- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
Major league managers sure seem to love their closers being old and experienced as opposed to being young and, well, good.
The past few weeks is a clear reminder of this, with recycled closers again being all the rage. A few weeks ago, the Detroit Tigers decided to bring back Jose Valverde, whose 277 career saves are bested by only three active pitchers. Those three are Mariano Rivera, Joe Nathan and Francisco Rodriguez, who himself finally found work Wednesday when the Milwaukee Brewers thought giving him a minor league deal was a good idea. Then there are the noncontending Chicago Cubs and their messy closer situation. Who could solve that mess? Suuuuuuure, let's see what retread right-hander Kevin Gregg can do! Hey, he does have 144 career saves, right? What could go wrong?
Look around baseball and you won't find many young closers being given opportunities, because managers usually seem to choose the pitchers who have done it before. Of course, at some point a pitcher needs to get that first chance to "do it before," but there's a reason the likes of Bruce Rondon, Heath Hembree, Phillippe Aumont, A.J. Ramos, Rex Brothers, Carter Capps and Tanner Scheppers won't get that chance anytime soon, and it's because the old guys rule. It's the third week of the season, and already Valverde, Rodriguez and Gregg are back in play. Hard to believe!
I've written and spoken far too much about Valverde already, though I'll remind you that I still predict he gets the call within the next two weeks and ultimately leads the Tigers in saves, so do with that information what you will. But let's talk Brewers: Struggling right-hander John Axford seems mighty buried in the seventh inning at this point, while right-hander Jim Henderson (30 years old) has a pair of wins and saves and has been scored on in only one outing. So why the need for K-Rod? He was hardly effective in 2012, but his contract dictates the organization has 30 days to call him up or he could ruin another team's bullpen and clubhouse chemistry.
I saw from the safety of my sofa Rodriguez pitch in the World Baseball Classic last month, and he certainly didn't look special. He's not! He hasn't been for years! But he owns 294 career saves, so as with Valverde, whether he's a good pitcher anymore is kind of irrelevant.
With closers, it's all about opportunity; Rodriguez was OK in 2010, and even in his record-breaking 2008, when he saved 62 games and nearly won Cy Young Award honors (finishing third), he was barely a top-10 American League reliever using Wins Above Replacement. Still, here he is. While I maintain some hope Axford regains the role with Milwaukee, the fact is if Henderson keeps pitching well, he'll likely keep the job. I've changed my mind on this and believe Henderson saves 25 games, Axford fewer than 10 and Rodriguez opts out of his contract in mid-May and joins either the Astros or Vladimir Guerrero's Long Island Ducks in the (independent) Atlantic League.
With the Cubs, I expect manager Dale Sveum to change his story on a nearly daily basis, and so far he hasn't disappointed. One day Carlos Marmol is safe, then he's banished to the seventh inning, far from committee consideration, then he's back in play, then the team thinks pinata Gregg can help them after he was cut by the Los Angeles Dodgers two weeks ago. Gregg was on the Baltimore Orioles last season, and let's just say the overachieving of his fellow bullpen mates didn't rub off on him. Gregg's two-year ERA and WHIP with Baltimore was 4.62 and 1.66, respectively. If I'm running the Cubs, I'd let a youngster get a chance to pitch rather than Gregg and fellow retread Kameron Loe, punted by the Seattle Mariners a week ago. So who closes in Chicago?
I maintain that Marmol will save more than 15 games in 2013. While it won't be pretty, it's inevitable. Kyuji Fujikawa is on the disabled list, and I'm not assuming he's back this month. I assumed in mid-March that Jason Motte would be fine because the St. Louis Cardinals told us so. He won't be fine, not until April 2014. Right-hander Shawn Camp boasts a career 4.38 ERA and has a 2.79 WHIP this season. Veteran James Russell has done nothing wrong, allowing one hit and zero walks in 4 1/3 scoreless innings, but Sveum claims -- and this could change, of course -- that as the lone lefty in the bullpen he can't close. It's probably going to be Gregg closing in the next week. That's simply amazing. But when he messes it up, Marmol will get another chance. Hmm, I think I'm going to just avoid all Cubs relievers this season.
Bullpen notes: Don't be surprised if Boston Red Sox right-hander Andrew Bailey keeps the closer job even when Joel Hanrahan comes off the DL. Hanrahan's hamstring ailment will heal; his control is another issue. Of course, Bailey won't stay healthy either, and I see both gentlemen saving 15-20 games. ... I love when announcers cite Jim Johnson's fine start as proof that his 2012 wasn't a fluke. It's seven innings. That said, I don't see why he can't save 40 games, albeit with higher peripherals than last season. ... Don't look at Greg Holland's season numbers; they mean little. Setup man Kelvin Herrera was cruising along until he allowed three home runs in an inning this week, probably ending the Royals' multicloser situation for now. Holland got safer. ... I think it's 50-50 that Edward Mujica gets the next Cardinals save. Mitchell Boggs remains in play as well. Sadly, Trevor Rosenthal doesn't appear close to closing, though I think he would be terrific in the role. Own his skills, and hope for the role. ... Those in deeper formats should look into San Diego Padres right-handers Dale Thayer and Luke Gregerson. Flip a coin on who gets chosen to close (probably Thayer, like in 2012) when Huston Street succumbs to another DL stint. Street has already allowed three home runs, his velocity is down again, and he's throwing many more changeups, which can be a problem without an effective heater.