One of the first things we’ll ask Mariners manager Eric Wedge when we meet with him pregame today is about the situation at closer.
Will he be making a change in that ninth-inning role, or will he be sticking with the struggling Tom Wilhelmsen?
At this point, it wouldn’t be surprising to hear him say he’s going to stay with Wilhelmsen. This will obviously infuriate a good portion of fans, who are ready to bounce “The Bartender” from his role. And they have good reason to want that.
The numbers aren’t pretty.
In six of his last eight appearances, Wilhelmsen has allowed the lead-off hitter to reach base, which is not ever good for closers.
In 11 of his last 12 appearances, Wilhelmsen has allowed a runner to reach base – meaning he’s had just one 1-2-3 inning.
In his last four saves, Wilhelmsen had allowed two earned runs on four hits with four walks and a .353 on-base percentage.
Look at his numbers since the dropped ball blown save in Cleveland
That’s ugly … and yet, there’s a good chance Wedge might stay with him.
There really isn’t anyone else that has the stuff, the experience or the make-up to handle it.
Let’s look at the candidates …
Charlie Furbush? He hasn’t been good in late-inning situations and has been good in his role as a lefty specialist.
Yoervis Medina? He’s been better than expected, but he also is a rookie and far from reliable.
Danny Farquhar? He’s actually been a closer at Tacoma, and he’s got a great make-up, but that would be a lot to ask.
Stephen Pryor? If he was healthy, I wouldn’t be typing this blog post.
So it leaves the two most likely candidates: Carter Capps and Oliver Perez.
Capps is all of 22 years old. Yes, he throws hard – very hard. But don’t forget, so does Wilhelmsen. What we’ve seen is that if you can’t locate your fastball off the middle of the plate and hitters know you have to throw the fastball, they can and will hit it … hard.
Capps has been solid most of the season, but he’s also had his struggled, particularly against left-handed hitters. Look at his splits …
That’s pretty dramatic. The strikeout numbers and the OPS are significant. The problem is Capps’ inconsistency with his slider and curveball. He needs both to keep hitters from looking fastball only. But he has yet to get consistent or pinpoint command with those offspeed pitches to pose a problems to lefties. He doesn’t have a great changeup to use against lefties to get a pitch moving away from them since the fastball and two breaking pitches all move in on him.
And then there is the fact that he’s still very, very young. His major league experience is minimal. The Mariners envision him as a closer of the future. But you have to wonder if he’s ready for that future to be this weekend.
Perez has also had times where he’s looked dominant. He’s got the good four-seam fastball at 92-95. He’s got the slider and curveball and a change-up and seemingly 100 different arm angles. He’s very effective against lefties, while still being able to get right-handers out as well. At age 31, he has plenty of big league experience, but no experience in the closing role. That’s important. How many dominant set-up guys have you seen wilt under the pressure of the ninth inning?
Perez has also given quite a few hits this season (19 in 23 1/3 innings pitched) and hasn’t been quite as sharp as at the start of the season.
If I had to choose between the two, I’d probably go with Perez.
So what should the Mariners do? No manager likes the closer by committee. Relievers don’t necessarily want defined roles, but they like to have an idea of what situations you would be used in.
Wedge could give Wilhelmsen a little break to work on his mechanics and find his fastball command in some non high-leverage situations and use the combo of Capps and Perez to massage their way through eighth and ninth. But this isn’t something they can or should do for more than a week to 10 days.
I know some people hate the idea of defined roles as closers and set-up men. There’s been debate on whether anyone can be a closer and have success. I’m not going to get into that. But if anyone can close out games, then people wouldn’t shudder when Bobby Ayala and Brandon League are mentioned in conversation.
Realistically, Tom Wilhelmsen is their best option at closer. He has the best best stuff and is the best pitcher in that bullpen. It won’t kill the Mariners to give him a little break. And it won’t be the end of the world if Wedge decides to stick with him. Almost every closer has a period of struggles throughout the season. The Mariners at least understand part of why Wilhelmsen is struggling – bad fastball command – and they can fix it. But it’s clear that the laid-back Wilhelmsen’s confidence has taken a hit. You can see it in his face and on the mound. The only way to get that confidence back is to have some success.