If the Angels did one thing right this off-season, it was overhauling an uncharacteristically lousy bullpen. The relief corps is now stocked with a mix of reliable veterans and tantalizing young power arms, but will the unsettled closer's role make the winter makeover a whole lot of work for nothing?
Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the bullpen... FRAUDNEY!!!!!
Don't worry, this isn't another attempt to try and determine who should really be closing games for the Angels this year. I've said my bit about that more than enough already and rehashing it again isn't going to do any good. In fact, I'm not sure coming to any conclusions in this regard are going to help. Whatever route Mike Scioscia decides to go with at the end of games, be handing the job full-time to one player or sharing the job amongst many, it is going to be questioned and analyzed and second-guessed ad nauseum.
No, the question we should be asking ourselves isn't who will be closing games for the Halos this season, but whether or not any of the many alternatives available to Mike Scioscia will ever be good enough?
The reason that the Angel closer job is even up for grabs in the first place is that there is nobody on the roster with the talent and track record one expects from a lockdown closer. Maybe someone will step up at some point this season and prove they are the man for the job, but it is going to take some trial and error to get there. What that tells me is that, no matter who is doing the closing, the Angels are going to have at least one stretch of the season where we fans are going to be terrified of the ninth inning. For most teams, this would be real cause for concern, but thanks to the Brian Fuentes Experience over the last two seasons, this is a pretty familiar feeling for Angel fans. That doesn't mean it is a good feeling though.
Between Kevin Jepsen, Scott Downs, Fernando Rodney, Jordan Walden, Michael Kohn, Hisanori Takahashi, Jason Bulger and Rich Thompson, Mike Scioscia should be able to navigate the middle innings pretty effectively most of the season by mixing and matching his collection of arms to fit the situation. It may not be the most impressive relief corps Scioscia's Angels have ever assembled, but it is definitely a farsight better than last year's group. But it could all fall apart when those some relievers are asked to apply their craft to the fateful final inning of a close game.
I'm of the school of thinking that pitching in the ninth inning of a close game really shouldn't be any different than pitching in the seventh or eighth inning of the same close game, but I have also never attempted to do so. Just how different it a save situation is from a hold situation is definitely something worth debating, but that isn't a debate I want to hold right here and now, so let's just assume that the closer role came into existence for a reason and that not everyone is cut out for the job. This is a pretty good assumption for us to work with because I am 110% certain it is the assumption traditionalist manager Mike Scioscia will be operating under as he attempts to find his solution for the closing conundrum.
That is where things start to go bad for the Angels, figuring out who can handle the late-inning pressure. We already have a pretty good idea that Fernando Rodney has a hard time handling the pressure, but that isn't going to stop Scioscia from giving him a shot. After all, Fraudney has shown glimpses of being able to close. Back in 2009 he made good on all but one of his 38 save opportunities. On the other hand, he also blew four of the 12 save chances he got with the Angels after Brian Fuentes got traded last year. The jury is definitely still out, we just better hope that they return a verdict quickly. With the Angels in an increasingly competitive AL West, they can't afford to give Rodney, or any other reliever, that kind of audition without risking shooting the team in the foot.
Let's say Rodney goes 8 for 12 again to start the season. Then what? Hand the keys over to Scott Downs? He's never closed before and his stuff may not play well against big righty power bats. I imagine his audition would be a more abbreviated one, something like a 5 for 8 audition sounds perfectly plausible. Up next is Kevin Jepsen and his powerful but erratic arm. Give him ten chances but suppose he closes just seven of them. Is that good enough to stick with him or dare they see what lies behind door number four in the form of Jordan Walden? He has a blazing fastball, but also barely has any experience above Double-A, much less closing big league ballgames. He could easily blow half of his six save opportunities. Add them all together and you've got a "closer" that has shut the door a mere 23 saves out of 36 opportunities. That's 13 potential wins flushed down the drain, which is more than enough to dash any hopes of the Angels returning to the post-season.
I'd like to say that is a worst case scenario, but it seems a little too plausible for my liking. Maybe the Angels find a closer (or closers) earlier than that, but not before the team goes 14 for 21 on saves before figuring it out. That's seven blown games instead of 13, but even that seems like too much to stomach. The bottom line here is that Mike Scioscia needs to get this whole closer thing figured out and do it fast. Every second he wastes showing blind loyalty to veterans like Fernando Rodney or ignoring viable arms like that of Jordan Walden, simply because he hasn't "paid his dues" is time that will translate to blown saves in the regular season. It sucks to have to put so much stock into what players do during Spring Training, but I think that is exactly what this situation calls for.
If I were Scioscia, I'd call all the relievers (or at least Rodney, Downs, Jepsen and Walden) over and inform them that there is officially an open competition for closer for the rest of the spring. Then just let them go at it battle royal style in the Cactus League games. Whoever is left standing at the end gets the job. If it is one guy who proves he deserves it, the gig is all his. If more than one lays claim to the job, well, that's a problem the Angels can live with. If nobody stands out, well, then I think we are all going to be wishing the Angels had made a play for Rafael Soriano.