Tony La Russa is considered the godfather of the modern method of running a bullpen, dating back to the glory days in Oakland when Rick Honeycutt would work the seventh, Gene Nelson the eighth, and Dennis Eckersley would slam the door in the ninth. Nowadays, a manager practically needs a court order to use his closer in the eighth inning, and that’s the La Russa influence at work.
So what La Russa has decided to do this year with the Cardinals, at least at the start, is notable: Not even name a closer. It’s not quite a committee, but it sounds pretty close. Listen to pitching coach Dave Duncan (pictured above with La Russa), who has been La Russa’s right-hand man for more than 20 years:
“Even if we, in our minds, have that person designated, I don’t think we’re going to publicly say that, and I don’t think we’re going to tell the individual. Let him establish himself. We’ll create the situation for him to pitch, and if he establishes himself then he will (close). If he doesn’t, then he won’t.”
The Cardinals’ ongoing hunt for a closer to replace Jason Isringhausen sounds awfully similar to the Mariners’ situation right now as they try to replace J.J. Putz: A lot of candidates, but no standouts. In the Cardinals’ case, Jason Motte, with all of 12 major-league games under his belt, appears to have moved ahead. In the Mariners’ case, it’s really hard to say, though perhaps Mark Lowe now has the edge.
Will Don Wakamatsu go to the dreaded “closer by committee”? He was asked that when I was in Peoria, and he said, “I wouldn’t prefer that.” But I’m sure he was hoping someone, anyone, would emerge as the clear No. 1 candidate. I haven’t seen that yet, but there’s still time. If not, maybe the La Russa method of not naming anyone will start to sound enticing, who knows?
Here’s what Wakamatsu said, albeit nearly two weeks ago, when asked about how he liked to set up a bullpen:
“I think I’m fairly conventional in that I like a closer and a fairly established setup man. Beyond that, I’d like some versatility…When you ask about the left-handed situation, if I don’t have that guy, I’m not opposed to what Mike Scioscia did for a number of years in Anaheim. If we have a guy that’s effective against left-handers and right-handers, I’ll go that route.”
There are many interesting decisions awaiting Wakamatsu and the Mariners in the next two weeks, and how he handles the closer situation is near the top.
(Photo by Associated Press)