Who Is the Diamondbacks' Closer?

Although the Arizona Diamondbacks probably traded Jose Valverde to Houston at his highest selling point before he returns to his inconsistent ways, an important question remains: Who is going to replace the Dominican right-hander, who led the majors with a career-high 47 saves last season?

Jose Valverde led Major League Baseball with 47 saves and became both the single-season saves leader and the all-time saves leader for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2007.  On the other hand, he blew seven save opportunities last season, and is just one year removed from posting a horrific 5.84 2006 ERA. 

Losing Valverde also doesn't hurt as much as it appears on the surface because the Diamondbacks boast a wealth of quality arms in their bullpen.

"That's one of the reasons we ended up where we did, with 90 wins, is the guys at the end of the game closing it out for us," manager Bob Melvin explained during baseball's winter meetings.  "Seven, eight, nine, the way they perform for us, it's instrumental in our success as any group on our team, so it's a very secure feeling."

Presently, there are three main arms in contention for Arizona's closer role.  We've listed them in order of likelihood that they begin the season as closer.

1) Tony Pena. The hard-throwing right-hander was used almost exclusively in the seventh inning during potential save situations, but also filled in as Valverde's setup man on occasion, and has long been viewed as the team's likely closer of the future.

Pena, 25, went 5-4 with two saves and a 3.27 ERA in 75 games. He has an outstanding fastball/slider combo that ranks top ten in all of baseball.  Aside from a few isolated bouts with some confidence issues, seems to have the makeup ideally suited to closing. 

Durability presents one concern for Pena as the closer.  He threw 85.1 innings last year, noticeably tiring in the second half with a 4.79 ERA after the All-Star break. 

"We didn't feel like we really over-extended anybody," Melvin said of his bullpen usage.  "Pena was the one guy innings-wise, but he's a young guy. We monitored his velocity pretty well. We didn't feel like there was any point in time over the season where he was overly taxed and when we felt like he was a little bit crispier or a little bit overdone, we would give him a few days off. I don't think we overdid it with anybody."

Indeed, Melvin only used Pena for a third straight day on one occasion last year, and that July 23rd outing only consisted of two pitches thrown to ex-Diamondback Dan Uggla.  Pena retired Uggla on a flyball to left field, stranding a runner and preserving a tenuous 4-3 lead over the Florida Marlins.  If Melvin were unwilling to use Pena as his closer for three consecutive days, it wouldn't cripple the Diamondbacks by any means, as there would be several other quality candidates to perform those duties. 

2) Chad Qualls. The Diamondbacks obtained the right-hander from the Astros in the Valverde deal, and Qualls, 29, who throws in the mid-90s with a decent slider and good sinker, figures to get a good look in spring training for the closer's role.

He was 6-5 with a 3.05 ERA and a career-high five saves in 79 appearances for Houston last season.  Those five saves came paired with five blown saves, however, which raises the question of whether Qualls is better suited to remain in a setup role.

Qualls' age could be viewed either as a plus or a minus in determining his suitability for the closer's role.  While his maturity might bring a stability to the ninth inning, his stuff isn't likely to improve over the next few years, and it may make more sense to give the job to a pitcher who could become "the guy" during a possible Diamondbacks dynasty.

3) Brandon Lyon. He was the Diamondbacks' primary setup man for Valverde the past two seasons but also saved 14 games for the franchise in 2005.  That year, Lyon allowed a run or more to score during just four of his 15 save opportunities; his ugly 6.44 ERA was created after losing his closing duties to young Brian Bruney in a widely-criticized move.  

A former starter who was acquired from Boston in the Curt Schilling trade, Lyon, 28, has good command with four pitches he can use regularly and effectively, making him a possible choice, too.  He went 6-4 with a 2.68 ERA and two saves in 73 games last season, easily marking the most successful campaign of his career.  If the Diamondbacks were worried about Valverde repeating his career year, however, they've also got to be concerned about Lyon in that regard.

"I think all three are capable," general manager Josh Byrnes said. "Lyon's been a closer, Qualls has been one of the better seventh, eighth-inning guys in baseball the last several years. We really haven't determined yet with Qualls and Lyon and Pena how their roles will fall out, but all three have seen a lot of success pitching late in the game with a lead, so we'll just figure out what their roles are going to be."

For some reason, Juan Cruz isn't really being considered for the closer's role.  His 6-1 record and 3.10 ERA isn't unprecedented, as he went 6-2 with a 2.75 mark with Atlanta in 2004.  A mid-90s fastball, hard slider, and occasional plus-changeup combine to give Cruz all the tools he would need to succeed as a closer, even though he has no experience in that role.   Like Lyon, Cruz will be free agent-eligible in 2009, making it less likely that the team would want to make him the closer.

"A lot of it has to do with finances," Melvin said of closers.  "They have some success, and all of a sudden their salaries double or triple."  It wouldn't make much sense for the Diamondbacks to use either Cruz or Lyon as closer just to see their salaries explode, making them un-retainable for a franchise with limited resources like the Diamondbacks.  Perhaps if the club can work out an extension with either of those currently arbitration-eligible players, they would become viable options to work the ninth in close games.

Dustin Nippert also has phenomenal stuff, with a great fastball and jaw-dropping curve.  The Diamondbacks can control his contract for years, making him a closer candidate if he can show some consistency.

"I think when the curveball is not there, you know, pitching out of the bullpen for a shorter stint benefits him," Melvin said of Nippert.  "You know, he's had a 12-6 curveball, and when you're not throwing it for a strike,  it limits what you can do, and you're a little better off as a reliever with limited pitches."

But the real sleeper candidate to close games for the 2008 Diamondbacks has less than on professional season under his belt.  Max Scherzer has one of the best fastballs in all of baseball, but just a decent slider.  That combo works best out of the bullpen.

""Based on seeing him in the Fall League, he's got great stuff," praised Melvin.  "He's one of those fast-track gays, high-profile college guys that's on the fast track to the big leagues. You know, what he accomplished last year in the summer and then... what he did in the Fall League would suggest he's pretty close."

Scherzer could eventually develop secondary pitches that would make him a feared starter in the big leagues.  He is already signed through 2010, however, with more money invested in him by the Diamondbacks than Nippert, Cruz, Lyon, Qualls, and Pena combined.  Why not use this guy in the major league bullpen now, and let him work him way into a starter's role in the next couple of years?  It doesn't make much sense to pay Scherzer $4.3 million just to dominate Triple-A batters.

Prediction: Pena will get the initial crack at closing, with Qualls, Lyon, or Cruz getting opportunities whenever Pena needs a blow.  But the minute Pena falters even a little, Scherzer may be pitching so well as to force Melvin's hand at replacing Pena with their #1 prospect.

2008 Saves: Pena-28, Scherzer-16, Qualls-3, Lyon-2 

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