By Steve Roney
On the day after Christmas, Boston Red Sox General Manager Ben Cherington acquired another team’s closer for the third time in the last 12 months, hoping to finally plug the gaping hole at the back end of his bullpen.
Elsewhere, Dan Duquette – Cherington’s former boss and the current Orioles head personnel man – rested easy, with no such worries. His bullpen is strong and stable.
Beginning with last December’s trade for Mark Melancon, Cherington has shipped off a total of nine players – including Melancon himself, earlier this week – in exchange for players thought to be the late-game answer.
Out the door have gone talented yet far-off prospects like third baseman Miles Head and starters Raul Alcantara and Stolmy Pimentel, as well as major league-ready contributors in outfielder Josh Reddick and shortstop Jed Lowrie.
Reddick, given an opportunity to play everyday, mashed 32 home runs for the playoff-bound A’s, albeit with low contact and on-base numbers. Lowrie was similarly productive (before his 60-plus-game DL stint), anchoring Houston’s lineup with 16 home runs and a .769 OPS.
And what did the Red Sox get in return?
From the Oakland A’s, Andrew Bailey: Injured before the season, he returned to pitch 15 1/3 innings late in the season, accumulating six saves to go along with a 7.04 ERA.
From the Houston Astros, Mark Melancon: Closing in place of Bailey, Melancon got shelled repeatedly in the season’s opening weekend, spent some time at Triple-A Pawtucket, and picked up one save and a 6.20 ERA in 45 big league innings.
And now, from the Pittsburgh Pirates, Joel Hanrahan: Like Bailey, a two-time All-Star who racked up saves after getting the opportunity as a lightly regarded prospect to protect leads for a losing team.
400 miles south in Baltimore, Duquette and the O’s have taken a more frugal – and more effective – approach to building their bullpen.
Six relievers are listed on the depth chart at the team’s official website; none were blue chip prospects, marquee free agent signings, or ballyhooed trade acquisitions.
Darren O’Day was claimed off of waivers; setup man Pedro Strop arrived as the player to be named later from the Mike Gonzalez trade; Troy Patton and Tommy Hunter were both part of trades centered around other players.
The crown jewel is closer Jim Johnson, an imposing figure with a live arm who graded out as the organization’s 29th best prospect the last year he was ranked by Baseball America, in 2007.
From modest beginnings, he led the major leagues with 51 saves last season, pitched to a 2.49 ERA, and finished in seventh place in voting for the Cy Young award.
Closers are a lot like NFL running backs – you can spend assets to get one, if you like, but you can find serviceable (and oftentimes more than adequate) candidates on the cheap, and usually on your own roster.
The smart personnel man creates a closer, then sells him off for more useful pieces – as A’s GM Billy Beane espoused in Moneyball.
Dan Duquette knows this better than most; as General Manager of the Red Sox in the mid-90s, he engineered one of the great trades in franchise history, sending closer Heathcliff Slocumb to the Seattle Mariners for a pair of prospects – future All-Stars Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek.
So while his rivals spend millions of dollars and multiple prospects trying to create a bullpen to match Baltimore’s, Duquette stands pat.
He’s already got what they were after this holiday season – an All-Star, end-game closer, and a lights-out bullpen to set him up.
And the best part? He got it all on sale.