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Predicting the Next Great Closer?


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Guessing the next great closers

Each season, pitchers emerge to save their ballclubs

By Tom Singer / MLB.com


Occasionally, it's by design. Mariano Rivera and Francisco Rodriguez were groomed to succeed John Wetteland in the Bronx and Troy Percival in the OC, respectively.

Sometimes, it's in answer to crisis. When Eddie Guardado's elbow started barking, J.J. Putz stepped out in Seattle, and when the manager suddenly lost trust in Keith Foulke, Jonathan Papelbon stood up in Boston.


Often, it's the opportunity of a void. Without a man of experience, the 2005 Blue Jays turned to Miguel Batista, and ironically after B.J. Ryan became that trusted vet in Toronto, the Orioles turned to Chris Ray.


However it happens, it happens every year. Arms, young and versatile seasoned ones, leap from the shadows into the ninth-inning fire to literally become saviors of their teams.


The trend is unmistakable. Each season unveils closers who break through to 30-plus saves despite little history of late-inning success, from journeymen (Kerry Ligtenberg, 30 saves for 1998 Braves) to converted starters (Shawn Chacon, 35 saves for the '04 Rockies).


Who's got next?


Calling out closing sensations is treacherous, because the leash is so short. Either you get it right out of the bullpen gate, or it's someone else's turn. However, certain ingredients -- mental edge, physical tools, circumstances -- give us some clues.


Five who could thrive:


Taylor Tankersley

Rhymes with "Eckersley." The Marlins' inability to land an experienced closer to take over for Joe Borowski may pay off for the hard-throwing 23-year-old, who has the best short-term stuff of the quartet of Spring Training candidates.


Being left-handed is an edge in the Ryan Howard-Carlos Delgado division. Tankersley fanned 46 in 41 innings as a setup rookie last season. Whoever closes for the Marlins should profit from ample leads handed him by that stellar young rotation headlined by Dontrelle Willis.


Tankersley auditioned as a closer in Double-A last season prior to his callup, and he excelled in the role for Carolina (0.95 ERA and 40 strikeouts in 28 1/3 innings).


Kerry Wood

Ryan Dempster still is on board, and, if he picks up at the atrocious point he left off, Bob Howry (28 saves for the White Sox a few years ago) is available as the leading Plan B. But with Wood already assigned a bullpen seat, how long will it be before Lou Piniella gives in to temptation?


We have a little history to go on here. To get some value from a sore-shouldered Wood, the Cubs used him in relief for the final two months of the 2005 season. Going one inning in 10 of 11 relief appearances, Wood nailed 17 strikeouts in 12 innings while allowing a total of four hits.


A predictable work schedule of ninth innings and having only to warm up once would ease the stress on Wood's joints. His competitiveness and stuff could ease the stress on Piniella, too.


Seth McClung

Samson McClung (he has let his hair grow while spending the offseason in the weight room) is a good bet to emerge from the committee of six different relievers who notched saves in 2006. Throughout his Tampa Bay tenure, he has divided his time between starting and relieving, and he always has been more effective in shorter spurts. McClung just turned 26, and at 6-foot-6, 255 pounds, has the intimidating presence helpful in the job.


Jose Capellan

With this 26-year-old right-hander, it isn't a question of "what," but of "where." Most scouts rate his potential as a closer as high, but there's no room in the Brewers' inn, where Francisco Cordero was a late-season revelation and Derrick Turnbow (63 saves in a season and a half) still is around. Capellan occasionally has trouble keeping the ball in the park, but he could entice -- and come up big for -- one of several clubs still in the market for a closer.


Joel Pineiro

Joe Nathan, Dempster, Chacon, Batista ... the woods are full of pitchers who went from struggling in the rotation to starring in the bullpen. The Red Sox have wagered $4 million on this 28-year-old right-hander's chances to follow suit.


Pineiro's career has been in serious decline since his 37-20 getaway in Seattle, and Boston attributes much of that to the league's repeated looks at him. By extension, that also applies to games; indeed, even last season Pineiro held opponents to a .271 average the first time around the lineup, and that figure jumped to .359 on second looks.


Solution: Get him in and out of there quickly. However, that also will be Pineiro's fate if he falters early.


Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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