FORT MYERS, Fla. — Billy Beane believes every organization has a closer, it’s just a matter of identifying who that is. The Athletics rarely keep the same closer for more than a year or two, but Beane and his staff have a knack of finding pitchers who can do the job.
Blake Treinen had four career saves before he was named Oakland’s closer, Sean Doolittle three, and Liam Hendricks one. They all became All-Stars.
The Red Sox could use some of that skill right about now.
Alex Cora has said the Sox will use spring training to pick a closer. The primary candidates seem to be Matt Barnes and Adam Ottavino.
They’re the obvious choices. Barnes was the closer to finish last season and wants the job back. Of course he does. Barnes will be a free agent for the first time after the season, and a successful closer has much greater value on the open market.
“I’m glad that he stepped up and he said that. There’s nothing wrong with that,” the manager said, applauding his ambition. “Your goal should be to be the best at your position, right? … I’m happy that he challenged us.”
Ottavino is the most experienced reliever on the roster and while he’s never been a closer, he could probably handle the job. He certainly wouldn’t be unnerved by it, and closing also could increase Ottavino’s trade value come July.
But let’s look beyond the obvious. Here are some other choices the Sox could consider:
⋅ Darwinzon Hernandez: Sooner or later, it will be his job. The 24-year-old has averaged 16.3 strikeouts per nine innings in his career.
A burly lefty with a 96-m.p.h. fastball is a good blueprint for a closer. Hernandez may need some time to get sharp after appearing in only seven games last season, but as the Sox build what they hope will be the core of a contender, why not get Hernandez closing now?
⋅ Hirokazu Sawamura: Cora has already ruled the newcomer from Japan out of the mix and that makes sense. He needs time to acclimate to a new team, a new league, and a new ball.
But Sawamura could work his way into the job over time. He throws a 97-mph fastball with a splitter as his secondary pitch, and had 75 saves in Japan.
That MLB hitters haven’t faced Sawamura before should be to his advantage. And Koji Uehara showed the Red Sox how devastating a good splitter can be for a closer.
⋅ Ryan Brasier: His walk rate soared the last two seasons, but Brasier did strike out 30 hitters in 25 innings last season and has a better adjusted ERA than Barnes the last three.
Brasier also has the arrogance you like to see in a closer. Even if he gives a game up, he’ll come back the next day convinced he’ll close it out.
⋅ Nick Pivetta: He’s a rotation candidate and the Sox are right to see what they have in him, but the consensus among scouts is that Pivetta’s future will be in the bullpen.
Pivetta has averaged 9.6 strikeouts per nine innings in his career. His 95-mph fastball could gain some pop in shorter stints.
⋅ Tanner Houck: His lack of a third pitch suggests a reliever in time, but his three strong starts to end last season earned Houck a shot at starting, at least for now.
⋅ Don’t use a closer: Cora was once a proponent of using a “relief ace” and tried it in 2019 with Barnes, using him in high-leverage situations regardless of whether a save was at stake. It’s an idea with merit, especially if a team has two pitchers capable of doing the job, but Barnes got beaten up facing the best hitters in the toughest spots game after game.
The experience soured Cora on the relief ace concept. In his mind, it’s an idea that sounds good, but is hard to execute.
“It’s not easy mentally; it’s not easy physically. They need a break, too,” Cora said. “I think structure, it helps.”
So the search is on for a closer.
“We’ll go through spring training; we’ll make a decision and everybody’s going to be OK,” Cora said. “At the end of the day we will need probably multiple guys that can get three outs in the ninth inning throughout the season because the closer will be down and the next guy has to step up.”