Veteran right-hander Luke Gregerson is in line to be the Cardinals' closer -- right up until he's not. If that sounds harsh, it's not intended to be. He's a good pitcher, not an elite one. There's a good chance he won't remain the Cards' closer the entire season. That's a thought that bothers Cardinals fans, understandably, but here's a more relevant thought: It mostly doesn't matter.
That sounds crazy, right? Bullpens are more important than ever -- with starting pitchers throwing fewer innings -- but we've also learned that the saves role isn't as important as it once seemed. This is why you see elite relievers such as Andrew Miller, Chad Green and Chris Devenski pitching earlier in the game. A "closer" is an important part of a bullpen, but he's just one part.
We can say that with confidence because of what we've seen this decade, which is that every single one of the last seven World Series champions -- every one! -- has ended the year with a different closer than the one they started the season with. It's a good reminder that in the saves role, little goes according to plan, and that's OK.
Just look at how many different ways title winners got the job done:
2017 Astros: After Gregerson lost his job in 2016, the closer role eventually became Ken Giles' gig, and he was very, very good ... until he fell apart in October, not receiving a single save chance after blowing a lead in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. Instead, the Astros relied on Brad Peacock, Lance McCullers and, in Game 7 of the World Series, steady starting pitcher Charlie Morton.
2016 Cubs: Do you remember that Hector Rondon was really good that year? He had a 1.95 ERA and 48/5 K/BB ratio in 38 games when the Cubs traded for Albertin Chapman, relegating Rondon to something of a second banana for the rest of the year.
2015 Royals: This was Greg Holland's job for most of the year, but he blew out his elbow in September. For most teams, that's crushing. But most teams don't have Wade Davis ready to go.
2014 Giants: Keep this one in mind, because we're going to get back to it in a minute. After Sergio Romo carried a 5.01 ERA into July, he was replaced as the closer by longtime teammate Santiago Casilla, who ended up pitching 7 1/3 scoreless innings in October.
2013 Red Sox: Boston thought it had a steady closer heading into the 2013 season, having traded for Pittsburgh's Joel Hanrahan, an All-Star the previous two seasons. (By the way, this trade cost them future All-Star Mark Melancon, though it did gain them Brock Holt, who was an All-Star in 2015.) Hanrahan threw only 7 1/3 innings before hurting his elbow and hasn't thrown another pitch in the Majors. He was replaced by Andrew Bailey, who was subsequently replaced in June by Koji Uehara -- who struck out Matt Carpenter to end the World Series.
2012 Giants: Before Casilla replaced Romo, Romo replaced Casilla, memorably getting Jose Cabrera to strike out looking to end the World Series. But before that, they both had to replace Brian Wilson. After spending four seasons as the Giants' closer, Wilson entered 2012 as the obvious closer, but he injured his elbow after only two games and never appeared for the Giants again.
2011 Cardinals: This one gets messy. At first, it was 38-year-old Ryan Franklin, but he didn't last long. After that, at various times, it was Eduardo Sanchez, Mitchell Boggs, Noel Salas and eventually Jason Motte, who didn't get his first save of the season until Aug. 28. Motte was outstanding in the 2011 postseason, then followed it up with a fine 42-save season in 2012.
To recap, the seven men who finished off those World Series wins were, in reverse chronological order: a starting pitcher, a July trade acquisition, a setup man, a setup man who had previously lost the closer role, a 38-year-old setup man, another setup man and a converted catcher who had been -- wait for it -- a setup man. Not since Wilson with the 2010 Giants have we seen an Opening Day closer be there at the end for a champion.
That's partially because attrition rates are high in that job, and it's partially because saves just don't matter. Last season had the lowest number of 30-save pitchers, 11, since MLB expanded to 30 teams in 1998. In 2015, for instance, there were 21.
As we've seen in recent seasons, MLB teams don't necessarily hold their best relievers until the ninth inning, and they don't pay for saves as much as they do talent. Another related factor: It's just not easy for a pitcher to stay in that role all year long anyway.
Though we've made it clear that saves are generally a poor way to evaluate a reliever, their opportunity-based nature makes it a decent method to look back and see who a team's closer was. Last April, we looked at each team's saves leader, making a caveat to include the Rangers' Sam Dyson, who was the team's closer but performed so poorly he didn't record a single save.
Of the 30 Opening Day closers, only 14 of them had the most saves for their teams in September. That means more than half of Major League teams had, for any number of reasons, a ninth-inning turnover. The Mets (Addison Reed), Marlins (AJ Ramos), Twins (Brandon Kintzler), White Sox (Player Page for David Robertson), Pirates (Tony Watson) and Nationals (Blake Treinen) traded theirs. Others, like the Giants' Melancon, got hurt. The Brewers' Neftali Feliz lost his job. So did Francisco Rodriguez (Tigers), Dyson (Rangers) and Seunghwan Oh (Cardinals).
This isn't to say that talented relievers don't matter. Far from it. If you're fortunate enough to have Kenley Jansen, Craig Kimbrel or Roberto Osuna, you're feeling confident about the back end of your bullpen. But if, on the other hand, you're not thrilled about Gregerson or Alex Claudio, or Brad Brach, remember that they don't have to be there all season for your year to end well. When it's not Gregerson, maybe it's Tyler Lyons or Alex Reyes. Maybe it's Alex Colome. We don't know. We don't need to.
It's a reminder, really, that key moves can and do happen. Breakouts can and do happen. We have no idea who will be closing eight months from now -- and as the last seven World Series champs have shown, that's not necessarily a problem.