Perhaps you'd forgotten, but for two teams - the Seattle Mariners and the Oakland Athletics - the 2012 regular season begins on Wednesday, March 28. Except they're playing in Japan, so I guess that's Thursday, March 29. Or Tuesday, March 27. I didn't major in time zones. Whenever they start, the point is they're starting before everyone else, which means they need to make roster decisions before everyone else. Things need to be more or less set within the next few days.
Tuesday, the A's have made their latest roster decision. Over the winter, the team traded closer Andrew Bailey to the Boston Red Sox and didn't receive a closer in return. That meant the closer role in 2012 was up for grabs. Coming to camp, it looked like there would be a competition between Grant Balfour, Brian Fuentes, and maybe Fautino de los Santos. Now we have a winner:
Balfour named #Athletics closer.— Susan Slusser (@susanslusser) March 20, 2012
Because I can't help myself, this was tweeted 23 minutes before the above:
Milone and ross are expected to make a's rotation. Fuentes is expected to be the closer. #athletics— Jon Heyman (@JonHeymanCBS) March 20, 2012
Anyway. Nothing was really "won" in camp. In six spring appearances, Balfour has five runs, four walks, and four strikeouts to his name. In six spring appearances, Fuentes has five runs, three walks, and four strikeouts to his name. In six spring appearances, de los Santos has three runs, three walks, and four strikeouts to his name. What mattered, according to Susan Slusser, was Balfour's performance in 2011. Last year, Balfour was good. Fuentes was not as good, and de los Santos was pretty good and pretty wild.
Now, it's important that we not make too much of this. Grant Balfour has been named Oakland's closer, but he hasn't been named Oakland's permanent closer. He'll last only as long as he's getting the job done. If that's all season, that's all season. If he struggles out of the gate, he could be demoted. He has ten career saves, and his strikeout rate keeps dropping. This does set Balfour up well to amass value, though. Fuentes probably isn't closer material anymore, and de los Santos is young enough to be a possible closer of the future.
One wonders if Balfour's contract was in any way a consideration here. He's due $4 million in 2012, with a $4.5 million club option for 2013. If he closes and closes well, the A's could probably trade him at the deadline. But then, Fuentes is due even more in 2012, and contracts are the kinds of things that front offices have to worry about. Managers like Bob Melvin care less about contracts, and more about doing what they think is best for the team at the moment.
God knows Balfour seems to have the personality of a closer. He throws hard and conveys this intensity that Brian Fuentes doesn't. I don't know what that's worth, and it's probably worth next to nothing, but Balfour won't look out of place protecting a late lead.
The obvious joke is "why would the A's need a closer at all, because they'll be bad." Every team needs a closer, and the A's won't be that bad, probably. Balfour should do a good-enough job. If he does, he'll be traded, or he'll be kept around for 2013. If he doesn't, he'll be removed, and somebody else will slide in. This matters more to fantasy baseball players than to the average fan, but at least now you know a little more about the 2012 Oakland A's. It's never bad to be better informed.