Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Just Like the Old Days

Remember when the Braves used to trot out such luminaries as Joe Boever, Jim Acker, and Paul Assemacher as their closer? Remember when they rode Greg McMichael and Alejandro Pena to divisional titles? Well, 2006 is shaping up to be the Braves' attempt at being retro because the over-priced closer market has completely dried up and they are going to be left anointing a closer in Spring Training. I don't think that this is the end of the world. As David O'Brien points out, the closer market was very poor this year and the available options were badly overpriced. The Braves can't overpay for a closer on an $80M payroll, certainly not when they have so much committed financially to Smoltz, Hudson, and the Joneses (and are hopefully gearing up to spend on a long-term contract for Marcus Giles.) As Moneyball and the Baseball Prospectus have made clear, closers are relatively fungible and over-priced to begin with, since any bad team can put a competent pitcher in the magical "closer" spot, get competent relief from him, and then flip him in the trade market for far more than his actual value. Although they didn't know it at the time, the Braves went into 2005 without a closer and managed to cobble together a quality closer out of Chris Reitsma and Kyle Farnsworth for the final four months of the season. It's better to go into this season with the spot open so the hottest pitchers will get the role, as opposed to going through the pains of giving a guy like Dan Kolb two months to blow the role. In other words, Bobby will have a shorter leash for his closer this year and that will be a good thing.

The past few years have seen the Braves win divisions despite all sorts of personnel losses in the off-season and holes coming into Spring Training, and that has created a feeling of invulnerability when approaching issues like the Braves' closer spot. No closer? How's that different than coming into a season with major questions in the starting rotation, like the Braves had for several years running until last year when the question was replaced with "who's going to play the corner outfield spots?" Schuerholtz has figured out that it's cheaper to rent a player like a Kyle Farnsworth from cheese-eating surrender monkeys like the Tigers than it is to overpay for him in the off-season. I doubt that he explicitly learned this from Billy Beane, but that approach was one of the ones featured in Moneyball.

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