As far as anybody can tell, Ozzie Guillen has it in mind to have a designated closer in his bullpen - even if he doesn't quite know who it will be yet:
"Thornton is a personal opinion," Guillen said. "As a setup man, there’s not one better than him. There’s one thing in my mind, give him a new job [as closer] or keep him what he was and put [Chris] Sale [as closer]. But I got to listen to my pitching coach, I got to listen to what [GM] Kenny [Williams] wants, the coaching staff has an opinion.
"I can go with either one. I don’t worry about any of those guys. No matter what I pick, I’m going to pick a good one. And that’s why I don’t worry about who is going to be out there."
I've basically abandoned my dreams of seeing Guillen run a closerless bullpen this season, but it's comforting to know that by MLB manager standards, he's still more progressive than most when it comes to the late innings.
The present study in contrast: Ron Washington, who may have to deal with a ninth-inning vacancy if he allows Neftali Feliz to move into the rotation. His reaction to the "crisis" leads me to believe that Guillen might just own a flying car.
Washington basically responds by making a demand of his general manager:
"I have confidence in Jon Daniels and our scouts," Washington said Tuesday morning. "If [Feliz is starting], I’m 100 percent sure they’ll go out there and find somebody to close ballgames down for us." [...]
"Who do we have in our bullpen that’s closed ballgames down?" Washington said, knowing that Feliz is the only pitcher on the roster with a double-digit career saves total. "We ain’t talking about ‘might be able to.’ This ain’t about ‘might be able to close a ballgame down.’ We need somebody that’s bona fide to close ballgames down. But, like I said, if we need to stay in-house, we’ll figure that out."
It absolutely must be noted that Feliz had TWO WHOLE SAVES to his name last year when Washington named him the closer, replacing one-season closer Frank Francisco in the process. His Rangers ended up making it to the World Series. So here you have a manager who knows that closers aren't permanent and don't have to be grizzled veterans, except ... well, he doesn't know. He didn't learn from himself.
Washington isn't alone, either. Matt Capps is a living, breathing symbol of closer panic in Minnesota. Bill Smith traded their most tradeable prospect to acquire him, solving a problem that really wasn't one. Then they offered him arbitration (one year, $7.15 million), which means Capps will make more money than Thornton will in either year of his new contract.
The funny part: Capps might not even be closing, so that raises the question - why sign Capps for money that could have been used on retaining, say, both Jesse Crain and Jon Rauch? Because Joe Nathan isn't a sure bet, that's why. Nathan is Plan A for closing, but he's coming off Tommy John surgery, so they can't bet the farm on a full rebound season. Capps is a proven closer behind the proven closer, meaning the Twins have spent $18 million just so they will be covered by a proven closer one way or another. Depending on how you shuffle the money around, the Twins may have valued an auxiliary closer over a bona fide shortstop, which is nuts.
These are good teams with good farm systems, too. We're not talking about the Royals, who are looking for a left-handed reliever because Dayton Moore decided to let the Twins have his only decent one. These are teams with strong management and deep farm systems. The Twins have been successful for an entire decade, and the Rangers are now poised for a similar run. But for one reason or another, members in their leadership ranks can't stand the thought of having a question mark in the ninth inning, even if they survived -- nay, succeeded -- under the same conditions just months before.
That brings us back to Guillen, who has navigated through several MASSIVE CLOSER PROBLEMS with a steady hand. Back in 2004, he inherited proven closer and budding head case Billy Koch, and turned to Shingo Takatsu (no big-league experience. When the league figured out Mr. Zero, Guillen saw a closer in Dustin Hermanson (half-season of closing). When Hermanson's back gave out, Bobby Jenks carried the load.
Guillen guided Jenks through numerous mini-emergencies until he became too expensive, and when that day arrived, he had no problems letting Kenny Williams cut ties with his only proven option, with no weathered face to take his place.
When you think about it, Guillen has helped save the Sox quite a bit of money over his seven years. It's never been more apparent than this past offseason. By going with Thornton or Sale (and not demanding to retain Jenks or the previously proven Putz), he gave Kenny Williams about $10 million to play with. He put $5.5 million back in the bullpen by signing Jesse Crain and Will Ohman, and the rest could contribute to the mountain of money needed to sign Adam Dunn, Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski.
The results might not be perfectly efficient. Crain and Ohman's contracts look like they're each a year too long, and Thornton might be reserved for ninth-inning leads that never get to him when he could have been used earlier. But hey, we can't expect a team to abandon all MLB norms. If bad teams with zero hope don't experiment, contenders certainly aren't going to reinvent management methods unnecessarily.
The alternative isn't awful, especially when comparing the Sox to other teams. Guillen might not be rocking the boat, but at least he can give his co-workers wiggle room.