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Position Battles: Angels Closer

In what appears to be a wide open competition, the Angels have five candidates trying to win the closer's job this spring. Manager Mike Scioscia has hinted at a closer-by-committee to begin the season, saying recently that "any one of five guys have the ability to get the last out of the game." But it's quite possible that somebody emerges with the job by the time the season starts. I'll be keeping a close eye on this competition, along with over 50 other position battles that I've identified, over at MLBDepthCharts.com. Let's take a look at the contenders.

Tale of the Tape

Fernando Rodney vs Scott Downs vs Hisanori Takahasi vs Kevin Jepsen vs Jordan Walden

Rodney: 33 years old, $5.5MM salary 2010 stats: 4-3, 4.24 ERA, 68 IP, 70 H, 35 BB, 53 K, 14 Sv, 21 holds 2011 Outlook: Slight favorite 

The right-hander took over as the team's full-time closer after Brian Fuentes was traded to Minnesota in late August and proceeded to blow saves in four of 12 opportunities. Rodney also gave up at least one run in 8 of 17 games during that stretch. So it's easy to understand why his manager has not anointed him as the team's closer for 2011. He is the most experienced of the group, by far, with 84 career saves and had a solid first half of the 2010 season (4-0, 3.57 ERA in 38 games) so it appears he could still have a slight edge at this point.

Downs: 34 years old, $5MM salary 2010 stats: 5-5, 2.64 ERA, 61.1 IP, 47 H, 14 BB, 48 K, 26 holds 2011 Outlook: Underdog, more likely to fill setup role with an occasional save opportunity

The veteran has been among the top left-handed setup men in baseball over the past few years and was rewarded this offseason with a three-year, $15MM deal to join the Angels. Aside from 2009 when he saved nine games for Toronto, Downs hasn't been given much of a chance to close out games. He's likely to stick to his typical role, trying to hold a lead or keep a game close in the 7th or 8th inning. However, it wouldn't be surprising to see him get a chance to save a few games when the opponent has more than one tough left-handed batter due up in the 9th. In case you're wondering, lefties hit just .152 (12-for-79) against him last season.

Takahashi: 35 years old, $3.8MM salary 2010 stats: 10-6, 3.61 ERA, 122 IP, 116 H, 43 BB, 114 K, 8 Sv 2011 Outlook: Underdog, more likely to fill various roles with an occasional save opportunity

His versatility may have been one of the main reasons the Angels snatched him up with a two-year, $8MM deal this offseason. But it could also work against him in this competition. The left-hander, who started 12 games for the Mets last season, saved eight games down the stretch as the team's closer, and finished with 10 wins and 122 IP, is capable of filling many roles. He can work multiple innings, make a spot start, come in to face a tough left-handed batter (lefties had .217 BA against him in '10), set up, or close. Takahashi isn't going to strike fear into opponents with his high 80's fastball, but he mixes in a very good change up along with a slider, cutter, and curveball. Not your prototypical closer, which is probably why he's usually going to be overlooked with the game on the line in the 9th.

Jepsen: 26 years old, est. $440K salary 2010 stats: 2-4, 3.97 ERA, 59 IP, 54 H, 29 BB, 61 K, 27 holds 2011 Outlook: Underdog, more likely to continue in setup role 

He appears to have the stuff to be a closer (mid-90's fastball, low 90's cutter, good curveball) but he'll have to be more consistent with his command if he's to be trusted with a 9th inning lead. His 4.4 BB/9 is actually a tad better than Rodney's while his 9.3 K/9 is much better. But it's his lack of experience (1 career save) that puts him behind in this competition. 

Walden: 23 years old, est. $414K salary 2010 stats: 0-1, 2.35 ERA, 15.1 IP, 13 H, 7 BB, 23 K, Sv, 6 holds 2011 Outlook: Underdog, more likely to begin in middle relief role with chance to win job later in the season

Converted to relief just last season, Walden was called up to the majors in August after spending most of the season in Double-A. Scioscia threw him right into the fire and the rookie responded with 23 Ks, six holds, and one save in his 16 big league appearances. For those of you that are impressed by this kind of stuff, the right-hander averaged 98.9 mph with his fastball during his stint with the Angels and reportedly hit 102 mph on the radar while in the minors. Once he proves that he can command his fastball-slider repertoire on a consistent basis, he'll be trusted with the ball late in games and could eventually take over as the full-time closer sometime in 2011. 

Final Word

Instead of aggressively pursuing a free agent closer, such as Rafael Soriano, the Angels chose to invest their money in improving the overall depth of their bullpen, spending $23MM on Downs and Takahashi. Baseball games can just as easily be won or lost in the 7th and 8th innings so we don't know at this point if the Angels will come to regret their decision. It's hard to name a successful team, however, that has gotten by with a bullpen-by-commitee for very long. My guess is that they lean on Rodney early on, with Downs getting an occasional save opportunity, while they ease Walden into the role. If Rodney struggles, look for more Takahashi. Without that 'go-to guy' in the 9th, it's hard to have confidence in the Angels going into 2011. They're living dangerously, if you ask me.

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