As Marlin Jackson caught the Tom Brady pass and flung himself awkwardly onto the turf, I found myself experiencing a familiar feeling. I wasn’t heartbroken, I’m only a casual football fan and mostly watch it to fill the time in between baseball seasons. It was another, more pleasant feeling that come over me. For those of you who haven’t been keeping track, there are now only 26 days until Red Sox pitcher’s and catchers report to Spring Training. It hardly feels that way with winter finally arriving to most of the United States and Europe as well. In fact, I couldn’t have felt further from spring as I’ve been trudging through the snow to get from one end of campus to the other. The new semester is however labeled as Spring 2007. I’m even hoping to make my first ever trip down to Florida. My fellow students will be going to Canada or to enjoy it’s relaxed drinking age (they’re not going for the weather) or they’ll go south to a warm beach where they can forget that it’s winter. I’ll be heading south to watch meaningless exhibition games which are played mostly by minor leaguers. I couldn’t think of a better escape from the cold though, both mentally and physically.
The predominant issue of the impending spring is of course the opening we currently have for a closer. New Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell had this to say about the uncertainty around who will fill the role. “There’s a quality list of candidates to land that job. I’m sure at this time a year ago, nobody thought that Jonathan Papelbon was going to be that guy. I think the one thing that we have is viable candidates internally to nail down the closer’s position and have the rest of the bullpen fall in line, which ideally gives everyone some understanding of their role and confidence when they walk in the clubhouse every day.” I wouldn’t say that’s quite the situation. Last year we went into the season knowing that if Foulke couldn’t close we would have a backup in Papelbon. Jonathan Papelbon’s a pretty special pitcher too. I wouldn’t say we have any options with the team right now that could match Papelbon’s pure ability to pitch.
Assistant general manager Jed Hoyer also weighed in on the closer situation. He said, “You don’t have to have your postseason roster set in April. You can wait and feel things out during the course of the season, and that may be what has to happen, because you’re right – Spring Training is a tough time to evaluate that kind of thing.” We all hope that a clear candidate for the closer position emerges in Spring Training. Even if one does though, that’s no guarantee they will have continued success in the regular season. Here’s a look at the main players in the saga that is our search for a closer.
The role is Pineiro’s to lose. That being said, if he pitches anything like he has as a starter the past two years it won’t take long. I’m not shy about criticizing this deal. For $2 million more we could have had Eric Gagne as our closer. It is nice to have another option to attempt to be our closer next year though. Closing games is completely different from starting them so who knows how Pineiro could do. Epstein apparently relieved such a glowing scouting report on Pineiro that he was willing to pay $4 million for a player most considered to be useless. If he pitches similarly to how he did last year in relief (with an ERA under 4) he might just be good enough to keep the job.
If Pineiro can’t close, the next option the Red Sox would turn to would probably be either Devern Hansack or Julian Tavarez. If Hansack continues to show dominance over major league hitters in Spring Training, the Red Sox would probably prefer to hand him the job. He could be a similar closer to Jonathan Papelbon in that he has almost freakish control and has the ability to strike batters out. When Julian Tavarez was asked to fill an important role for the Red Sox last year, he did so surprisingly effectively. He had an ERA of 2.24 in 6 starts and was able to induce double plays almost at will. He definitely has the mentality to be a closer and he has the rubber arm as well.
Less likely options include Timlin, Donnelly and Hansen (at least for the first half or so of the season). Both Timlin and Donnelly have shown signs of declining in the past couple years. The Red Sox would also prefer to have them to setup whoever closes. Hansen, barring a spectacular Spring Training coupled with some real desperation by the Red Sox, will start the season in AAA. And that’s where he should remain for at least the first half of the season. If you let him get his proper time in, he could be a call up reminiscent of K-Rod in 2002. If however he is rushed for the 3rd season in a row, he’ll probably perform just as poorly as he has so far in the majors.
There will be other things to keep an eye an as well. Will Coco Crisp have a spring as successful as his last one now that he’s healthy? If he does maybe he could probably make it carry over into the regular season as he did in 2006 before he was injured. How Dustin Pedroia fairs against major league pitchers may also be something to keep an eye on. It’s probably more important whether he gets hot or not so he can start off next season with confidence. It will be hard to judge just how ready he is for the majors until the pitchers are actually ready for the season. Daisuke Matsuzaka’s ability to pitch against major leaguers may be hard to gauge. Pitchers take a while to get ready. He should be fun to watch though. It should also be fun to watch the speedy Lugo, a healthy Jonathan Papelbon and youngster Jacoby Ellsbury. It’s only a matter of weeks now. For the moment I’m enjoying the build up though. It’s fun to imagine Matsuzaka painting the outside corner with a mid-nineties fastball. I like imagining Fenway Park with people actually in it again. And the 2007 season has yet to have a single disappointment. Winter may be boring but it’s an optimist’s paradise.