timlin, Julian Tavarez, Joel Piniero, Craig Hansen, Manny Delcarmen, Devern Hansack and a darkhorse, prospect Bryce Cox. (Forget Papelbon. The only way he goes back to closing is if team doctors change their minds that his shoulder needs four days of rest between pitching, that he isn't at least the No. 2 starter the Red Sox believe he is, and the team already had gone through multiple options at closer).

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