Best of the System: The Top Five Closers

Closers are very rarely born, they are very often made. The two best closers in the National League over the last two years have been Eric Gagne and John Smoltz, neither of whom came through the system as relievers, much less closers. In the last five years the tide has started to swing. Major League teams are looking to the college ranks and finding ready made closers to insert in their minor league bullpens. The Padres are no different as this week's Best of the System suggests.

#6)  Coming out of a top college program, pitching in tough, pressure filled situations and having a low ninties fastball were just a few of the reasons the Padres took David O'Hagan in the ninth round of the 2004 draft.  The former Stanford Cardinal is not a power pitcher, but with a sharp slider and developing change he's perfectly molded for closer duties and the Padres had hoped after a quick trip to Short Season A Eugene O'Hagan would open the 2005 season in Lo-A Fort Wayne. 


That didn't happen because just five games into his stint at Eugene O'Hagan's shoulder got balky.  He fought through the injury to return late in the season but his eight appearances were followed by more soreness in the shoulder. 


"I went to the doctor about a month after the season, and he was pretty optimistic that a ‘conservative management' approach would bring results," O'Hagan said.  "A lot of shoulder specific exercises, with real light weights, just standard rehab stuff.  So that's what I worked on all through the offseason, but when I started throwing off the mound this spring I just didn't feel right."


That meant surgery, which O'Hagan underwent March 9th, and will sideline him for close to a year.  "I doubt I'll be pitching for a team this year," he says, "but if all goes well I should be pitching to hitters by the last couple weeks of the season."


Still the Padres remain optimistic about O'Hagan because in his limited duty at Eugene he put up closer-like numbers.  In eight appearances he held opposing batters to a .160 average and held a 2.57 ERA, those numbers have the Padres willing to wait.


#5)  Coming out of tiny Biola (CA) College didn't do Ryan Klatt any favors in the 2003 draft, and he fell all the way to the 38th round, where the Padres scooped him up and put him in the bullpen in the Pioneer (Rookie Level) League.  He arrived in Idaho Falls and thus far he's made the Padres scouting department look like geniuses.  Using incredible control Klatt finished 31 of the 32 games he appeared in and notched 12 saves while posting a stellar 2.12 ERA.  As for that control, how about 51 Ks against only three walks?  That looks even more impressive when you write it as a 17:1 strikeout to walk ratio. 


In 2004 Klatt was bumped up to Lo-A Fort Wayne and picked up right where he left off.  He finished 12 of the 25 games he appeared in, carried a 4-0 record and grabbed four saves.  You could say his K to walk ratio suffered, but at nearly 6:1 it wasn't too shabby in Fort Wayne either.  Everything looked like Klatt would become the closer prospect to watch at the lower levels until an elbow injury ended his 2004 season. 


Now recovering from Tommy John surgery on that elbow Klatt has remained in extended Spring while he rehabs.  Likely headed back to Fort Wayne when the elbow is right he will have to demonstrate that his control and velocity are back, and that could take awhile, but when fully recovered he will slide right back into a prime position in the Padres system.


#4)  Stats are a beautiful, evolving thing in baseball.  Virtually every year there is a new ‘key' stat to watch.  There was a period of time a few years ago when the ‘Game Winning Hit' was the ‘in' stat, and now for pitchers the new buzz word is ‘WHIP' or Walks plus Hits per Inning Pitched.  Now considered second only to ERA in importance (and some put it at the top of the list) for pitchers Dale Thayer is one of the brightest stars in the Padres system in large part because he has put up two consecutive years with a sub 1.00 WHIP, even more impressive is that the second year was in the hitter's paradise of the California League.


After his first sparkling season at Lo-A Fort Wayne Thayer was thought of as a pleasant surprise.  After all he went undrafted coming out of Chico State and got into the Padres system after a tryout.  Most felt his true colors would be revealed after he started 2004 with the Hi-A Lake Elsinore Storm, but instead Thayer continued to roll by throwing a low to mid-ninties fastball, above average slider, and developing change and curveball.  Impressed the Padres gave Thayer a late season promotion to Double-A Mobile.


At Mobile he experienced his first struggles, giving up three runs in 7.1 innings but the Padres aren't worried about Thayer's numbers in such limited action.  He opens the 2005 season back in Mobile, and back in a set up role, handing the ball off to RD Spiehs and Rusty Tucker.  Still seen as a potential closer this season will give the Padres a much more realistic look at how high Thayer's ceiling really is.


#3)  Leo Rosales was not a closer.  In fact Leo Rosales was not even on the roster when the Fort Wayne Wizards started their 2004 season.  He was moved out of extended Spring and became a middle relief guy for the Wizards where he performed quite well.  The Padres barely noticed Rosales, though coaches and scouts were happy with his performance.


Then Ryan Klatt went down to Tommy John surgery, and everything about Leo Rosales changed.  An afterthought?  Not after he posted 26 saves after June 2nd.  A known commodity?  After not allowing a run in his final 13 appearances he certainly was.  Rosales got better as the season went on and the pressure got bigger, and he did it in a very familiar way for fans of Padres closers.  He did it with a remarkable change up.


He throws a fastball, in the low 90s no less.  He is accurate with his curveball.  That change however became a calling card, as Rosales will throw it in any count, to any spot, to any hitter.  He struck out the side five times last season, and that change was the key.  Rosales has gone from an afterthought to a premier prospect.  He opens 2005 in Lake Elsinore, a hitter's league, and will still remain behind Tucker as far as the press and the expectations, but watch for Rosales to claim the top spot on this list if he repeats his Fort Wayne numbers in Elsinore.


#2)  Brad Baker was the Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2004 and it's not hard to see why.  Since coming to the Padres organization in the deal that sent Andy Shibilo and Alan Embree to the Red Sox Baker had been solid, if unspectacular.  In 2004 everything clicked for Baker and the numbers were borderline ridiculous. 


At Double-A Mobile in 2004 Baker had a 2-1 record, a 1.57 ERA, 30 saves, 68 strikeouts in just over 57 innings, and an opponent's batting average of .178.  This earned him a late season promotion to Triple-A Portland.  Obviously intimidated all Baker did in Triple-A was get better to the tune of four saves in eight appearances, a .148 opponent's batting average and an ERA under 1.00.  He was sent to the Arizona Fall League and dominated and then named to the Padres 40 man roster.  He pitched well this Spring and challenged for a spot in the big league bullpen but the Padres decided he would be best served getting one more year of seasoning at Portland.


He does it all with an amazing changeup.  By amazing we mean unhittable, and virtually unthrowable by anybody but Baker.  The unusual grip has come under scrutiny at virtually every level Baker has ever pitched at.


"Early in my career I had a lot of coaches try to change my grip, they told me I couldn't throw the pitch for strikes." Baker said during his stint in the AFL last season.  "I just kept throwing it for strikes.  Now the only time anybody asks about it is because they want to try to throw it themselves."


And no wonder.  Baker will certainly be in the mix if the big league club's bullpen falters during the season, and is on the short list of names to eventually replace Trevor Hoffman when that future Hall of Famer's career is over.  Another full season at Portland seems likely though, and Baker will look to pick up right where he left off last year.


#1)  Rusty Tucker is the Padres closer of the future.  That is if he can come back from Tommy John surgery.  Tucker was the 28th round selection of the Padres coming out of the University of Maine.  Why are the Padres so high on him?  See if you can figure it out yourself. 


Left handed.


Fastball in the 96-99 mph range.


Slider with sharp bite that rolls in about 20 miles an hour slower than the fastball.


That'll do. 


How does a guy like Tucker, who is now being compared to Billy Wagner, fall to the 28th round?  The coaches in the Padres minor league system can take particular pride in this youngster.  Coming out of Maine Tucker threw upper 80s to low 90s and had trouble throwing strikes.  The Padres liked his make up, but knew throwing strikes would be key to his success.  The solution was slowing down his delivery, and when Tucker did so and an amazing thing happened. 


He started throwing strikes, and the more he slowed his delivery the faster the ball went.


Suddenly Tucker went from a nibbling, Tom Glavine-esqe lefty to a power pitching lefty closer with a ceiling higher than Ricky Williams.  The time table on recovery from Tommy John surgery is twelve months, and Tucker is right on schedule.  He made 12 appearances last season in Peoria before being bumped up to Lake Elsinore and though Tucker looked tentative in his first few outings in the California League the Padres felt he was right where he needed to be and started him at Double-A Mobile this season. 


While the return from Tommy John surgery is twelve months, most pitchers take closer to two years before they are throwing at 100% again which means we might not see Tucker dominate until midseason, but the Padres know that if he starts dominating again, he'll do so for a long time.

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