BOSTON — After Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer in baseball history, earned a standing ovation at Fenway Park over the weekend, it felt like a perfect time to reflect on the importance of the closer job and who could become the next long term answer in that spot for the Boston Red Sox.
The closer role shouldn’t be underestimated. It certainly shouldn’t be among Red Sox fans, who have seen bust after bust pitch in that situation since Jonathan Papelbon left town following 2011.
“Having such a solid pitcher at the back of your bullpen makes all the difference,” Yankees shutdown setup man David Robertson said when discussing Rivera’s greatness. “You have someone that 90 percent of the time is going to lock the game down, you definitely want that guy on your team.”
Since Papelbon’s departure to the Phillies via free agency and even before he left, the Red Sox have tried tirelessly to find his heir apparent. Bobby Jenks, Andrew Bailey, Alfredo Aceves, Mark Melancon and Joel Hanrahan have all failed.
The Red Sox won’t find the next Rivera, who consistently has done the job well for 16 of the past 17 years with the only exception being last year when he tore his ACL. The Sandman is one of a kind. He has an all-time major league record 638 saves (entering yesterday) and has converted 91 percent of his saves (423 of 464) since the beginning of 2002.
The object for Boston GM Ben Cherington is to find someone who can convert approximately 90 percent of saves over a five- or six-year period.
“The kind of mentality they need to have is a short memory,” Rivera said. “They have to learn with the adversity because you’re going to fail. You’re going to fail as a closer, as a hitter, as a starter, as a reliever. It’s how you respond; how you regroup yourself right after you fail.
“It’s not easy,” Rivera added. “Baseball is not easy.”
The Red Sox shouldn’t go to the trade and free agent markets to find their next long-term closer but to identify the pitcher most capable who already is in their organization to accept the role next year, or maybe even as this season gets deeper. Although Koji Uehara is doing a fine job now, the 38-year-old’s durability is an issue. They may need someone else come September and October.
Papelbon was an internal option in 2006 with just 34.0 innings of major league experience before that season. He saved 35 games and posted a 0.92 ERA in ’06. He then went on to provide stability in the closer role for Boston for the next five seasons.
Would the next Papelbon please stand up?
The top internal candidates in no specific order are Junichi Tazawa, Brandon Workman, Drake Britton and Rubby De La Rosa.
The Red Sox view Workman as a future starter, but his terrific control and mid-90s fastball could make him an effective closer. Again, the closer role should not be underestimated. If Workman is capable of closing for the next six years, then maybe he is more valuable to Boston there than as a starter.
“He attacks hitters from pitch one,” Britton said about Workman. “And with his control and the stuff he brings to the table with all his pitches, it just makes him effective.”
De La Rosa is another top option because he is a fireballer. He mixes in a changeup and slider.
“Last game I was there (in Pawtucket) I was actually charting him in the stands,” Britton said. “He was sitting 95 (mph) and up to 97 and his stuff was in the zone.”
Tazawa likely would have been chosen over Uehara to replace a then-struggling Andrew Bailey in June if it hadn’t been for some struggles and a recent decline in velocity. Tazawa is throwing about 2 to 3 mph slower than when he finished last year, Red Sox manager John Farrell said.
“He’s probably not as powerful as he was last year when everybody saw him and the amount that he threw,” Farrell said about Tazawa.
“We’re working through some things with him as we are with others.”
Many factors must be taken into consideration when deciding on the next long term closer. They include health, mentality and effectiveness against both left and right-handed hitters. During Rivera’s career, he has held righties to a .215 batting average and lefties to a .209 average.
During Papelbon’s career, he has held righties to a .216 average and lefties to a .196 average.
The ideal situation for Boston would be to monitor Uehara’s innings and groom Workman, Britton and even De La Rosa in high-leverage situations as this season continues with the intent to pick one to be the closer next year.
Rivera said it probably helped for him to be a setup man before taking over as the Yankees closer, but it is not necessary to get that prior experience.
Farrell said Friday that De La Rosa is on a good path starting for the Pawtucket Red Sox and they don’t want to deviate from that path. But realistically, De La Rosa is struggling in Triple-A Pawtucket’s rotation right now. He has a 11.57 ERA in four July starts compared to a 0.56 ERA in four May starts and a 1.01 ERA in five June starts.
This actually might be a perfect time to move him to the bullpen, especially considering the need in the Boston ’pen for more stability in the middle innings.
Britton certainly is a long-term option to close, too. He hit up to 97 mph on the radar gun this year in the minors. Britton has a fastball, changeup and slider.