Firemen Falling Fast
Land lines are ringing, cell phones are singing, e-mail boxes are full! Can you smell it? The delectable aroma of the Winter Meetings is wafting towards us. Monday, is the first official day of the grand pow-wow in Dallas and with another bottle of beer falling off the wall seemingly every other day, one of the main questions for general managers (GMs) is, will there be any closers left on the market by then? While front offices all around the league continue to engage in chess matches, poker faces are starting to crack and the game of the week is Dominoes. Over the past seven days we have seen four firemen vanish from the "available" list. The Mets’ signing of Billy Wagner and the Jays’ signing of B.J. Ryan has established the top end of the closer market. On the heels of those two mega-deals, the Yankees pounced on Kyle Farnsworth after the Phillies pursuaded Tom Gordon to leave the Big Apple for Cheesesteak Land. That leaves four teams in dire need of an end-game solution and only three established firemen to choose from.
The Atlanta Braves, the Cleveland Indians, the Baltimore Orioles and the San Diego Padres are playing the part of the Missing Closers Bureau. Trevor Hoffman, Todd Jones and Bob Wickman are the last three solid closer options available and all of them are now overvalued. The options after those three are not particularly appetizing—Jose Mesa’s days as a closer are near the end and he seems to have crossed into Uggie Urbina territory, a set-up man who is still considered a closer only because of past deeds. Speaking of Ugueth Urbina, he is available again but there is a reason for that. His perennial free-agent status speaks volumes about his reliability. Being charged with attempted murder doesn’t help his marketability. Braden Looper can be had, but as any Mets’ fan can tell you, he’s only a closer because of attrition. No, the closer market is rail thin and extremely expensive. Small market teams like the Pirates, Reds and Royals will most likely fill their closer role from within because of the sky rocketing prices. Making matters more dire is the great lack of set-up men on the market. The Yankees have already given Farnsworth almost $18 million to set-up for Mariano. A lot of teams who missed out on him might fill their set-up roles with the remaining closers. The Rangers, Tigers, Mariners, Cardinals, Rockies, Red Sox and Giants are all looking for substantial set-up options and will compete with the Missing Closers Bureau for their services. Let’s take a look now at the possible destinations of the remaining firemen and where some teams might place down the stretch in the 2006 Closer Derby.
Hoffman is by far the best of the remaining fireman. Tough he is 38 years old, Trevor has shown no signs of diminishing skills (thanks to the best changeup in baseball). He actually tied his career high for saves (43) last year and has saved over 40 games in five of his last six full seasons. San Diego has been virtually the only home Hoffman has known in his illustrious career, but it will be difficult for the Pads to hold onto him unless they add a third year to their latest offer. The Indians have been San Diego’s main competitor so far and GM Mark Shapiro has shown he wants to add veteran leadership to his young Tribes’ roster. The Atlanta Braves have also kept an eye on Hoffman and would probably intensify their interest if they fail to re-sign Rafael Furcal.
I think Shapiro knows how close his Indians are to winning the American League (AL) Central. He also knows that Trevor is not a power pitcher, so age shouldn’t be a deterrent. Then there is the extra allure of Hoffman’s pursuit to pass Lee Smith as the all-time saves leader (only 42 saves behind). Cleveland’s attendance figures would spike as Hoffman approaches the record. So, I predict Shapiro outbids San Diego in a move that could make the Cleveland Indians the favorites in their division.
Last season Jones revisited his Detroit days and was one of the top closers in baseball. Though he saved 40 games, many teams are looking at him for a set-up role. The Tigers, Rangers and Cardinals have shown the most interest and all have established closers. The Orioles, Reds, Braves, Yankees and Indians have also inquired about his services. So, the chances of Jones closing next year are about 60/40. The problem with Jones is he doesn’t have a dominating pitch, he will be 38 years old when the season begins and until last season he hadn’t had an earned run average (ERA) under four since 2000. He is probably going to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the exploding closer market.
Tough call! He probably won’t sign until after Hoffman and he should have the spotlight on him at the Winter Meetings. I’m going to make the Braves the frontrunners here. Since I think they’ll miss out on Trevor, I’m guessing that GM John Schuerholz gets aggressive and makes sure the Atlanta Braves cover one of their biggest needs. The Cardinals are committed to upgrading their bullpen and have been in close contact with Jones’ agent, so don’t be surprised if they snag him to set-up for Jason Isringhausen. The Reds, Tigers and Orioles are also very much in play as destinations for Mr. Jones.
Just when you think the flame is going out on Wick, he reemerges. Wickman had his best season ever and led the AL with 45 saves in 2005 (tied with Francico Rodriquez). He is two years younger than Hoffman and Jones and has been one of the best ground ball specialists in the game for the past 13 seasons. Some teams are skeptical of Wickman’s health, but he is now over two years removed from Tommy John surgery and his elbow certainly held up well last season. There has been very little Wickman banter through the grapevine, but that should change in Dallas this week. The Indians are still interested in bringing him back, but their interest seems to wane with every new Hoffman rumor.
Other than some talks with the Indians, there is really very little insight into where Wickman could go. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Yankees turn nostalgic and make a go at him—they have shown a penchant for bringing relievers back before (Mike Stanton, Jeff Nelson…). The Cardinals should enter the fray, and Texas is seemingly interested in every reliever out there. But, my pick is that he signs with the Baltimore Orioles. This seems like a perfect fit. Wickman’s sinking fastball would help temper the threat of late-inning homeruns in the Baltimore bandbox, Camden Yards.
Jose Mesa, Ugueth Urbina, Braden Looper
Personally, I don’t think any of them will end up as a closer this season. Urbina has the most talent of the three and is still only 31 years old, but I doubt a team is willing to hand over the closer job to him until his legal problems are straightened out and by that time it might be too late. Mesa and Looper are two names that continually show up on the Rangers’ radar. Both will probably be signed as middle relievers and should be the last two of the potential closers to sign.
Someone will sign Urbina in the Spring if he is not convicted, but as of now it’s impossible to say who. I say the Rangers sign Mesa if they don’t get Jones. As for Looper, I’m just hoping Omar Minaya doesn’t bring him back to Flushing.
Top Free Agent Closers
W L SV ERA SO BB H IP
1. Trevor Hoffman (Padres 2005) 1 6 43 2.97 54 12 52 57.2
2. Todd Jones (Marlins 2005) 1 5 40 2.10 62 14 61 73.0
3. Bob Wickman (Indians 2005) 0 4 45 2.47 41 21 57 62.0
Carl the Cabbie