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BASEBALL / ROSS NEWHAN : And, in Closing, Misery Has Plenty of Company

May 01, 1994|ROSS NEWHAN

It was a bad week for former, current and projected closers:

--The Oakland Athletics released Dave Righetti, one-time ace of the New York Yankees' bullpen, and the Seattle Mariners released Bobby Thigpen, the Chicago White Sox's one-time ace.

--The Angels revised their relief plans and sent Mike Butcher to Vancouver.

--And the Florida Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals had to put Bryan Harvey and Mike Perez on their respective disabled lists.

If misery loves company, Harvey and Perez have plenty of it.

The disabled lists are already bulging with closers: John Wetteland of the Montreal Expos, Duane Ward of the Toronto Blue Jays, Rob Dibble of the Cincinnati Reds and Gregg Olson, who made his mark with the Baltimore Orioles and is now with the Atlanta Braves.

Olson is not expected to be ready until midseason, if then. Dibble is probably sidelined for the season. Ward is back throwing, but his return from biceps tendinitis is uncertain. Harvey, Perez and Wetteland are expected to return by the end of May.

Amid the overall dilution of major league pitching, age and attrition have diminished the closer ranks, reduced the percentage of converted saves from 70% in 1993 to 55% through April, tightened the trade market and seemingly spawned a new generation of closers.

At this point, only 10 teams are operating with injury-free veterans whose names are synonymous with the closer role and who remain successful in it.

They are Todd Worrell of the Dodgers, Randy Myers of the Chicago Cubs, John Franco of the New York Mets, Doug Jones of the Philadelphia Phillies, Tom Henke of the Texas Rangers, Jeff Montgomery of the Kansas City Royals, Rick Aguilera of the Minnesota Twins, Jeff Russell of the Boston Red Sox, Lee Smith of the Orioles and Mike Henneman of the Detroit Tigers.

Dennis Eckersley remains the A's closer, but at 39 he no longer boasts his trademark control or swaggering confidence. Mitch Williams might already have worn out his welcome with the Houston Astros, who have given save opportunities to Todd Jones and Tom Edens. Goose Gossage is strictly a spectator in the Seattle bullpen. Jeff Reardon is still getting work with the Yankees, but he has to get in line now.

Roberto Hernandez of the White Sox, Xavier Hernandez of the Yankees, Ken Ryan of the Red Sox, Trevor Hoffman of the San Diego Padres, Darren Dreifort of the Dodgers, Mike Wohlers of the Braves, Rick White of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Hector Carrasco of the Reds are among relievers who figure to be the next generation of closers.

"When you lose the dominant closer, all you can do is scramble," Montreal Manager Felipe Alou said, fortunate to have Mel Rojas as a interim replacement for Wetteland.

Similarly, set-up man Mike Jackson has helped fill the void for the Giants, starter Todd Stottlemyre has stepped into the breech with Toronto and Carrasco has virtually come from nowhere to head a Cincinnati committee successfully replacing Dibble.

At 24, Carrasco has undergone reconstructive elbow surgery, compiled an undistinguished minor league record, been released by the Mets and traded by both the Astros and Marlins. He had never pitched in competition higher than Class A, but Cincinnati Manager Davey Johnson was reminded of Roger McDowell when he saw the movement on Carrasco's fastball in the instructional league last winter. Johnson told General Manager Jim Bowden: "He needs some work, but there's always someone who comes out of spring training as a big surprise."

Dibble was sidelined because of his rotator-cuff problem, and Carrasco became the surprise. He is 3-1 with two saves and a 1.13 earned-run average.

"So far, he's shown he can handle it," Johnson said. "Some of his previous clubs may have made a mistake using him as a starter. I'm comfortable calling on him as the closer."

The Carrasco-led bullpen has been the key to the Reds' strong start in the National League Central, but seldom does a mystery man step forward.

The Blue Jays, seeking their fourth consecutive title in the American League East and already in the market for a starting pitcher, know their chances of acquiring a relief pitcher are virtually nil. The hapless Twins might eventually make Aguilera available, but the price will be steep. Harvey could also become available if he returns, but that price will be even steeper. In the meantime, the Blue Jays are hoping to return Stottlemyre to the rotation and use the talented but inconsistent Mike Timlin as the closer.

"There's nothing we can do until we know about Ward," General Manager Pat Gillick said. "But even if he can't pitch, it may cost too much to trade for someone because there are so few closers."

Bowden, the Reds' general manager, thinks there will be fewer trades now, regardless of the position involved.

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