Most general managers understand the importance of the bullpen — and the need to invest in it. But what happens when the best-laid plan is thrown out of whack and a team must survive without its closer?
Closers get too much glory/blame, but, for the most part, a bullpen revolves around the big guy at the end. Losing him creates two potentially season-altering pitfalls. Other teams could learn from how Minnesota dealt with both after losing Joe Nathan for the season.
1. Indecision. A team’s unwillingness to give the ball to one pitcher in the ninth inning and call him the closer can be deadly. The closer-by-committee approach might be the only option for a bad or small-budget team, but a contender needs a stopper to take all the heat. Pick a replacement and stick with him.
Twins’ solution: Manager Ron Gardenhire anointed Jon Rauch the closer at the end of spring training, saw immediate dividends and avoided a committee mess.
2. A domino effect. With the closer out of the mix, the other relievers’ roles change. And teams get in trouble when players are asked to do more than they are capable of every night. When a seventh-inning guy must handle the eighth and an eighth-inning guy has to work the ninth, expectations and pressure levels change.
Twins’ solution: No reliever’s role was drastically altered—Rauch had previous closer experience—nor was starter Francisco Liriano’s progress halted by a transition to closer (a move that was explored).
Minnesota can’t truly replace Nathan, but because of how the team dealt with losing him, the pitching staff experienced limited turbulence and the team quickly established confidence in Rauch.
Todd Jones, a former major league closer, is a regular contributor to Sporting News.