PEORIA, AZ There arent many things we can know about the 2011 Mariners at this point, just a few days into spring training.
One is that they dont have a closer. David Aardsma is the man, nominally, but hes still using crutches to get around after hip surgery hed hoped to be rid of them by now, but Wednesday morning they were still very much in evidence and there doesnt seem to be anyone else ready for the job.
There are a couple of ways to look at this. One is that two years ago Aardsma didnt have a save to his name for his entire career, but blossomed when given the chance and has 69 saves in less than two years on the job. So somebody else could follow the same general path to success.
The other is to think that the Mariners simply dont need a closer, at least not in the way that most teams do. Seattle is rebuilding. The Mariners want to be competitive, but they arent going to be contenders, so the focal points of the 2011 season need to be on building for the long term.
So in the big picture, they need a quality closer for April, 2012, and beyond much more than they need a quality closer in April, 2011.
There has been talk about having Brandon League (6-for-12 in save tries in Aardsmas absence last year) do the closing until Aardsma has recovered. Failing that, suggestions have been flying that Chris Ray, a one-time closer with the Orioles, get the chance now that hes completely healthy again.
But given the teams long-term needs, it would behoove the Mariners to hand the ball to Danny Cortes in the ninth inning, assuming he makes the team. With a 101-mph fastball and a burgeoning amount of self confidence, Cortes is the closer of the future. League is basically at his best doing eighth inning work. Ray had 33 saves in a season, true, but that was back in 2006, and even if he finds his stuff as a closer in Seattle this year, at age 29 how long would he figure to be around as the Mariners move forward?
And if Cortes is the closer of the future, why not get him into that role now, even just as a cameo?
It wont happen, though. Baseball doesnt work that way.
“I would hesitate to put a guy that young out there and having him pitching in that role, manager Eric Wedge said Wednesday of the soon-to-be-24-year-old Cortes. “Knowing that Dave will be back out there in a little while, Id like to use the obvious guys, the guys who have been out there before.
“I dont want to put that kind of a role on a kid who is trying to make this club.
That makes sense as far as it goes. It just doesnt go far enough. Unless every expert is wrong, the Mariners are going to be a team without a chance to be a winner in 2011. Why not build for the day when they might be winners by giving the kids who will one day be the franchises mature players a chance to learn the job by doing the job?
Cortes should be one of those players. The owner of a 90 mph fastball as a starter, Cortes found he could throw his fastball from 93-95 mph when he made the move mid-season into the bullpen. During the winter league play in Venezuela, he touched triple digits on the radar gun to the point where he was surprising himself.
“There were games in Venezuela where I thought I was completely out of gas, Cortes said Wednesday. “Then Id look up at the scoreboard and see Id thrown 98, 99. It seems easier now somehow.
Cortes is far from a finished product. Acquired in 2008 in the deal that sent Yuniesky Betancourt to the Royals, he was floundering as a starter (5-4, 6.08 ERA) when he went to the Mariners and asked for a move to the bullpen. The results were dramatic, even beyond the uptick in velocity.
He went 1-0 with one save and an 0.71 ERA during the rest of his time at Double-A West Tennessee before being moved to Triple-A Tacoma and finally, in September, to Seattle.
“I was struggling as a starter, so I went to them and asked if I could pitch out of the bullpen, he said. “The next day I was out there. And its been really helpful. I have better velocity, but also better command of the strike zone.
Cortes had trouble with his curve, went away from it, and rediscovered a slider with plenty of life in it. And he spent the winter working on the curve, both during and after his time in Venezuela, where he was a closer.
“I become a monster, is the way Cortes describes the change when he steps on the mound in the ninth inning. “Away from the field Im pretty cool and calm. But I want to win so bad, its always balls-to-the-wall when Im out there. As a closer I havent been intimidated. I still have to work on my command, but it feels great to be out there on the mound in the ninth inning.
When the Mariners get to experience the monster is up for debate, but sooner would seem to be better than later.
John Hickey is a Senior MLB Writer for AOL FanHouse (www.fanhouse.com)