Mariano Rivera aside, closers are the most ephemeral, capricious, zephyr-like of all of baseball's creatures, and one of its most abundant. Chicago White Sox general manager Rick Hahn gave a strong signal that he is one of the enlightened few that correctly values closers when he dealt his young ninth-inning guy, Addison Reed, to the Arizona Diamondbacks in return for third base prospect Matt Davidson.
Rivera's value wasn't necessarily that, in any given season, he towered over his 9th-inning rivals, but that he was shockingly consistent. He was the most valuable reliever in baseball his 107.2-inning 1996 season setting up for John Wetteland, but ironically as soon as he started closing the anal strictures managers place on closers meant that his value was reduced. In 16 seasons as a closer he led the American League in saves just three times (the Yankees were too good to need him as often as, say, the 2008 Angels needed Francisco Rodriguez), and as measured by WAR, he was the most valuable reliever in baseball just four times. What is more interesting is the pitchers who exceeded him in saves in those years, not just K-Rod, but Eddie Guardado and Joe Borowski and Brian Fuentes and Jose Valverde. Rivera was there year after year; almost everyone else came and went.
The lesson, as teams like the Red Sox and Athletics have shown repeatedly, is that if you lose a closer, don't panic, just figure out the next-best alternative and move on. Maybe a kid like Rex Brothers will move into the role. Maybe a veteran like Koji Uehara or even a minor league veteran like Jim Henderson will display unsuspected powers. Yes, at some point your team may go through a season in which you struggle all year long to identify that one guy who can pitch in the ninth inning and never quite get there, blowing lead after lead along the way, but given just how often this particular gambit works out, if the choice is between allocating scarce resources to a reliever and any other department of your team, beef up the rotation or the lineup and worry about the ninth inning later.
The White Sox demonstrated that they understand this principle when they flipped Reed to the Diamondbacks for Davidson. Reed, who will turn 25 at the end of the month, closed at San Diego State University, then moved into the same role for the White Sox less than two years after being taken by them in the third round of the 2010 draft. He throws hard and issues relatively few walks for a pitcher of his power. Reed made it to 40 saves this year, but that's a thoroughly degraded statistic -- there have been 99 such seasons in this century alone, with not only the aforementioned blink-and-you-missed-‘em quartet above recording 40 or more saves in a season, but also Bobby Jenks, Danys Baez, Jose Jimenez, and a bunch of other transients you would need a cheatsheet to name -- but one that in Reed's case conceals eight blown saves. In this era of one-inning "soft" saves, an 83 percent conversion rate is actually quite poor. There were 32 pitchers who had 20 or more save opportunities this year. Reed's save percentage ranked 25th.
That's a pitcher who is (a) replaceable and (b) likely to become disproportionately expensive in the future. While the White Sox might not be able to mint another right-hander whose fastball sits 93-95 mph and also features a killer slider, they can, almost 100 percent guaranteed, chunk out a right-hander who can convert saves at an 83-percent rate.
What they cannot do, and have not been able to do with any consistency since Robin Ventura left town, is find someone to play a quality third base. If you look at the starters, you will note that the last time the same player got the bulk of starts at the position two years running was 2005-2006 with Joe Crede, and that subsequently the team has served the public cold scraps at the hot corner: first-round bust Josh Fields; Crede again; Gordon Beckham in his first major league exposure; Omar Vizquel trying to round out his Hall of Fame case; Brent Morel, truly awe-inspiring at .245/.287/.366; the desiccated remains of Kevin Youkilis; Conor Gillaspie, another first-round bust, though not Chicago's. Moreover, whereas the White Sox' problems at third were once notable enough to become emblematic of the franchise's overall haplessness, the rest of baseball now shares that deficiency with them. There is a serious paucity of quality third basemen in the majors right now, a dearth which helps explains paunchy (though agile) 34-year-old Juan Uribe getting a two-year deal to return to the Dodgers despite hitting .199 over the previous two seasons and frangible Eric Chavez, 36, having his pick of destinations. The team that has a good young third baseman on offer should be able to name its price.
The Diamondbacks had that in Matt Davidson, the 35th-overall pick in the 2009 amateur draft. A career .268/.351/.452 hitter in 591 minor league games, Davidson, 23 as of next March, is a slowish right-handed hitter whose calling card is power and whose main weakness has always been so-so defense. If he doesn't develop at all from where he is now, he could be nothing more than a .250-average/20-home run guy with a subpar glove to boot, but given that White Sox third basemen hit just .236/.285/.350 this year, he doesn't have to be a whole lot more than that. In a major league trial this fall he hit .237/.333/.434 in 87 plate appearances. The White Sox will take that.
The Diamondbacks have had a strange offseason. Thanks to the presence of Martin Prado and Didi Gregorius in the big leagues at the same time Davidson and shortstop Chris Owings completed their minor league studies, Kevin Towers had two commodities that should have netted his team a good return. Instead, having traded one of his pitching prospects and better young outfielders for unidimensional Angels slugger Mark Trumbo, he then used that as an excuse to force the versatile Prado from left field or third base to third base-only. That meant Davidson was now hors de combat, all dressed up with no place to go. Towers turned him into a right-handed reliever, a good one, but as every child making out his Christmas list knows, if that's all you ask for, that's all you'll get.
Brad Ziegler, who handled closing duties for Arizona after Heath Bell's implosion, may not be the quintessential fireballing closer, but those of us old enough to recall the sidearm tossing of Dan Quisenberry or the soap-bubble changeups of Doug Jones can tell you that you don't have to be a thunderbolt-throwing Zeus of the Bullpen to succeed in the ninth inning.
As for the White Sox, as Cee Angi points out in the sidebar at right, Rick Hahn has quietly had a very good winter. We can't know how Davidson's acquisition will play out for them, but we can know this for sure: The White Sox will have another closer to deal before the Diamondbacks have another top third-base prospect to throw away on him. The Diamondbacks have a strong system, so prospects like Jake Lamb and Brandon Drury might make that a close thing, but having a surplus is no excuse to give away rare items lightly. At $11 million per for the next three years, Martin Prado may be paid like a star, but he isn't one, and what was once a surfeit may soon become a poverty. As the old saying goes, a fool and his third baseman are soon parted.