Monday, April 12, 2010

Closer Dilemma?

It appears that a certain AL Central team might be looking for a new closer if a recent run of struggles continues much longer - just not the one that everyone was talking about a couple weeks ago. No, we're talking about the Indians who are waiting for regular closer Kerry Wood to return from a strained shoulder. I'm not going to say the Indians are going to make a change, or that at this point they're even considering it, but I love to play, 'the what-if game.'

Acquired last year in the trade of Mark DeRosa, Chris Perez has stepped into the closer's role in Woods' stead. He was the pitcher who many expected would take over as the long-term answer at closer for the Indians once Wood departed. Perez, who has always battled with command issues has phenomenal swing-and-miss stuff, striking out 10.74 batters per nine innings last season while walking 4.26.

In some ways, I actually looked at the injury to Wood as a fantastic opportunity for Perez to audition for the job a bit early. If he could take the job and run with it as everyone in the Cleveland organization was hoping he would, it would give them the leeway to dangle Wood on the trade market to a contender with concerns at the back-end. This would further enable the team to continue to build on it's young core and augment the rebuilding process while shedding some late-season payroll.

However, with Perez having collapsed in a huge way on Sunday, and again today, that may be in doubt. In Sunday's loss to the Tigers Perez came into the game with a two run lead and two outs in the eighth. Perez escaped the eighth, barely, allowing a single and a deep liner to center that was caught for the third out. Perez' ninth inning went like this:

Raburn: Groundout
Ordonez: Single
Cabrera: Walk
Guillen: Line drive double deep down the RF line, Ordonez scores, 8-7 Indians.
Inge: Groundout
Santiago: Walk
PH Damon: Bases loaded, four pitch walk, game tied at 8.
Sizemore: First pitch wild pitch. Ball game.

Then this evening, with the Indians in a 2-2 game, Perez took over for starter Fausto Carmona who pitched 8 brilliant innings - we'll get to that in a another post - and couldn't record an out, giving up a single and a walk before being lifted for Tony Sipp.

The problem for the Indians is where would they go from Perez? Internally, the options aren't fantastic. Jensen Lewis can miss bats, but gives up a ton of home runs. Rafael Perez doesn't have prototypical closer velocity and had control issues in 2009 but had a great season in 2008. Sipp is mostly a lefty specialist.

That leaves Joe Smith. No, not that Joe Smith... This Smith came to the Indians as part of a huge twelve player, three team deal back in 2008 and was a steady force in the bullpen during the 2009 season. Like most of Cleveland's relief corps he's not going to blow you away with his fastball, but he has solid command, and he misses enough bats to be able to get key strikeouts. What Smith does do well - as well as almost any pitcher in the game - is induce huge amounts of ground balls.

Basically, if the Indians were to make the decision that they wanted to go in another direction with the closers role, at least until Wood returns, Smith should be able to keep the ball in the park, limit the walks, and generally give his defense the chances Perez hasn't the past two games. No, Smith isn't the prototype, but neither is Jon Rauch in Minnesota and so far he's done just fine too.

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