Premium closers can be found at a bargain
Teams having success filling important 'pen role from within
Alphabetically, David Aardsma ranks first in the entire catalog of all-time Major League players, but when it came to the pecking order of Seattle's bullpen heading into Spring Training 2009, he might as well have had the same last name as his general manager, Jack Zduriencik.
Aardsma was a first-round Draft pick of the Giants, made it to the Major Leagues in 2004 and since then had very little success while bouncing around to three other teams -- Cubs, White Sox and Red Sox -- before signing on with the Mariners last winter.
And now, after not recording a single big league save in his first four seasons, he's assumed the closer's role and dominated, notching 33 saves, posting an ERA of 2.19, and through Wednesday, striking out 72 batters in 61 2/3 innings.
He's also proving, to the tune of $419,000 for his one-year contract, that while good closers are hard to find, they don't have to be expensive.
"I got an opportunity, I'm healthy and I'm making the most of it," Aardsma said. "It could have been a number of other guys in here. I'm happy that it's me."
So is Seattle, and it's not the only clubs. More and more, teams are turning in-house for guys who can finish games without finishing a franchise's payroll.
In St. Louis, for example, 36-year-old former journeyman starter Ryan Franklin won the Cardinals' closing gig early this season and has taken off. Through Wednesday, the 2009 All-Star had a league-leading 36 saves in 38 opportunities and a 1.37 ERA for a first-place team, and he only cost $2.5 million this season.
Bargains in the bullpen
|A look at some teams that haven't broken the bank in order to find effective closers.|
Frank Francisco is enjoying similarly inexpensive success for the Texas Rangers. The big right-hander, who is making $1.615 million this year, has 22 saves and 46 strikeouts in 40 2/3 innings through Wednesday.
When it's time for him to move on, the Rangers will have phenom Neftali Feliz ready to take over for a few years at significantly less than Francisco's price tag.
And in Southern California, through Wednesday, Dodgers youngster Jonathan Broxton has 30 saves and an eye-popping 95 strikeouts in 63 1/3 innings for his $1.825 million, and San Diego Padres closer Heath Bell, he of the $1.255 million salary for 2009, has 33 saves, a 2.14 ERA and 62 punchouts in 54 2/3 innings.
When former setup man Bell signed a one-year deal to come back to the Padres and take over the closer's role from all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman, who departed to Milwaukee, general manager Kevin Towers had optimistic and telling things to say about Bell and baseball's increasingly popular theory regarding closers.
"I expect Heath to be no different in this role than he was last year," Towers said. "Look for him to be as successful in the closer's role. He's got the makeup. He has the confidence. He has closed before. He's a strike-thrower who has a plus breaking ball and no fear."
That's a valuable combination of skills, no matter what the cost.
And it's hard to argue with the approach, when Bell, Broxton, Francisco, Franklin, Aardsma and others are performing as well as or better than the huge names in closing situations from the 2008-09 free-agent bonanza, including Francisco Rodriguez, who got a three-year, $37 million deal from the Mets, Kerry Wood, who nailed a two-year, $20.5 million contract from the Indians, and Brian Fuentes, who signed on for two years and $17.5 million with the Angels.
"Certainly, economics are a big factor," A's general manager Billy Beane said. "And, really, it's not all that new when it comes to putting a bullpen together. Traditionally, that's never been where you pour a lot of your resources."
Beane's club, of course, is notorious for coming up with creative ways to conjure talent out of a perennially low payroll, and this year's A's are building the back end of their bullpen with those very precepts in place.
Submariner Brad Ziegler began the year as the closer, contracted flu symptoms and lost his job to rookie Andrew Bailey, a hard-throwing righty who made the All-Star team and was even recognized by President Obama.
"The thing that really helps in this organization is that from Spring Training on, you're told, 'Be ready, because you might be the one closing games,'" said Bailey, who has 21 saves, a 1.88 ERA and 76 strikeouts in 72 innings through Wednesday, to go along with a $400,000 salary.
"I never really thought it would be me, but I'm doing the job and having a lot of fun with it."
Bailey is a great example of the growing philosophy throughout baseball that the final three outs of a game could very well be found in your own backyard, but that's not to say it's easy, of course.
In fact, when the New York Yankees were busy winning the 1996 World Series for their first title in 18 years, one of the main reasons was their well-paid, big-name closer, John Wetteland, who saved all four wins in the Fall Classic.
But Wetteland was in his walk year in '96, and the Yankees had a starter-turned-setup man by the name of Mariano Rivera, who blossomed with a cutter to die for that led to 130 strikeouts in 107 2/3 innings and a 2.09 ERA.
Come November, New York was thanking Wetteland profusely as it watched him walk out the door to Texas, and Rivera was anointed its closer for 1997. That journey, of course, will eventually end in Cooperstown, N.Y.
"I could see the writing on the wall," said Wetteland, now Seattle's bullpen coach. "Mo was ready, and I had spent a good portion of my time helping him get ready, being a mentor for him, because I knew he had what it takes to be a closer.
"And that's the thing people might not realize. A good closer not only has to have the stuff, but he needs to have the mind-set that it takes to get it done in the ninth inning. Plenty of great setup guys just can't cut it when all the pressure's on. That's a rare commodity."
White Sox GM Ken Williams agrees, maybe because he's savvy enough to have claimed his two-time All-Star closer, Bobby Jenks, off waivers from the Angels in December 2004. Jenks was an injured starting-pitching prospect at the time, but the White Sox turned him into a closer and watched him lock down the 2005 World Series for them.
"I think it's very easy for anyone to sit there and say that there's one definite way or another to get a valuable piece to your club," Williams said. "But when you say something like that, it's a bunch of [baloney].
"The people who say good closers are easy to find are the ones lucky enough to have good closers."
Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.