Closer role is not the most stable job in baseball
Many clubs have had to find new options in the ninth inning over past 12 months
The bearded man who threw the final pitch of the 2012 World Series, claiming his third save in the four-game sweep, wasn't the Giants' first choice as closer last year. He wasn't even the second. And for some time, he was just one of several being used, depending on the situation.
There can be no doubt Sergio Romo was a brilliant closer throughout the Giants' Orange October run to their second title in three seasons. But even entering this season, he's not necessarily a lock to be the one and only guy in the ninth inning for the Giants.
Such is the realm of the Major League closer, circa 2013.
While the closer role remains a no-brainer for many teams -- with rising stars such as the Braves' Craig Kimbrel and stalwarts like the Phillies' Jonathan Papelbon continuing to serve their teams well -- the ninth-inning man has become somewhat of an enigma for others, at least if 2012 was any indication.
The World Series champion had a merry-go-round in the ninth until October, and the runner-up Tigers had a wild ride themselves in October that put their closer situation in limbo.
Comparing their ninth-inning situations to a year ago, change has come to more than half of the 30 teams in the Majors.
As the Giants can attest, the ability to adjust in the ninth can be crucial, and beneficial. When Brian Wilson headed for a second Tommy John elbow procedure after just two appearances, the Giants went with Santiago Casilla for much of the season before going to a committee that included Romo, Casilla and veteran left-handers Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez.
As 2013 begins, it's Romo's job, but the Giants have made it clear he won't be going four or five days in a row, because he hasn't been asked to do that before in his career and they have other viable options. That said, as of Opening Day, it will likely be Romo in the ninth for the defending champs.
"I think he's earned the right to be out there as we start the season," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said.
The Tigers, meanwhile, turned to Phil Coke after Jose Valverde lost his way during the playoffs. But it's 22-year-old rookie Bruce Rondon who will get the opportunity to earn the closer's job this season, following a 2012 in which he pitched at three levels and lit up the radar gun with 100-plus mph pitches at the All-Star Futures Game. Meanwhile, Valverde remains a free agent, as the Tigers hope the future is now for Rondon.
"You can't make a senior out of a freshman," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said of Rondon. "I don't know, but I do like talent, and he's got a lot of it. We'll give him an opportunity."
Along with Wilson's elbow injury changing the Giants' course of action in the ninth, there was the injury to all-time saves leader Mariano Rivera that, while not the way the Bronx Bombers scripted it, had the Yankees finally getting the most out of Rafael Soriano (42 of 46 save opportunities), and now Rivera is making a go at returning from that freak knee injury.
There was Brad Lidge's sports hernia, which limited him to 11 appearances last year with the Nationals, who this offseason turned to Soriano to take the ball from a talented young duo of Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard. And when free agent Ryan Madson came up injured, the Reds went with Aroldis Chapman as their closer, then moved him to the rotation for this season, keeping Jonathan Broxton on board to serve as closer. Meanwhile, Madson was off to the Angels this winter, completing another turn on the merry-go-round.
Teams also turned to young arms that proved to have the right stuff to handle the rigors of the ninth inning. Chiefly, after deciding on Jim Johnson over veteran Kevin Gregg coming out of Spring Training, the Orioles were rewarded with a Majors-high 51 saves.
Other changes in the past year included Joel Hanrahan now taking the ninth-inning reins in Boston, leaving veteran Jason Grilli to do the same in Pittsburgh, and Brandon League going from the Mariners' closer to holding that role for the Dodgers at the end of 2012 and into '13, leaving the ninth inning in Seattle to Tom Wilhelmsen.
Some places, things just didn't work out. The Marlins had made Heath Bell one of their free-agent prizes last winter, and after converting just 19 of 27 opportunities, he was off to the D-backs.
In other places, things worked out better than clubs could have been hoped. Exhibit A: Fernando Rodney headed to the Rays a year ago following five seasons of 4.00-plus ERAs with the Tigers and Angels, and when Kyle Farnsworth hit the disabled list, the ninth was Rodney's. He went on to post a 0.60 ERA while converting 48 of 50 save opportunities.
For others, it was smooth sailing in the ninth, as expected. Kimbrel continued what has been as impressive a start to a closing career as has been seen, posting a 1.01 ERA in 2012 along with 16.7 strikeouts per nine innings -- an all-time Major League record. Jason Motte held forth in St. Louis, while veterans like the Rangers' Joe Nathan and the Phillies' Papelbon found new homes for their ninth-inning wares.
Younger veterans of the role like, the Indians' Chris Perez and the Brewers' John Axford, worked through growing pains, and the Rockies' Rafael Betancourt posted 31 saves in his first full season working in the ninth.
But for the most part, change has been the word when it comes to the closer role over the past 12 months. At least one thing is back to normal: Rivera is back in Yankees camp, preparing for a 17th season as the team's closer, determined to maintain the high standards he set before his injury a year ago.
"Definitely. I always demand myself that," Rivera said. "I'm looking for that. Otherwise, I wouldn't be here."
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.