Sunday, July 23, 2006

Getting Closer and Closer

The Cubs need a closer. Ryan Dempster did a fine job in 2005, but I think just about everyone was waiting for things to fall apart. And to no ones surprise, things have fallen apart this year. Through July 20, Dempster has saved 16 games in 21 opportunities, has a 1-5 W/L record and a 4.43 ERA.

Of course, Dempster doesn’t deserve 100% of the blame. First, he’s not a closer; he’s one of Hendry’s projects. And second, he doesn’t pitch often enough to really get into a rhythm. The Cubs are rarely leading games in the 9th inning, so Dempster doesn’t see all that much action.

Dempster is not the guy the Cubs need closing games. They need a proven closer that can step in and get the job done without question and without fear that they will turn into another project gone awry. Here are some guys that could fit the bill:

Takashi Saito (LA Dodgers) – Right/Left, Age 36. Saito was signed in 2006. There is no information concerning the length or value of his contract. As of 7/18, Saito is 8/8 in save opportunities with the Dodgers. He has a 3-2 record with a 2.15 ERA. Discussion: Saito took over the closer role with the Dodgers after Eric Gagne went down to injury. If Gagne comes back in 2007 (which could be in doubt), Saito could be expendable. He’s old (for a ball player), but he’s still getting the job done.

Francisco Rodriguez (LAA Angels) – Right/Right, Age 24. Rodriguez is signed through 2006 and is arbitration eligible at the end of the season. He currently earns $3.775 million per year plus incentives. As of 7/22, Rodriguez has saved 24 out of 26 save opportunities. He is 0-2 with a 2.72 ERA. Discussion: I don’t know why the Angels would give up Rodriguez, but he would look good in Cubbie blue. He’s young, talented, and he gets the job done. What’s not to like about Rodriguez?

Brad Lidge (Houston Astros) – Right/Right, Age 29. Lidge is signed through 2006 and will be arbitration eligible at the end of the season. He currently earns $3.975 million per year. Lidge has converted 22 saves in 26 opportunities through 7/19/06. He has a 0-3 record with a 5.60 ERA. Discussion: Lidge is an interesting case. He is a proven closer who is struggling mightily in 2006. Reports out of Houston are that Astros GM Tim Purpura has given up on Lidge and may be willing to move him. Rumors also suggest that if Houston does not make the playoffs in 2007, they may start dumping salary and retooling in 2007. Lidge could be the answer to the Cubs closer woes, but he would be somewhat of a project. He’s proven himself in the past, but needs some help to get back to his past performance.

Dan Kolb (Milwaukee Brewers) – Right/Right, Age 31. Kolb is signed through the 2006 season and will become a free agent at the end of the season. He currently earns $2 million per year. As of 7/17/06, Kolb is 0/2 in save opportunities. He has a 2-2 record and a 5.87 ERA. Discussion: Once upon a time, Dan Kolb was a closer. Between 2003 and 2004, Kolb had 60 saves in 67 opportunities for the Brewers. In 2005, as a closer for the Braves, Kolb had 11 saves in 18 opportunities. The feeling after the 2005 season was that Kolb might add to the Brewers bullpen, but he wouldn’t be the closer. So could he be the Cubs closer in 2007? I don’t think so. Kolb’s days as a closer are probably over…or are they?

Jorge Julio (Arizona Diamondbacks) – Right/Right, Age 27. Julio is signed through 2006 and will become arbitration eligible at the end of the season. He currently earns $2.525 million per year. Through 7/22/06, Julio has 12 saves in 13 opportunities. He has a 1-3 record with an ERA of 3.15. Discussion: Julio is neither one of the best nor one of the worst closers in the game. He wouldn’t be my choice, but I’m afraid he’s the kind of guy that Jim Hendry would go after. He doesn’t have much of an upside, but he also is a fairly safe bet. He’d be an upgrade, but not by much.

J.J. Putz (Seattle Mariners) – Right/Right, Age 29. Putz is signed through 2006 and will become arbitration eligible at the end of the season. He currently earns $415,000 year. As of 7/22/06, Putz has 19 saves in 22 opportunities, a 1-0 record and a 2.33 ERA. Discussion: Putz is really kind of a sleeper. He is having a decent year, but is flying under the radar. Given the opportunity, Putz would be a nice addition to the Cubs. He appears solid, if not spectacular.

Troy Percival (Detroit Tigers) – Right/Right, age 36. Percival is signed through 2006 and will become a FA at the end of the year. He currently earns $6 million per year and is on the 60 day DL. He has not pitched in 2006. Discussion: Percival was scheduled to be the closer for Detroit before he became injured. He has 324 career saves (mostly with LAA Angels), a 30-41 record and 3.10 ERA. Of course the question is, can he still get the job done? Depending on the status of his injury, Percival could turn into another project for the Cubs.

Keith Foulke (Boston Red Sox) – Right/Right, Age 33. Foulke is signed through the end of the 2006 season, although there is an option for 2007. He currently earns $7.25 million per year. Foulke can exercise the option for $3.75 million per year or Boston can exercise the option for $7.5 million ($1.5 million buyout). Through 6/11/06, Foulke has no saves, no save opportunities, and a 2-1 record with a 5.63 ERA. He is currently on the 15 day DL. Discussion: Here’s another potential project. Foulke was once one of the top closers in the game. In his career, he has 190 saves. If he could regain his past glory, Foulke could be a tremendous acquisition. If not, he would be a drag on the bullpen.

Eric Gagne (LA Dodgers) – Right/Right, Age 30. Gagne is signed through the 2006 season with a club option for 2007. He currently earns $10 million per year. He will earn $12 million in 2007 if the Dodgers pick up his option ($1 million buyout). Gagne also has the option of voiding the 2007 option. In 2006, Gagne has 1 save in 1 opportunity. He has been out most of the year with an injury. Throughout his career, Gagne has an impressive 161 saves in 167 opportunities. Discussion: Rumors have it that Gagne was a steroid user and that the Dodgers may not pick up his option even if he is healthy in 2007. This could be an opportunity for the Cubs to pick up a top shelf closer, although he too could be a bit of a project.

Bob Wickman (Atlanta Braves) – Right/Right, Age 37. Wickman is signed through the 2006 season. He will be a FA at the end of the year. He currently earns $5 million per year. Through 7/19/06, Wickman has 15 saves in 18 opportunities, a 1-4 record and a 4.18 ERA with Cleveland and Atlanta. Discussion: Wickman is up in the years, but it’s hard to argue with his performance. And there’s no doubt that he would be an upgrade for the club. Not my first choice, but maybe Wickman would be a good choice for the Cubs.

John Smoltz (Atlanta Braves) -- Right/Right, Age 39. Smoltz is signed through 2006 with a club option for 2007. He currently earns $8 million per year and will make $8 million if the Barves pick up his option. As of 7/21/06, Smoltz is 7-5 with a 3.43 ERA. He is a starting pitcher at the moment, but during the 2003 and 2004 seasons he was one of the best closers in all of baseball. He had 89 saves in 98 opportunities. Discussion: John Smoltz was a great reliever once upon a time. He is currently 39 years old, but he is still one of the best starting pitchers in the game. Why not sign Smoltz as a FA? If he's willing to close, he could be worth every penny the Cubs pay him. If he wants to be a starter, his price may be too high for what he will likely bring to the team.

Discussion: There are no clear cut winners in this group. Francisco Rodriguez might be the best of the bunch, but it’s doubtful that the Angels would part company with him. Eric Gagne is an interesting possibility. If he recovers fully from his injury, and if the Dodgers decide not to pick up his option, Gagne could be the top closer available. Troy Percival is another guy that the Cubs will want to consider IF he comes back from his injury. Brad Lidge is a guy that could potentially be a steal, but how do you know who you’re going to get? The old Lidge or the new, underperforming Lidge? What about Smoltz? If he'll close, he may be the guy to go after.

As the GM, I choose:

1) Eric Gagne
2) Francisco Rodriguez
2a) John Smoltz
3) Troy Percival
3a) Takashi Saito
4) Brad Lidge

Probably more than any other position, choosing a closer is a crap shoot. There are lots of possibilities, and lots of risk. As a GM, you have to be bold and willing to take chances. Unfortunately, that is not Jim Hendry’s strong suit.


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