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Searching For A Bullpen Ace
by alex ciepley
Somewhere, in some alternate universe, Troy Percival begins next year as the Cubs closer. His signature fresh on a 2 year, $13.5M contract, Percy is expected to be the final piece of the puzzle. Visions of 45-save seasons are dancing in Cubs fan's heads.
Later, in that same alternate universe, there are downcast faces at Wrigley Field. No one can understand why Percival has an ERA over 4.50. The long fly balls he gives up frequently land in the outfield baskets, a problem exacerbated by the guys clogging up the bases--the ones Percy keeps walking. Troy finds himself unable to muscle a pitch by a batter in key situations. These days, batters turn on his fastball.
Thankfully, this is an alternate universe, not the one we live in. Yesterday, Troy Percival inked a two-year deal with the Detroit Tigers for $12M, guaranteeing he won't be the Cubs closer on opening day 2005.
The Cubs still need to sort out who will finish games for them next year. The way I see it, there are three ways they can go about filling this role (and I've noticed with happiness my thoughts echo some found in yesterday's comments): 1) SIGN A RELIEVER
With Percival locked up, the options at the Quik E Mart include, among others:
That's Armando Benitez at the top of the list, followed by your tired, your poor, and your huddled masses.
I'm not crazy about Benitez, but I do think he's leagues ahead of the other guys on this list. Issues regarding his psyche are vastly overblown, and the only real downer is a slowly sliding K-rate. But he still whiffed eight batters per nine last year. He ain't warshed up yet.
Benitez would look fine in the Cubbie Cupboard next season, but he wouldn't come cheap. And after seeing Percival get drowned in gold coins despite signs he should get nickels and dimes, I'm afeared Armando's price will be too high to be a worthy expenditure.
2) TRADE FOR A RELIEVER
Some potential targets:
Ugueth Urbina, Tigers
With Percival in the 'pen, Ugie's on the block.
Urbina had an up-and-down year. His control was aflutter at times, and his ERA (4.50) was ugly for a closer. But that high mark is due mostly to a one-game implosion in May, when he gave up six earned runs in 1/3 of an inning. Take out that mini-massacre, and his season ERA drops a full run.
Urbina is owed $4M next year. Perhaps Detroit will pick up a touch of his salary, considering the risk inherent in acquiring Urbina (Ugueth's mother is still in the custody of kidnappers in Venezuela).
Danny Kolb, Brewers
His control is only marginally good, he can't strike out a little leaguer, but he's had two very good years in a row. Can Mr. Kolb's magic beans work another season?
Kolb doesn't dominate. He just makes you hit the ball into the ground, again and again. And again and again and again. His groundball/flyball ratio of 3.49 was the third highest in all of baseball among pitchers with significant playing time.
Kolb will likely make over $2M in arbitration this year, which might be too rich for the Brewcrew blood. Oh, those thrifty Wisconsinites.
Jorge Julio, Orioles
Julio plays on old MacDonald's farm, with a walk-walk here, and a bomb-bomb there. Here a walk, there a bomb, everywhere a walk, bomb...
Ee i ee i o.
Jorge does have youth and a nice heater on his side, so that's something. But if I were looking to steal an egg from the Oriole clutch, I'd go after B.J. Ryan. Actually, if there were one relief pitcher I'd target in all of baseball for acquisition, it might be B.J. Ryan.
Danny Baez, Devil Rays
That's Danys to you, buster. Baez is a pretty middle-of-the-road closer. Nothing special except his price tag, which ups to an extravagant $3.5M next year. Baez himself would be an uninspired get, but you can Huff and puff and blow him my way if a little Aubrey were included in a package deal.
Shawn Chacon, Rockies
It's bad enough to acquire someone just because they carry a Closer Card in their wallet, but it's worse to do so when someone has failed miserably in that role.
Shawn at Coors: 8.04 ERA, 28 walks and 28 strikeouts. Not good.
Shawn away from Coors: 6.19 ERA, 24 walks and 24 strikeouts. Just as bad.
Arthur Rhodes, A's
Oh, nevermind. He's 35 years old, injured, and expensive. Not my cup of tea.
3) PROMOTE A RELIEVER.
Octavio Dotel, then Brad Lidge. Eric Gagne. Franciscos Cordero and Rodriguez. Another Cordero, Chad. Danny Kolb, Dustin Hermanson, Shawn Chacon, and Eddie Guardado.
Closers are not born closers. They become closers, usually out of necessity. The Cubs have a few choices if they want to look internally:
The oldies: La Troy Hawkins, Ryan Dempster, and Kyle Farnsworth
The newbies: Jon Leicester, Todd Wellemeyer, and Michael Wuertz
All of them have questions. Hawkins is the best pitcher, but the ninth doesn't seem to suit him. Dempster may be wishcast into the role, but Cubs fans will likely be wishing for someone else when he's pitching.
Farnsworth, of course, is the most intelligent of the pitchers, but he... ha! I jest.
On the flipside, the new guys all have some questions to answer, some skills to develop, and some innings to get under their belt. Could one of them be the next Lidge? The next Cordero? The next Kolb?
The point isn't that there is a definite answer waiting for the Cubs on their current roster. It's that there are potential answers.
Past success doesn't guarantee future success.
Two years ago, the saves leaderboard featured luminaries Mike Williams, Billy Koch, Robb Nen, Kaz Sazaki, Byung-Hyun Kim, and Jose Jimenez.
Last year, the big men on campus included Tim Worrell, Rocky Biddle, Matt Mantei, and Joe Borowski.
Year after year, the evidence doesn't change. If you construct your bullpen solely by looking at the SV column on the backs of baseball cards, you're risking getting torched.
If the Cubs can sign or acquire an excellent reliever at an affordable price, they should. But if the "answers" on the market are really just question marks in disguise, the Cubs should see what they already have. A solution may just be born out of necessity.