Though the value of the save has been de-emphasized a bit over recent times in this age of analytical data, there is still plenty to appreciate about that fireballer who jogs in from the bullpen in the ninth and throws nothing but heat.
It would seem that recording three of 27 outs in a normal baseball game wouldn't be that difficult. But, as has been proven time and again, not everyone can do it. Every October, we're reminded that the elite baseball teams rarely lack that ninth-inning guy who can blow by the competition to nail down the win.
Closers, as they develop through a Minor League system, emerge slowly, over time. Most teams have at least one hard-thrower they may be eyeing as closer material. In the American League Central, several candidates stand out. Some, fans are familiar with; others are still working their way up the ranks. Let's examine:
Indians: Emmanuel Clase
The Indians have two up-and-coming relievers joining their roster this year who have been projected to potentially shift into a closing role one day. Righties Clase and James Karinchak have the lights-out stuff it would take to take on the responsibility, but both have had plenty of struggles with their command that could hinder their progression.
The Indians didn’t see much of the 21-year-old Clase in Spring Training this year due to an upper back strain after he was traded to the Tribe from the Rangers in December. But the way he was able to slash his 4.2 walks per nine innings in three seasons in San Diego’s system to 2.0 in two years with Texas demonstrates that his command may be improving slightly faster than Karinchak, who averaged 6.8 walks per nine innings in 17 Triple-A appearances last year.
But with growth and experience, Karinchak’s nearly untouchable 12-to-6 curveball in the eighth inning and Clase’s triple-digit cutter, which has cutting and riding action that becomes difficult to barrel in the ninth (or vice versa), the back end of the Tribe’s bullpen could be setting up nicely for the foreseeable future.
-- Mandy Bell
Royals: Tyler Zuber
Before Royals camp was postponed because of COVID-19 concerns, one young pitching prospect was making a case to crack the 40-man roster and the Opening Day roster -- right-hander Zuber.
So impressive was Zuber that he also becomes a serious candidate as a future closer for the Royals.
Zuber, 24, cracked the Royals’ Top 30 Prospects list per MLB Pipeline at No. 28 after a breakout season in the Minors in 2019. He posted a 1.79 ERA in 43 outings with 21 saves between Class A Advanced Wilmington and Double-A Northwest Arkansas.
Zuber arrived at his first big league camp in February with an outside chance at making the 26-man roster. But he wowed manager Mike Matheny and his staff early on, and then performed impressively in the Cactus League with a 1.50 ERA in five appearances with one walk and eight strikeouts.
A 2017 sixth-round Draft pick from Arkansas State, Zuber had been mostly a fastball-curveball-slider pitcher in the Minors. He arrived in Surprise, Ariz., with a deadly changeup to complement a heater that sits in the 94-95 mph range but can tick higher when needed. Zuber, somewhat undersized at 5-foot-11, 175 pounds, already has drawn comparisons to Greg Holland.
“When we need a reliever to get past a right, left, right in a big situation, being able to go to that changeup is a big deal,” Matheny said of Zuber. “It’s a plus-pitch, and it’s amazing he’s been able to have so much success without needing it. I think that’s going to be another weapon for him.” -- Jeffrey Flanagan
Tigers: Bryan Garcia
To be fair, Joe Jiménez just turned 25, isn’t arbitration-eligible yet and isn’t going anywhere soon unless the Tigers decide one day to trade him for prospects. Still, if that day comes, it’s interesting that Garcia is now on the same track Jiménez followed to Detroit -- then to a setup role, and eventually a closer. Garcia, an accomplished closer at the University of Miami, was a sixth-round Draft pick in 2016 and on a fast track to Detroit before losing the '18 season recovering from Tommy John surgery.
His mid-90s fastball plays up to hitters thanks to some deception and sink, but his out pitch is an upper-80s power slider that flummoxed Major League hitters down the stretch last year after his September debut. The righty is fit for a seventh- or eighth-inning role in Detroit’s bullpen whenever baseball resumes.
-- Jason Beck
Twins: Dakota Chalmers
Chalmers will readily admit that he has never really had too much in the way of command -- as his career ratio of 185 strikeouts to 114 walks shows -- but when he does figure out how to direct his pitches, the quality of his raw stuff could make him a force in a big league bullpen sooner rather than later, especially after he was added to the 40-man roster last offseason to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft. That's a pretty good return for two months and change of a 41-year-old Fernando Rodney, whom the Twins sent to the A's in August 2018 in exchange for Chalmers.
The 23-year-old right-hander is listed as the No. 23 prospect in the Twins' organization in MLB Pipeline's 2020 rankings. Chalmers' fastball and curveball give him a high ceiling in the bullpen, especially considering his limited workload following his return from April '18 Tommy John surgery.
He's not going to consistently touch 100 mph like other top Twins prospects -- namely Jhoan Duran and Edwar Colina -- but the mid-90s fastball still plays well, especially when coupled with a big curveball that very much impressed an AL scout in the Arizona Fall League. Pitching coach Wes Johnson noted that Chalmers flashed some solid swing-and-miss ability during Spring Training, and the Twins' aggressive rotation of pitchers on the 40-man could lead to Chalmers getting a big league look relatively soon.
-- Do-Hyoung Park
White Sox: Aaron Bummer
If this question were asked early on in Spring Training 2019, Bummer most likely wouldn’t have been the choice. The talented left-hander had trouble finding the strike zone, let alone breaking camp with the team or becoming an integral part in a potential championship run. But Bummer put together one of the best seasons among AL relievers as the 26-year-old posted a 2.13 ERA over 58 games with 60 strikeouts in 67 2/3 innings, a 0.99 WHIP and 27 holds.
He ranked among the AL relief leaders in inherited-runners-scored percentage (17th, 19.4), first-batter efficiency (tied for fourth, .115), holds (sixth, 27), ERA (seventh) and opponents average (tied for ninth, .184).
Bummer’s sinker-friendly approach plays well at hitter-friendly Guaranteed Rate Field, and the White Sox showed confidence in him via a five-year, $16 million extension agreed upon during Spring Training 2020. According to Statcast, Bummer’s 71.4 percent ground-ball rate ranked second behind Zack Britton (76.7) in '19. The White Sox have other options, with hard-throwing Zack Burdi and Ian Hamilton being two examples.
They also have a plethora of young hurlers projected for the rotation, but a few of those will inevitably end up as bullpen components and could become late-inning options. Bummer has the ability to work multiple innings as a setup man, as shown last year, but ultimately should be getting the final outs for the White Sox. -- Scott Merkin
Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.