Listen for bullpen talk at Winter Meetings
The 2011 Winter Meetings are going to get underway on Dec. 5 in Dallas. If someone asked me what I thought would be the biggest topic of these Meetings, I probably wouldn't answer the way they would think -- that they will be all about Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. Yes, I believe their names will be mentioned. But, no, I don't think either one of those monster deals will be done before or during the Winter Meetings.
I think the biggest topic will be the closers who are available. When we look back at this past postseason, and how those games played out, the back end of the bullpen is where many, many games are decided. Teams are building their staffs now from the closer back. I thought in last year's postseason, there was a lot of over-managing when it came to the bullpens. But the guy who did it most, Tony La Russa, won the World Series. So it's hard to criticize him.
I believe that you need three innings a night out of your bullpen. It shouldn't be that way, but a quality start now is six innings and three runs or fewer given up. That is a 4.50 ERA. When I came up to the Majors, that kind of ERA got you sent back down.
There are quite a few closers on the market heading into these Winter Meetings, so I believe this will be the biggest focus.
With Boston losing Jonathan Papelbon to Philadelphia via free agency, the Red Sox are going to have to spend money on a closer. The problem with this will be the money.
The Phillies gave Papelbon $50 million over four years. There is not another closer out there who will garner that type of salary. Of all the guys who are listed as closers, there are really only four that I consider top-tier stoppers: Heath Bell, Ryan Madson, Francisco Cordero and Francisco Rodriguez. The rest of the list is made up of guys who can close, but a championship-caliber team won't want to go to Spring Training counting on them.
There is a new thought being thrown around that anyone can close. I'm here to tell you that is not the case. I have seen guys who could pitch in the seventh or eighth inning and do well. But you give them the ball in the ninth, where there is no safety net, and they would fold under that pressure. The successful closers are the ones who realize the pressure is not on them. It is on the hitter. As the closer, you already have the lead. So if you can get ahead in the count, you can expand the strike zone and make guys chase. That is why I believe Madson and Bell will be the two most talked-about closers at the Winter Meetings -- because they have the ability to close for a championship-caliber team. They both have swing-and-miss stuff.
We are seeing some teams try and trade for closers. We have seen Joe Nathan sign with the Rangers to allow Neftali Feliz to go into the rotation. But for teams that seek out a closer in free agency, the market is limited to those four. For example, I believe that Madson and Bell will be the only two closers that the Red Sox will consider. Neither comes without concerns, however. Bell's strikeouts were down last year, and his weight went up. Madson served as a full-time closer for the first time in his career and was 32 of 34 in save opportunities.
If you are a fan of hitters and are excited about where Prince and Albert are going to end up, I don't believe these Meetings will answer either of those questions. But if you like bullpen talk, then you will love these Meetings. If teams teams can't put together a bullpen that can hold leads, it makes no sense to spend more than $200 million on hitters.
Mitch Williams is an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.