Taking A 'Closer' Look

Brian Fuentes, who picked up 30 saves and posted a 2.73 ERA for the Rockies in 2008, will be highly sought after by several teams looking for a closer this offseason. Fuentes and Fransisco Rodriguez, who set the single-season saves record, highlight the list of available free-agent relievers. When accounting for cost, who is the better bet?

According to the Denver Post, the Colorado Rockies simply cannot afford to re-sign free-agent closer Brian Fuentes.

Fuentes, perhaps the premier relief pitcher available outside of Francisco Rodriguez of the Los Angeles Angels, is coming off a solid rebound season after regaining the closer role in Colorado. He picked up 30 saves in 34 chances for the Rockies, posting a 2.73 ERA and 82-to-22 K/W ratio and 1.10 WHIP in 62.2 innings pitched. The 33-year-old left-hander limited opponents to a line of .205/.273/.293 and .566 OPS, scattering only 47 hits.

The Angels, New York Mets and St. Louis Cardinals, the report says, have all shown serious interest. The market for Fuentes will undoubtedly be affected by the status of Rodriguez, who set the all-time single-season saves record and is now looking to break the bank for his efforts.

Fuentes' agent, Rick Thurman, is hoping to generate a four-year deal in the $40-million range. As expensive as that seems for a relief pitcher, the most fungible role on a major league roster, he will likely garner some serious offers. Thurman is also expected to meet with the Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers about his client.

There is a considerable drop off in the market for relievers after the aforementioned pair, and several teams are looking to address their bullpen needs. The Mets' relief pitching struggles down the stretch, for example, shed light on a glaring weakness, since prompting the club to announce its plans to search for any ‘pen help possible this offseason. New York will be without Billy Wagner for all of 2009, and is linked to each pitcher.

Fuentes, though, may be the better, more cost-effective bet.

Rodriguez, 26, picked up 62 saves in 69 chances, breaking Bobby Thigpen's previous single-season mark of 57. Lost in the media hype, though, he also set the benchmark for save chances, a function of opportunity. Due to the Angels' weak offense and emphasis on small-ball, the right-hander was given a greater number of opportunities to hold a lead in low-scoring games than any other pitcher in baseball history.

While Rodriguez had a historic season, a lot of his current market value is derived from context. Some reports have stated that his asking price may reach around $75-million, and odds are there is a general manager out there who will be willing to meet his demands. However, saves aside, his 2008 campaign was actually one of the worst single-season performances of his career. His strikeout-per-nine innings ratio, which has steadily decreased every year since 2004, reached its full-season career low, 10.1. In fact, this was the first instance in which the total failed to crack 12 K/9.

Rodriguez also struggled with his control at times, walking 34 in 68.1 innings pitched. His 4.5 walks per nine innings, in fact, tied for the highest total of his career, as he also posted his worst K/W ratio (2.27, 77-to-34) since reaching the majors back in 2002.

Perhaps even more telling is this: among major league relievers who registered more than 40.0 innings pitched, Rodriguez did not finish in the top 15 in ERA (19th) or K/9 (19th), top 40 in opponents' OPS (42), top 60 in WHIP (69) or top 100 in K/W ratio. The flame throwing right-hander, who posted an opponents' line of .216/.314/.316, led the league in only two statistics, saves and save opportunities. While he grabbed headlines for breaking the record, it is worth mentioning that he was the only pitcher who was given enough chances to even come within four saves of the previous all-time mark—Jose Valverde finished second in SVO with 52.

Essentially, several other dominant closers—from Brad Lidge to Mariano Rivera—had much stronger overall finishes, but did not receive the press due to the severe gap in saves between the leader and every other reliever.

Rodriguez, it is worth pointing out, blew seven saves to finish behind several of his contemporaries in save conversion rate. If he posted a similar mark with fewer chances to shut the door with a lead in the ninth inning, Lidge, for his perfection, and Rivera, for his continued dominance, would have drawn more national publicity.

Rodriguez's stuff declined as well, coinciding with his inability to throw strikes as consistently as he did in the past. His average fastball velocity, for a pitch that he threw 50.7 percent of the time, nearly fell two full ticks on the radar gun, from 93.4 MPH in 2007 to 91.9. His slider, one of the most devastating in the majors, was not as tight, either, according to numerous scouts. He still generated excellent movement on his pitches, but was not as difficult to hit against as he has been in recent years.

Rodriguez is still a dominant late-innings weapon, of course, and is obviously much more talented than Fuentes. He is likely to get overpaid, though, based off of his misleading record-setting '08 campaign. Also, while he has not had any health problems in the past, there is always a serious risk for injury with hard-throwing relievers. Plus, there are a lot of more cost-effective, efficient ways for a baseball team to spend $15-million annually over five years. No reliever, perhaps outside of Rivera in his prime, is worth that kind of coin.

Which is why Fuentes may be the better investment, when taking into consideration price and length of any potential contract. Although he is older, he has a chance to provide better value in a shorter deal.

Either way, two clubs out there are within weeks from adding a new closer. It should be interesting to see which team ends up with the better investment in the long run.

To reach Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com.

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