It’s funny that two teams playing each other this weekend took such opposite paths.
The Phillies spent $50 million for four years on Jonathan Papelbon because they identified him as one of the top three closers in the game. Their assessment has been correct, as he had 12 saves in 12 chances going into Saturday night’s game.
The Red Sox went for the low-cost approach with arbitration-eligible Andrew Bailey.
Bailey, whose salary is $3.9 million this year, got hurt in spring training and hasn’t yet pitched. When he went down, the Sox opted for Alfredo Aceves, who after a poor start has been lights-out as a closer, converting eight of his 10 chances. He earns $1.8 million.
Both teams have sort of proven their points.
Papelbon, in the eyes of the Phillies’ baseball operations staff, was a sure thing, and they were willing to pay for that.
Bailey was a two-time All-Star but an injury-prone two-time All-Star. In a matter of weeks, he had a lat strain followed by thumb surgery. And Aceves was quickly recognized by Bobby Valentine as someone who could do the job. Who wasn’t skeptical about that? But it has turned out just fine.
So yes, that’s a hit.
The Red Sox saved themselves millions by going to Bailey, and with Aceves on the roster as a middle reliever, they took the chance and it worked. At least for now. We’ll see what happens when the games get pressure-packed in September.
The Phillies replaced Ryan Madson, who did a decent job last season, with the big-money guy. They didn’t believe Madson had enough of a track record to warrant the four-year, $44 million deal Scott Boras asked for. Guess what? The Phillies hit the jackpot twice. Madson went to Cincinnati on a one-year, $8 million deal and had Tommy John surgery.
So who’s right?
“You have to have peace of mind at that position,’’ said legendary manager Tony La Russa. “You have to be able to know you have a guy who can do the job. That’s what Eck [Dennis Eckersley] gave us all those years.
“How much you spend is a front office/ownership decision, but as a manager, no matter how much money a guy makes, he’s got to give you that peace.’’
The Phillies brass, which tends to be more old-school, has trended toward proven, higher-priced closers, and that has served them well.
“Bullpens are so volatile from year to year, but it’s still money well-spent,’’ said Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers, considered one of the best bullpen builders in baseball. “I know it’s three outs of a game, but they’re three big outs.
“When you have a good one, it builds team confidence. Not only in your starting pitchers, but in your whole team.
“While you don’t mind spending the money for that, the terms get dicey. If you can spend for a year or two, that’s what you’re trying for. When you get beyond that, that’s when you hold your breath.’’
You can certainly see the flip side to NOT paying big money. Closers seem to be injury-prone.
In addition to Bailey and Madson, Mariano Rivera (Yankees), Joakim Soria (Kansas City), Sergio Santos (Toronto), Kyle Farnsworth (Tampa Bay), Drew Storen (Washington), Carlos Marmol (Cubs), Huston Street (San Diego), Brian Wilson (San Francisco), and recently Jose Valverde (Detroit) have all been injured.
The Marlins went the big-money route with free agent Heath Bell, and he has been one of the worst closers in baseball. He was removed from the job for a while but since has returned.
The A’s replaced Grant Balfour with old standby Brian Fuentes, who continuously has lost his closer job over the years.
The Angels, who spent their offseason money on Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, elected to stay with Jordan Walden even after he blew 10 saves last season. Well, it didn’t work out again, and now lefty Scott Downs has assumed the role.
When the Rangers decided to move Neftali Feliz out of the closer’s role, they took a chance on veteran Joe Nathan, who was coming off Tommy John surgery. Nathan has nine saves in 10 chances.
There isn’t much in the way of stability around baseball with closers.
The Orioles’ Jim Johnson, with 14 straight saves, has been the best. The Rays have lucked out, as Fernando Rodney stepped in for Farnsworth and has been perfect with 12 saves. Atlanta’s Craig Kimbrel is 12 for 13.
The uncertainty of the position, the ups and downs, make general managers leery of spending the big money.
“The entire history of the industry is not that good in terms of pitchers who hold that job,’’ said Orioles GM Dan Duquette. “On the other hand, championship teams have to have a great closer to win.
“In terms of investing a lot of money, if you have a dependable guy and you feel you need that pitcher to do that job, then that’s a decision you have to make.’’
While any reliever who pitches from the seventh inning on should be able to do the job, the fact is, not many can. There are pitchers who melt down if they’re entrusted with that one inning.
You didn’t see Daniel Bard rushing to take the job when Papelbon left. In fact, he knew the job was his if he just sat there and said nothing. But he got up and said he wanted to be a starter. That goes to show you, it’s not for everyone.
The big money is probably gone forever from the position because as time passes, fewer and fewer pitchers are showing they’re worthy of it. The Mariano Riveras just don’t come around very often.
Apropos of something
1. When the Dodgers’ Matt Kemp sat out last Monday with a strained left hamstring, it ended a streak of 399 consecutive games played, the longest in baseball. The new leader is Detroit’s Prince Fielder, with 218. Good for Fielder, but this is embarrassing for the modern ballplayer, isn’t it?
In Red Sox terms, Dwight Evans played in 162 games in 1984 - and that was the last time a Boston player played in all 162. And the last time a Red Sox player played every inning of every game (this one courtesy of the Worcester Telegram’s Bill Ballou) was Frank Malzone in 1959.
Cal Ripken, of course, set the iron man record of 2,632 consecutive games played. Mr. Ripken probably doesn’t have to worry about anyone breaking his mark anytime soon.
After Fielder, the longest active streaks are: Joey Votto, Reds, 163; Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners, 137; Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox, 136; Michael Bourn, Braves, 127; Emilio Bonifacio, Marlins, 110; Dan Uggla, Braves, 101; Eric Hosmer, Royals, 77; Jose Bautista, Blue Jays, 74; Starlin Castro, Cubs, 71.
2. Joe Maddon is amazing with his infield shifts. Against the Sox Thursday night, with Daniel Nava up, the Rays manager moved Sean Rodriguez from third to second and had second baseman Jeff Keppinger go to third. Nava hit a hard grounder that Rodriguez, with his good range, was able to catch up to for the out. “We did it primarily for the range factor, and we were able to do it because Jeff didn’t mind,’’ said Maddon. “He completely understood what we were doing. You can shift on anyone anytime. If we think the situation dictates it, and there’s a better chance of getting the batter out, we’ll try it.’’
3. Daisuke Matsuzaka has been using major league baseballs in his minor league starts. The minor league ball has more pronounced seams and can make it easier to throw a breaking pitch. But when you convert back to the major league ball, you lose the feel for that pitch. So Matsuzaka wants to stick with the ball he eventually will use.
4. It was Dr. Tom House who started the football-throwing drills for pitchers during his Texas days with Bobby Valentine. House did it to measure the arm slot for relievers to determine whether they could pitch that night. Valentine, who wouldn’t mind introducing the drill in Boston, explained that if the pitcher’s arm slot was right, he’d be able to throw a spiral. House is now working with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. 5. When running for lieutenant governor in Rhode Island, current Red Sox senior adviser Jeremy Kapstein was the first to warn the state and its taxpayers about giving Curt Schilling a $75 million check for business development. Now Schilling is trying to save his company from extinction.
Apropos of nothing
1. Derek Lowe will never forget that the Braves told him in the offseason he was their “10th starter.’’ The Braves traded him to the Indians, and he is 6-1 with a 2.05 ERA.
2. Speaking of Lowe, it was a nice gesture by Red Sox owners to present him with a new 2004 championship ring. The original was stolen from his Fort Myers, Fla., home last month. Question: What happens if he retrieves the stolen ring? Does he get to keep both?
3. I have no idea how long it will last, but I love the Daniel Nava story. A kid who didn’t make his college team, played independent ball, and is now Boston’s starting left fielder.
4. How long will Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury be on their throwing programs? And after that, will their arms still be as weak as they were before they were injured?
5. Sox reliever Scott Atchison is the latest-drafted player to make an Opening Day roster this season. He was taken in the 49th round by the Mariners in 1998.
6. The new pregame pitching trends: guitar-playing and crossword puzzles.
7. Jarrod Saltalamacchia has really “taken charge’’ behind the plate recently, according to a Red Sox official.
8. Bone-crushing handshakes: Tom Brunansky, Dwight Evans, Butch Hobson, and, recently, Rocco Baldelli.
9. Yes, George W. Bush was one of my favorite baseball owners back in the day with the Rangers.
10. Tampa Bay’s Will Rhymes was hysterical in describing how two hobbled teammates (he and Jeff Niemann) are sharing a house and trying, comically, to help each other out with things. Niemann has a broken leg and Rhymes a deep forearm bruise from being hit with a Franklin Morales pitch. “The doorbell rings,’’ said Rhymes, “and he said he can’t get it, and I’m there in pain with my arm and it’s hard for me to get up. He needs to get down the stairs and I’m there helping him carry his stuff and my arm is killing me.’’
11. Didn’t realize that muted Sox catching coach Gary Tuck was a huge advocate for Ryan Lavarnway making the team out of spring training.
12. Why do I think the Yankees will land Roy Oswalt?
Updates on nine
1. Ichiro Suzuki, RF, Mariners - One of the big topics of conversation in the Northwest is whither Ichiro after this season? He is in the final year of his contract, and there’s some reason to believe retirement is a possibility. Those who know him don’t believe he wants to play for anyone but Seattle. Manager Eric Wedge would like more production from Ichiro in the No. 3 hole. “He’s the one veteran guy that we consistently have in the lineup that we need to produce for us,’’ said Wedge. Ichiro probably won’t get to 3,000 hits, but his 2,475 in 11 seasons are pretty impressive.
2. Kevin Youkilis, 3B, Red Sox - Add the Diamondbacks to the list of teams that may have interest in him. General manager Kevin Towers is looking to upgrade his offense at the infield corners. If the Sox made Youkilis available, they would have no shortage of suitors. The Reds and Giants are also in need of upgrades. The Sox would have to decide whether Will Middlebrooks can handle the position. There already are signs that pitchers are beginning to find his holes.
3. Jose Iglesias, SS, Red Sox - He had his average in Pawtucket up to the .270s last week, which the Red Sox will take if he can sustain it. Iglesias is doing all the things Bobby Valentine talked about: moving runners, hitting the other way, having productive at-bats. That’s all they need from him as he progresses. His defense, according to a Sox official, has been “at another level than anyone else.’’ Right now, though, there is no need for the Red Sox to make a change. Mike Aviles has done a good job, ranking high in range metrics.
4. Kelly Shoppach, C, Red Sox - After Wilson Ramos went down, the Sox called the Nationals about their interest in catchers, but they said they would stay in-house. Lately, the Nationals have been scouting teams who have depth behind the dish, and Boston is one. Shoppach would be available, as the Sox could bring up Ryan Lavarnway.
5. Carlos Beltran, RF, Cardinals - He was on the Red Sox’ hit list before they signed Carl Crawford two years ago. While the Sox also coveted Beltran this offseason, they weren’t willing to pay the money (two years, $26 million) for a player who seemingly has found his second wind. Entering Saturday night’s game, Beltran was leading the National League with 13 homers. He had driven in 32 runs and had a 1.044 OPS. He is 35 and could break down, but he seems far from that at the moment.
6. Roy Oswalt, RHP, free agent - The initial reports on Oswalt’s throwing sessions with Boston and Philadelphia were good. “Not in midseason form by any means,’’ said one scout. “His fastball was off a tick, but he’ll get that up. He wasn’t throwing too much secondary stuff, but he looked fluid. It probably would take him a few weeks to get ready, but everybody’s going to need pitching a month from now, so it’s a good investment for down the road.’’ Oswalt seemed to signal that he is willing to play for half a season. He learned that from Roger Clemens, someone he has idolized.
7. Miguel Tejada, SS/3B, Orioles - He signed with Baltimore and is working out in Sarasota. One scout who saw him against Fort Myers in extended spring training said, “Looks really slow in the field. His bat speed is OK but his timing isn’t there. It’ll be interesting to see if he makes it up.’’
8. Adam Jones, CF, Orioles - This is going to become an interesting negotiation and could be Dan Duquette’s first big offseason signing. Jones, who is a free agent after 2013 (like Jacoby Ellsbury), leads the Orioles in HRs (13), RBIs (27), hits (49), and OBP (.347). He has played every game. With the Orioles in the race, it is inconceivable at this juncture that he would be dealt. But the money could get over $100 million, and the last time the Orioles dished out big bucks was to Tejada - six years, $72 million - in December 2003.
9. Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Cubs - The former Red Sox farmhand hit his 14th home run Thursday night for Iowa, which leads the Pacific Coast League, and also registered his 500th at-bat in Triple A. The at-bat total is significant because that’s the number that Theo Epstein likes to see a guy get before he comes up. One problem: Worcester’s Bryan LaHair has been the best first baseman in the NL. One solution may be to play LaHair in left field, but the Cubs would have to get rid of Alfonso Soriano and the remainder of the $48 million they owe him. Believe me, Epstein is trying to do that, but there are no takers.
From the Bill Chuck files: “It Just Doesn’t Feel Right Dept.: After 119 at-bats, Soriano hit his first homer of the season. It was his 342d career homer and tied Ron Santo for 87th place on the all-time list.’’ And, “Shifty business? The Orioles shift more than any team other than the Rays, and it’s paying off. The batting average for opponents’ balls in play this season is .275, compared with .305 in 2011, .298 in 2010, and .309 in 2009.’’ . . . Happy birthday to Wayne Housie (47) and David Wells (49).
Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.