Cue dramatic music.
But there is a looming question as Spring Training comes closer and closer. Who is going to finish games for the Boston Red Sox this season?
The Red Sox seem hell-bent on keeping Papelbon in the rotation, which probably means that they feel strongly that him playing as a reliever would be very detrimental to his arm health. But the red Sox failed to sign any proven closer over the off-season. There were few available, and those that were out there were quite expensive and/or coming off of injuries and/or not really all that special.
Mike Timlin boasts the most closing experience and the best resume for the job. He's finished a total of 422 regular season games in his career and has 139 Saves, including 9 last season and 25 as a member of the Red Sox. However, the soon to be 41 year old righty is starting to show signs of wear and tear. Last season, he seemed to slowly be degraded as more and more innings were piled onto that very experienced right arm of his. Counting the playoffs, Timlin has thrown 1,142 Major League innings, in 999 appearances. Over the past 4 years, he's made 297 regular season appearances. This is quite a lot of pitching for someone in his late 30's and early 40's. I think that in order to keep Timlin truly effective this season, he should be limited to somewhere around 40 appearances AT THE MOST. We need a dependable and experienced guy like him to be healthy for the playoffs. A closer for the Sox will probably need to make at least 50 appearances and will have to be called on multiple times to pitch more than 1 inning and more than two games in a row. So although Timlin probably could close, in order to keep him healthy, I think it would be unwise to make him close.
Craig Hansen seems like the next most sensible option to close games for the Sox. He was pretty much drafted as a closer out of St. John's, where he recorded 25 Saves. He's got the potential for devastating "closer stuff" with a very fast fast ball and a mean slider. Last year was a good year in the minors for Craig with a 0.82 ERA in 11 innings at AA Portland, and a 2.75 ERA in 36 innings at AAA Pawtucket. But his performance in the Majors was hardly impressive. His 6.63 ERA and 1.61 WHIP were the numerical signs of a pitcher who essentially featured one pitch and was beaten consistently by Major League hitting. Hansen should begin the season as a reliever in AAA Pawtucket. And if he does well, he might be the closer by the end of the season. But it might be too risky, particularly for his confidence, to start him off in the Majors in '07 and as a closer.
Mann Delcarmen is in a similar situation to Hansen, but perhaps a little bit further along the developmental road. Very good minor league numbers last year, coupled with unimpressive MLB numbers. He seems to be coming along nicely though and will probably begin the season with the big club, and not Pawtucket. But his lack of consistency and reliability jeopardizes him as a closer. A good closer is someone who will be very good for that final inning at least 4 times out of 5. Delcarmen was not truly capable of this last season. Also, when he struggled, he was very hittable. In other words, he wasn't able to pitch extremely cleverly and get away with a bad outing. This is another thing a good closer will do quite frequently.
Brendan Donnelly is another possible option for closer. Although he only has 4 career saves under his belt, he has shown a proficiency for pitching late in games and in big situations. He's got 74 career Holds and has expressed a willingness to finish games. However, last season was not his best, he had a slightly better than average 3.94 ERA. He does tend to do very well against right-handed hitters, who were held to just hitting .204 off him last season. And he does fairly well against lefties, too. He is definitely a viable option as a closer. Although, he is not a sure thing by any stretch of the imagination.
Julian Tavarez demonstrated a good deal of versatility last season as he pitched nearly 100 innings. He was sometimes a starter and sometimes a reliever. He probably won't break into the Sox rotation in 2007 barring an unforeseen calamity or decision. Even if either Schilling, Wakefield, Papelbon, Beckett, or Matsuzaka were injured or moved to the bullpen, we still have Lester waiting in the wings. So it's pretty clear that Tavarez, at least for now, will be coming out of the bullpen. Julian does have a nice resume for relieving. He was 11 for 14 in save opportunities with Pittsburgh in 2003 and has scattered 22 saves over his career. He also has 83 Holds since 1999, including a very nice 32 Holds in 2005 with St. Louis. So he's definitely capable of pitching late in the game. He could be an option for closer because of this.
Javier Lopez was a bit of a steal for the Red Sox last season as he had a nice 2.27 ERA, albeit in 16.2 IP. He was 1 for 1 in Save opportunities in '06, and had 6 Holds, bringing his career total to 39. However, this is not a very large sample to draw from, and his career ERA of 5.66 is troublesome. Then again, this was mostly from time spent in Colorado. One very nice thing for Lopez last season was that he did pitch a decent amount against right-handed hitting and did fairly well, holding righties to .204. He is a contender for the job.
Other possibilities include Hideki Okajima, who will probably be featured more as a left-handed specialist; JC Romero, who has probably already seen his best days; and Davern Hansack, who has 10 career MLB innings all of which came at the end of last season.
In my honest opinion, closer by committee would theoretically work with this group. None of them is clear-cut above the others to be the next closer, but all of them seem capable of doing the job. Let's say Timlin was the primary closer, but was not to be used too frequently, with Donnely as a secondary option and Lopez brought in to finish games against left-handed threats. I think it would work, but only in theory. The problem is, ballplayers are creatures of habit, understandably so. They like knowing what they will be asked to do before they are asked to do it. Relievers seem to like knowing what their particular role will be in a game and have those roles be the same day in and day out.
Therefore, I think Brendan Donnely will begin the 2007 season as our closer, with Timlin featured as a set-up man, along with Tavarez. Okajima pitching to lefties, Delcarmen being a middle man, and Piniero being a long reliever. But I do also think this situation will be very fluid, with Hansen being in Pawtucket, Delcarmen another year further along, and other large question marks which will be developing answers throughout the season. I think by the All-Star break, we will have a solidified idea of what our bullpen looks like.