When the Braves acquired Mike Gonzalez from Pittsburgh in January of last year, they were very excited about his ability to become the team's closer. An elbow injury in May of 2007 put that off a bit, but the Braves were finally able to see Gonzalez do the job this past season.
Gonzalez said all along that he would come back and would come back stronger than ever. And it didn't take long for Gonzo to claim a job that had been opened with the injuries to Rafael Soriano and Peter Moylan. The Braves needed a closer, and Gonzalez stepped in right away.
He seemed to struggle a bit in non-save situations and when there was just not as much pressure on him. Gonzalez allowed three home runs with no one on and no outs. Batters hit .323 to lead off the inning off Gonzalez. But in close and late situations (defined as results in the 7th inning or later with the batting team either ahead by one run, tied or with the potential tying run at least on deck) opponents hit only .210 against Gonzalez.
The lefty had a 2.53 ERA in the ten games before the All Star Break, but a 5.09 ERA in his 26 games after the break. Gonzalez had a weird month of September, losing three games and blowing two saves, but he did record seven saves.
Gonzalez did come back with a new windup, coiling up like a diamondback snake. He was extremely intimidating, which is what you want with a closer. And Gonzalez was also very determined to prove he could be as effective as he was before his elbow injury.
So now is Gonzalez entrenched in the role as the closer? Well, with Rafael Soriano and Peter Moylan both question marks with their own elbow trouble, Gonzalez is definitely going to get the first crack at it. Soriano should be back for Opening Day, while Moylan might take a few more weeks. So Gonzalez would almost have to lose the job in spring training, and that's unlikely to happen.
How effective can Gonzalez be if he is the closer for the entire season? Well, he has the stuff you want in a closer, with a fastball that regained its velocity. And now that he has exposed this vicious delivery, rocking back and forth on the rubber before he delivers the ball, Gonzalez is that intimidating pitcher you want out there in the ninth inning.
The Braves bullpen will be helped if Soriano and Moylan return next season, providing depth behind Gonzalez, which should in turn make him more effective. So that will perhaps be even more important to watch when determining how solid Gonzalez will be in that role.
But so far, even with the year's absence, Gonzalez has not given the Braves any reason to doubt his ability to be a top-notch closer. Therefore, it's likely Mike Gonzalez will be the team's main reliever in 2009.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can be heard on 680 the Fan in Atlanta and 105.5 the Fan in Macon. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
14. Will Mike Gonzalez be the closer in 2009?
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