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Closers a worry for major league clubs

Jon Paul Morosi on baseball's biggest surprises.
Jon Paul Morosi on baseball's biggest surprises.
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Jon Paul Morosi

Jon Paul Morosi is a National MLB Writer for FOXSports.com. He previously covered baseball for the Detroit Free Press and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He began his journalism career at the Bay City Times in his native Michigan. Follow him on Twitter.

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Nine closers made it to the All-Star Game last year.

Four of them aren’t closing right now.

Mariano Rivera and Brian Wilson are on the disabled list with season-ending injuries. Jordan Walden (Angels) and Heath Bell (Marlins) have been demoted after floundering for teams with World Series expectations.

Jose Valverde was arguably the best closer in baseball last year, going 52-for-52 in save situations, including the postseason. Now he’s becoming a concern for the inconsistent Tigers. Valverde’s walks are up, his strikeouts are down, and he’s blown two save opportunities to go with a 5.68 ERA.

Valverde still has his job, but the sport is in the throes of a full-blown closer crisis. Bullpen reshufflings have become as common as NBA substitution buzzers. Santiago Casilla, Addison Reed and Livan Hernandez all saved games on Saturday. If you can name each of their teams, then we are grateful to you for regularly checking boxscores at FOXSports.com.

For those who really want to impress their friends at work: Mention offhand that you always thought Steve Cishek, Rafael Dolis and Andrew Cashner had closer stuff. At present, they have (unofficially) assumed ninth-inning duties for the Marlins, Cubs and Padres, respectively. But you knew that already, right?

As if the previous carnage wasn't bad enough, it continued over the weekend. Scott Downs, who seized the Angels’ job after Walden struggled, left Sunday’s game with an apparent left leg injury. A long-term injury to Downs — who hasn’t allowed a run this year — certainly would squelch the optimism surrounding Home Run No. 1 for Albert Pujols.

The first weeks of the season usually are the most trying for relief pitchers. Across the major leagues since 2002, the March/April save percentage has been lowest of any month, according to STATS LLC. So maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised at the early ineffectiveness of Bell, Valverde and others.

Yet, the widespread ninth-inning havoc suggests a dominant storyline of 2012 might be the contrast of teams that can trust their closers and those that can’t.

Some early observations on the late innings:

STEP 1: FIND A CLOSER. STEP 2: SURPRISE

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As of Monday morning, Jim Johnson (Orioles) and Henry Rodriguez (Nationals) were closing for the leaders of the respective East divisions.

Who expected that when the season began?

The Orioles’ bullpen is one of the biggest reasons why they are beginning the week with the best record in baseball. Johnson is 8 for 8 in save opportunities and hasn’t allowed a run in 12-2/3 innings. Two other Baltimore relievers — Matt Lindstrom and Luis Ayala — still have 0.00 ERAs after at least 13 innings this year.

Chris Davis has added his name to the list of Orioles relievers who have not been scored upon this year. He’s the first baseman/designated hitter who earned the victory — with two serendipitous innings — in Sunday’s 17-inning test of wills at Fenway Park. (He should be available again in a few days, right?)

Meanwhile, the Nationals’ closer (Drew Storen) and sous-closer (Brad Lidge) are on the disabled list. Storen had a bone chip removed from his right elbow and likely won’t be back until the middle or end of July. Rodriguez, 6 for 7 in save chances, has been integral in Washington’s storybook first half.

The Tampa Bay Rays, second only to Baltimore in the AL (hard to believe I typed those words), have a similarly unheralded closer: Fernando Rodney, who ranks second in the league with nine saves. Rodney was a wise buy-low for Tampa Bay after two unspectacular seasons with the Angels — who, by the way, have been searching for late-inning help. He’s subbing for the oft-injured Kyle Farnsworth, who saved 25 games for the Rays last year but has yet to pitch in 2012.

REPLACING A LEGEND — FOR NOW

As strange as this might sound, the Yankees should be fine in the ninth without Rivera. David Robertson doesn’t have Rivera’s decade and a half of dominance, but his stuff is imposing on its own. Robertson has yet to allow a run in 12 innings and has struck out the past eight batters he has faced.

The Yankees haven’t faced a ninth-inning save opportunity since Rivera’s injury. But if they have a concern, it’s the relievers who will take on expanded roles ahead of Robertson.

Meanwhile, Rivera’s injury and desire to return in 2013 will set the stage for an intriguing offseason. What if Robertson, 27, is dominant for the remainder of the season, showing that he’s ready to be a full-time closer? Under normal circumstances, a 43-year-old would be sent on his way. But Rivera is not a “normal” pitcher, nor are the Yankees a “normal” organization.

Rivera is making $15 million this season. Can the Yankees really expect the greatest closer of all time to take much of a pay cut? Derek Jeter’s salary (in average annual value) went down only 10 percent in his current contract — which is universally regarded as above market. That would equate to a $13.5 million salary for Rivera in 2013.

VALVERDE: PERFECT NO MORE

The Tigers don’t want to be reminded of what happened the last time an All-Star closer remained perfect into October.

Lidge went 41-for-41 for the Phillies during the 2008 regular season and 7-for-7 that October. He wasn’t quite the same one year later: 0-8, 7.21 ERA, 11 blown saves.

Valverde blew his second save of this season Saturday, when he surrendered a colossal Adam Dunn home run that physicists say will land in Canada sometime this week. He displayed curious pitch selection during the outing: eight consecutive fastballs, followed by six consecutive splitters.

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“He’ll be fine,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland insisted Sunday, after Valverde allowed the tying run to reach base before closing out a 3-1 win over the White Sox. “It’s a combination: He’s struggling a little bit, and expectations are so high on him because we’re spoiled after last year. We knew going into the season he wasn’t going to be 49-for-49.

“(Closers) are so important. That’s why they get paid a lot. People don’t realize what a value it is when you’ve got a guy who can get outs 25, 26 and 27. A lot of good pitchers — in both leagues — can’t get 25, 26 and 27. They might get you up to the point and make it look easy. But there are a lot of good pitchers who can’t get those last three.”

GENTLEMEN, START YOUR SCOUTING REPORTS

Teams in need of bullpen help can take solace in knowing there should be an ample supply of available arms leading up to the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.

It’s too early to know exactly which relievers will be available, but it will be a surprise if the Astros, Mariners, A’s, Royals and Twins are in contention at midseason. As such, expect the names of Brett Myers, Brandon League, Grant Balfour, Jonathan Broxton and Matt Capps — the current closers of those clubs — to be in play a couple of months from now.

Myers, in particular, has been remarkably effective (0.577 WHIP) for the Astros. League has proved he can succeed in the AL, which should boost his trade value.

Tagged: Orioles, Angels, White Sox, Tigers, Twins, Yankees, Mariners, Astros, Nationals, Marlins, Rays, Mariano Rivera, Jose Valverde, Brandon League, Jim Johnson, David Robertson, Drew Storen

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