Over a four-day span last week three National League contenders lost their closers to injuries, pushing the number of NL closers on the disabled list to six only one month into the season. Meanwhile, Diamondbacks journeyman Brandon Lyon, no stranger to the DL himself with two trips in two seasons, finished April leading the majors with 10 saves--or only three fewer than the combined total of the Yankees' Mariano Rivera, the Padres' Trevor Hoffman, the Red Sox' Keith Foulke and the Tigers' Troy Percival, a usually reliable quartet with 1,233 career saves among them. Welcome to the year of living dangerously.
"I don't see a [Dennis] Eckersley out there," Giants assistant general manager Ned Colletti says of the former iron man, who spent the second half of his 24-year career as a closer and always could be relied on for a save. "It's not like it was three or four years ago when you had three, four, five guys you could count on to get the job done 90 percent of the time. These things go in cycles. For a while we had some great young third basemen. We had power-hitting shortstops. Right now, we just don't have guys in that Eck category."
Falling from the ranks of reliable closers last week were the Giants' Armando Benitez (four saves, torn right hamstring), the Cardinals' Jason Isringhausen (seven saves, strained abdominal muscle) and the Marlins' Guillermo Mota (two saves, inflammation in right elbow). They joined Eric Gagne of the Dodgers (right elbow sprain), Joe Borowski of the Cubs (fractured bone in his right wrist) and Greg Aquino of the Diamondbacks (nerve irritation near his right elbow) among the sidelined specialists.
With the Braves' John Smoltz, who had 154 saves in three-plus years as Atlanta's closer, back in the rotation this season, and with Rivera, Hoffman, Foulke and Percival all struggling, the art of closing appears to be in decline.
"Maybe it's coincidence, but who knows?" says Tigers pitching coach Bob Cluck. "Maybe we just have an aging group of closers. After all, why are [the Red Sox' Curt] Schilling and [the Mets' Tom] Glavine and other older [starters] having trouble? We have an aging group of star pitchers in baseball."
Despite injuries and slumps, however, bullpens are performing only slightly worse this year than they did last season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, teams converted 64.3% of their save chances in April, down from 66.8% in April 2004. The overall bullpen ERA dropped from 4.15 last year to 4.13.
Except for the truly great ones, closers, like field goal kickers, are eminently replaceable. For instance, when St. Louis won three games after Isringhausen was hurt, a different reliever picked up the save in each case: Randy Flores, Julian Tavarez and Al Reyes. Isringhausen is expected to return shortly after the mandatory 15-day stay on the DL.
Moreover, even though Benitez is expected to be lost for at least four months, San Francisco intends to let Jeff Fassero, Jim Brower and Matt Herges take a crack at the closer's job. The trade market, with little activity this early in the season, may eventually include closers such as the Athletics' Octavio Dotel, the Devil Rays' Danys Baez and the Tigers' Ugueth Urbina, but as one American League scout says, "Teams will want a ransom for guys like that. That's why Urbina wasn't traded last year."
So don't be surprised if teams make do with what they have in their pens until their closers get healthy. "It may sound crazy, but [closer] might be the most overrated important position on a team," Colletti said. "Don't get me wrong, you need a closer. But you never know where you might find one. And you don't know until you give somebody a shot."