Wednesday, January 21, 2004

posted by James - 11:02 PM

The question has been raised (yeah, yeah, passive voice, I know.) about the whereabouts of former Montreal, Boston, Texas and Florida closer Ugueth Urbina during this offseason.

Why hasn't he signed with a team yet when there were quite a few teams looking for a pedigreed closer (and still are)? And, more importantly, why have so many teams dismissed him after good years?

Rest assured, there's nothing fishy about the former Marlins closer. He's been the victim of teams that couldn't afford a closer of his quality or didn't want to spend the money on that spot (i.e. Montreal, Texas). He's been effective at every stop he's made.

Boston should have held onto him, but Red Sox GM Theo Epstein was set on trying the closer by committee and went with Mike Timlin, Alan Embree and Ramiro Mendoza instead. He ended up regretting and paying heavily for it later.

And he'd still be in Texas if they didn't have Francisco Cordero and Jeff Zimmerman waiting as much cheaper closer options (why they spent any money on bringing in Jeff Nelson or Kenny Rogers, I'll never know), but they got bowled over by the Marlins' offer. The Rangers got a recent #1 overall pick who immediately became their top prospect, among others. The Marlins didn't really care about giving him up because they have a lot of depth at his position, and Urbina was the last piece to a World Series winner.

In fact, I think this will be a trend for vagabond closers in the near future until their salaries come back down. Houston got rid of Billy Wagner without much of a thought because he's due $11 million this year ($8 million salary + $3 million option buyout). The Padres forced Trevor Hoffman into a very low-base salary after coming off an injury this last year. And the Mariners are just letting Kaz Sasaki stay home in Japan rather than pay his salary this year.

Closers cost way too much and the Dodgers have proven that you probably have a starter who makes the minimum laying around who can do the job. And who knows what will happen with reigning N.L. Cy Young Award-winner Eric Gagne's asking for $8 million.

Kudos to Cubs GM Jim Hendry for spending his bullpen money wisely and spreading it around on several quality arms instead of breaking the bank on a "big-name closer." Even without a Gagne, Wagner or Isringhausen, I'll take the Cubs pen over any in the National League.

They have several middle-relief options for Manager Dusty Baker to utilize at his discretion, and they re-signed closer Joe Borowski to a two-year deal paying him less than Oakland paid Arthur Rhodes (no closer experience) and Florida paid Armando Benitez (no desirable closer experience).

As far as Urbina goes, there are still options for him available. Here's my top 5 Triple-U destinations:

1. Minnesota. After letting Seattle steal Eddie Guardado, who saved 40+ games the last two years, the Twins have a dearth of experience in their bullpen.

It's possible lefty J.C. Romero or righty Joe Nathan, acquired from San Francisco, could fill the late-inning roles, but neither has any track record of success in save situations.

The Twins still have designs on winning the A.L. Central, even though they lost three key players this offseason (C A.J. Pierzynski to the Giants, SP Eric Milton to the Phillies and Guardado) and received nearly nothing in return, and Urbina would fit perfectly into a role this team needs to fill. Although, they could probably use a couple pitchers.

2. Pittsburgh. Who knows whether the Pirates would have the money for this (they couldn't be spending it all on C Jason Kendall, right?), but right now their bullpen is headed by returning RHP Brian Boehringer and retread RHP Juan Acevedo and not much else.

Yes, their offense looks like someone went off on them with a chain gun it has so many holes in it, but they have young players who might fit in there. They have no one who can tread the path of a closer.

3. San Francisco. Barry's boys have a very strong bullpen already, but they've been known to bring in strong pitchers to tandem with their closer (i.e. Roberto Hernandez, Jose Mesa).

They could wait until mid-season to bring in a late-inning pitcher, but the health of current closer Robb Nen could force their hand, and if they sign Urbina they could trade current set-up man Felix Rodriguez for a starting pitcher to complete their rotation or another bat to protect Bonds in his quest for 700 home runs.

4. Cincinnati. The Reds have a pathetic pitching staff - even worse than the Pirates - and it would only get worse if they have to move Danny Graves out of the rotation and back to closer.

Signing Urbina would solve this problem and allow the Reds to ease 2003 draft pick Ryan Wagner into the role. This would be nothing more than a cup-of-coffee for Urbina, heading to a contender by July at the latest.

5. Atlanta. See above, San Francisco. The Braves have a right to be worried about their bullpen with John Smoltz an injury risk and Antonio Alfonseca a risk to have on the staff at all (as we Cubs fans know all too well). The Braves might also have to move RHP Jaret Wright into the rotation, further depleting the pen from the right side.

This would be another example of Braves GM John Schuerholz's magic, but Urbina would fill the void left by RHP Roberto Hernandez's departure to Philadelphia, which ol' six fingers won't fill alone.

There was a spot on the list for the South Siders, but they just signed Japan's career saves leader Shingo Takatsu to a one-year deal to compete with Billy Koch.

Other possibilities: Expos, Mets, Orioles, Mariners (sans Kaz Sasaki), Tigers (sans Pudge Rodriguez, hopefully) and Cardinals.

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