Six closer possibilities for 2005

This winter's free-agent crop provides slim pickings.

Originally Published: November 8, 2004
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN Insider

The Boston Red Sox addressed their ninth-inning blues with checkbook diplomacy last December, spending $21 million over three years to lure closer Keith Foulke from Oakland. A busted curse and a championship parade later, they're glad they did.

The New York Mets took a subtler, more cost-efficient approach to filling the void at the end of their bullpen, waiting until the Dec. 20 tender deadline passed and signing Braden Looper after Florida cut him loose. Looper converted 29 of 34 save opportunities and was a prudent investment for a franchise that hasn't had many of late.

There's no telling where you'll find a closer. Minnesota scored a hit by acquiring Joe Nathan in a trade with San Francisco during the 2003 general managers' meetings. The Blue Jays figured someone would emerge from the trio of Justin Speier, Terry Adams and Kerry Ligtenberg. They figured wrong.

This winter's free-agent crop provides what one National League coach calls "slim pickings," so teams in need of help will peruse the list, then figure if they're better off going with a Plan B – maybe promoting a setup man or dipping into the minors, as the Expos did with Chad Cordero this year.

"Closers are discovered most of the time out of necessity," said Ned Colletti, Giants assistant general manager. "So many of them started with a different role, and developed into it or were given an opportunity or relished the chance. There might be guys on our 40-man roster right now that are closers who just haven't had the opportunity."

Most top-tier clubs – like Boston, the Yankees, Anaheim, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Houston and the Twins – are set at closer heading into the offseason. But a few are ready to nibble.

The Braves will have to improvise if circumstances conspire to send John Smoltz back to the rotation. The Giants would love a big-time closer if they can swing it financially. The Cubs are looking at several options, from LaTroy Hawkins to Ryan Dempster to Joe Borowski to maybe Troy Percival. And Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro wants to make sure his team doesn't play itself out of the American League Central race by blowing 28 saves again next year.

Among the non-contenders, Toronto, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Colorado have potential bullpen identity crises to resolve over the next few weeks.

Trevor Hoffman, who has a $5 million option with the Padres, plans to exercise it and return to San Diego. Ugueth Urbina, who saved 21 games for Detroit this year, will be back with the Tigers after the team exercised his $4 million option Friday. Urbina is currently home in Venezuela, where his mother was kidnapped in early September.

So who's out there for the taking? Here are six closer possibilities for 2005:

Armando Benitez
Armando Benitez

2-2, 1.29 ERA, 47 saves for Florida in 2004
Benitez put up some startlingly good numbers this year while making his second straight All-Star team. But the Marlins plan to let him walk and slide Guillermo Mota into the closer's role. That will free up some money for Paul Lo Duca, who's arbitration eligible. And the Fish will need all the help they can get to try and re-sign starter Carl Pavano, who clearly enhanced his market value with an 18-8 season.

Benitez's fine season didn't allay all the fears about him. Yes, he was great in Florida. But the feeling persists that he's a fragile guy who might have trouble handling the scrutiny in a big media market. Few of those teams have openings, anyway. And can you really see Benitez trying to reverse the Curse of the Billygoat in Chicago?

Troy Percival
Troy Percival

2-3, 2.90 ERA, 33 saves with Anaheim
Percival, who entered last season with a career average of 10.97 strikeouts per nine innings, missed a month with an elbow injury and finished with only 33 whiffs in 49 2/3 innings. Anaheim management let him walk and handed the job to Frankie Rodriguez.

Scouts say Percival, 35, is showing signs of slippage. He doesn't bounce back quite the way he used to, and he relies more on his secondary stuff than in the days when he could climb the ladder consistently at 98 mph. An AL scout told Insider that he wouldn't hesitate to sign Percival, but has concerns about his durability.

"He has the makeup for it," the scout said. "He's fearless, and he's got the experience. There's definite value there. But you never know when it's going to go."

Jose Mesa

Jose Mesa

43 saves in 48 chances with Pittsburgh
Mesa certainly gave the Pirates their $800,000 worth, but when you get beyond the surface, his numbers weren't particularly impressive. He had an ERA of 1.27 in April and May, but that swelled to 5.57 in August and September. He still hits the low-to-mid 90s with his fastball, but he's more reliant on making hitters put the ball in play than the old Jose Mesa.

Mesa had a chance to pitch in a pennant race in 2004, but vowed to go home if the Pirates tried to trade him to San Francisco. Now Pittsburgh GM Dave Littlefield would like to sign him for one year, as a possible bridge to Mike Gonzalez or Salomon Torres assuming the closer's role in 2006. Just don't expect Mesa to be happy with $800,000.

"We're in a situation where we have limited dollars," Littlefield said. "That's always an issue for us. It has to be something that fits."

Dustin Hermanson
Dustin Hermanson

17 saves in 20 opportunities with the Giants
Hermanson was a closer at Kent State when San Diego picked him in the first round of the 1994 draft. He slid back into the role at age 31 and bailed out a San Francisco bullpen that was in disarray. Manager Felipe Alou used Hermanson in five straight games in the final week as the Giants were fighting for a playoff spot.

Agent Casey Close said Hermanson is keeping an open mind about starting or closing next season. Given the scarcity of closers and the deep pool of starters available, he might be better served economically by shopping himself as a closer. The Giants want to keep Hermanson. But if they can't lock him up, Cleveland will be among the teams interested.

Bob Wickman
Bob Wickman

13 saves, .282 batting average against with Cleveland
After missing two years because of Tommy John surgery, Wickman returned following the All-Star break to stabilize Cleveland's bullpen mess. He became a free agent when the Indians declined to exercise a $5 million contract option.

There was speculation that Wickman might retire, but he has since informed Cleveland management that he wants to pitch in 2005. But Wickman is 36 years old, and his injury history has the Indians sufficiently concerned that they're exploring other options.

Matt Mantei
Matt Mantei

0-3, 11.81 ERA in 12 games with Arizona
Mantei has averaged slightly less than 30 appearances a year since 2000. He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2001, and pitched only 10 2/3 innings this season because of shoulder tendinitis. But he still throws hard, and could be a nice bargain pickup if he's finally healthy.

San Diego and Detroit are examining Mantei's medical reports, and the Cubs, Indians and Pirates could be next. Agent Bob Garber might wait until January and arrange some warm-weather auditions for teams where Mantei can finally cut it loose to show his arm is sound. Look for Mantei to sign a one-year contract to re-establish himself, then hit the open market again next winter.

Jerry Crasnick is a regular contributor to ESPN Insider. He can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email MLB Sr. Writer