How Will the Red Sox Pick A Closer?

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Full squad workouts are scheduled to begin for the Red Sox on Monday, and the team is still without an established closer for the 2019 season.  In my first Red Sox Column to be Named Later of the 2019 season, I look at the biggest issue facing the 2019 Red Sox, but from a slightly different perspective.  The names of prospective Red Sox closers have been well documented, but how will the team make that decision?

Photo courtesy of persources.com

Craig Kimbrel, the Red Sox closer for the past three seasons, remains among a group of big name free agents still looking for employment as teams start workouts in Florida and Arizona.  Unless Kimbrel seriously backs down on his contract demands, it is unlikely we will see his bent-over, arm-cocked stance on the mound in the bottom of the ninth in Fenway Park this season.  So the Red Sox turn to a crop of unproven closers currently in the fold; the likes of Matt Barnes, Ryan Brasier, and Tyler Thornburg (my dark horse candidate). 

While the competition for the spot will no doubt be compelling, it will be interesting to see exactly how the Red Sox handle the matter.  Open spots for other positions, such as positional players and even starting pitching, can be judged by the players’ overall performance during the spring games.  However, the closer spot is difficult to fully scrutinize because there is virtually no way to even simulate the closer situation during Grapefruit League games.

Granted, the level of intensity in spring training games does not equal that of the regular season.  Established pitchers are not always necessarily trying to get batters out as much as they are trying to work on a particular pitch.  In the early going, regular players only get two or three at bats, and then head for the golf course, leaving minor league players to finish the game with numbers more akin to defensive linemen than baseball players.  Regular players play further into games towards the end of camp, but it is rare for any regular position player to see the ninth inning.

Established relief pitchers, especially closers, usually appear early in spring games to get their work in against fellow major league batters.  Coming into a game in the ninth inning against a non-roster invitee destined to play in the AA Eastern League does not provide the same tension as facing an opponent’s best hitters.  And this is the problem when trying to evaluate candidates for the closer spot.

The closer is needed to not just get three outs in a game, but the final three outs when the game is on the line.  It is different from pitching in the middle innings, or even the seventh or eighth innings.  A bad outing from a pitcher in the eighth inning could cost the game, but it doesn’t match the pressure of being the last line of defense between a win and a loss.  A closer needs to have a particular makeup to handle the pressure of the situation.  It is more than simple stuff; it is as much mental as it is physical.  So while Manager Alex Cora and the Red Sox staff may be able to determine who has the physical ability to close out games, how can they know who truly has the mental ability to handle the role?

One way the Red Sox could attack this issue is to go the route many teams went last year in the regular season by having their closer actually start games, a new position dubbed “The Opener”.  Using the Opener approach this spring will accomplish two things for the Red Sox.  Firstly, relievers will not only face major league hitters at the beginning of games, they will face the top of a team’s lineup.  While not the same as closing a game, getting through a team’s top hitters to start a game poses its own form of stress.  Secondly, using relievers to start games will also lessen the workload of Red Sox starters, who worked extra duty out of the bullpen in the 2018 postseason.

Given the constraints spring training games put on the evaluation of a closer, it is unlikely the Red Sox will break camp with a definitive answer to the problem.  It is more than likely that the auditions will continue well into the regular season.  This is similar to what happened last season with the eighth inning spot, when no one from this same group could step up and claim that role.  And now they will no longer have the luxury of having a Kimbrel waiting to come out of the bullpen to bail them out.  This season, they will be on their own.


Follow me on Twitter @BTravers_SYN.

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Boston Sports Syndicate: How Will the Red Sox Pick A Closer?
How Will the Red Sox Pick A Closer?
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