Angels may call on creative approach to closing
With surplus of power arms, Halos have options beyond Rodney
ANAHEIM -- On one of MLB Network's "Top 10 Right Now" segments, the Angels' Mike Scioscia was selected as the No. 2 manager in the game, behind Boston's Terry Francona.
Scioscia has reached the top echelon of his profession by being his own man, thinking outside of the proverbial box while staying true to core beliefs rooted in his early days with the Dodgers, right out of high school in the Philadelphia area.
That independent approach to his work could come into play in his 12th season in charge of the Angels in the way he chooses to manipulate the back end of his bullpen.
Fernando Rodney, coming off an up-and-down debut season with the Angels, is the projected closer. Scioscia would love to see the right-hander with the mid-90s heater flourish in the role that belonged to Troy Percival, Francisco Rodriguez and Brian Fuentes in the past decade.
Should Rodney falter or sustain an injury, however, the Angels won't be shy of candidates to plug into the ninth inning.
Veteran Scott Downs, one of the game's premier left-handed relievers, arrives with some closing experience in Toronto. Scioscia, recalling with fondness the emergence of such young guns as Bob Welch and Steve Howe in his youth, is high on Kevin Jepsen and Jordan Walden as potential closers.
"With the power arms that we have in the back end of our 'pen," Scioscia said, "I really feel that we're going to have a closer that is going to emerge."
If a closer by committee happens to materialize, it would be nothing new to Scioscia. He handled bullpens featuring several ninth-inning options in his early years with the Dodgers, including the championship season of 1981.
Scioscia's breakthrough year as the club's primary receiver coincided with the arrival of the great Fernando Valenzuela and the maturation of a dominant staff. Howe, Dave Stewart, Bobby Castillo and Alejandro Pena handled closing responsibilities. Castillo, at 26, was the big brother in the group.
The Angels could produce a similarly youthful look in 2011 with Jepsen, Walden and Michael Kohn, complemented by veteran free-agent acquisitions Downs and Hisanori Takahashi.
Matt Palmer, Jason Bulger, Rich Thompson, Francisco Rodriguez, Trevor Bell and Bobby Cassevah could thrust their way into the late-innings mix with solid springs.
While Rodney didn't inspire confidence in fans with his uneven performance in 2010, he has a track record as an effective closer.
With the Tigers in 2009, he led the Majors in save percentage, nailing down 37 of 38 opportunities. Filling in for Fuentes when the lefty was down early last season, Rodney was close to perfect, retiring 15 of 16 men he faced in claiming five saves.
But his inability to stay in the strike zone became his downfall late in the season, and he finished with 14 saves in 21 chances. If that's the Rodney who surfaces again, falling behind in counts and putting himself in jams, Scioscia will explore other avenues.
Jepsen, 26, has a closer's mentality and first-rate stuff: mid-90s heater with a developing cutter. He already has made five postseason appearances, earning Scioscia's trust under pressure.
It was with Team USA in the 2008 Summer Olympics where Jepsen made his mark as a finisher, helping drive the team to a bronze medal. He has closed effectively in the Minor Leagues.
Walden, 23, is raw but blessed with overpowering stuff. He began his career as a starter, experiencing arm issues that set him back, and is just now getting a feel for relief.
The big Texan was electric in a September trial with the Angels, striking out 23 in 15 1/3 innings while walking only seven. Walden unleashed 53 pitches that hit 100 mph or higher on the radar gun, third in the American League.
Kohn, 24, is a converted position player who came late to pitching in college and doesn't throw as hard as Walden or Jepsen. But the South Carolinian can hit 91-94 mph with deception and has a knack for getting outs.
Kohn put together a 2.11 ERA in 24 appearances for the Angels last year and hasn't had an ERA above 2.45 in five Minor League stops covering three seasons.
Durable and getting better with age at 34, Downs allowed only 65 baserunners in 61 1/3 innings last season, striking out 48. His combined ERA over the past four seasons, in 262 appearances, is 2.36.
In his most extensive exposure to closing, Downs was 9-for-13 in save attempts for the 2009 Jays.
As seen in the past with a young Rodriguez setting up for Percival and Scot Shields, the eighth-inning role goes hand-in-hand with closing. Downs appears ideally suited for the eighth but also can be a specialist if a big out -- Josh Hamilton, say -- is needed earlier.
Takahashi, who can handle any role out of the bullpen and spot start, gives Scioscia the luxury of a second southpaw to address a left-handed bat in game-turning situation.
A student of the game, Scioscia can recall a time when teams deployed dual closers. Randy Myers was a left-handed hammer who shared the ninth with righties on two dominant teams: Roger McDowell with the 1988 Mets and Rob Dibble with the Reds' 1990 "Nasty Boys." It was another lefty, Jesse Orosco, manning the ninth with McDowell fr the '86 champion Mets.
The popular trend calls for one ninth-inning artist, clearly defining bullpen roles. But getting creative and going with multiple looks can be an effective, if unconventional route.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.