2009 wasn’t that long ago, was it? In the world of the Colorado Rockies it feels much longer than three years have passed since those rosy days. As the team prepared to face the Philadelphia Phillies in the NLDS, there were grumblings that solid-as-a-rock closer Huston Street would be offered a three year extension that offseason. And why wouldn’t he? He converted 35 of 37 save opportunities. He was the best closer the Rockies had seen in their short history. Or something…
But even with his failures in that same 2009 divisional series, I was happy that the Rockies locked up Street. It made sense to have the closer position locked down. In hindsight I was naive to have such a positive outlook or to think that he was any different than Brian Fuentes or Manny Corpas.
You remember Corpas and Fuentes. Prior to Street we talked about them the same way. They figured out how to close in Colorado. They would sure up that difficult position for the foreseeable future. The team committed to them accordingly with contract extensions, including a four year deal for Corpas. That deal proved to be an example of premature jocularity on the part of the front office, as Corpas had only been the closer for half a season. The 2007 playoffs proved to be his last and only meaningful contributions for the Rockies. Fuentes pitched reasonably well throughout his tenure, but ultimately wore out his welcome once he was phased out of the closer’s role for good.
So now the Rockies have extended Rafael Betancourt, who also closed for less than a full season with moderate success. This is different because the team has already extended him in a set-up role and he has rewarded them with mostly consistent performances. By now we know what to expect from him.
Why should this be different than the previous closers? It is difficult to tell if it will be or not. One might argue this is different because we have a larger sample size to consider than we had with Corpas, even if Betancourt only started closing recently.
The team had a lot of data at their disposal when they extended Brian Fuentes, who did save a lot of games and even made multiple all star game appearances. Unfortunately he disappointed fans in the end and fell short of expectations.
Many people felt that Street was not the answer as the long term closer because he was a finesse pitcher. This made his margin for error tiny and magnified his mistakes in tense situations. Betancourt is not a finesse pitcher and relies on a strong fastball. Maybe that makes him a more ideal fit for the role.
Until this past season he was a well-documented failure in his limited attempts to fill in as the closer, both on the Indians and on the Rockies. To say that the second half of 2011 shows he can get the job done consistently might be a bit too optimistic.
While there are parallels to the most recent pitchers who were supposed to be fixtures at closer, Betancourt ultimately resists those comparisons. His wealth of experience is a plus and he is presumably quite comfortable with the coaches and the organization in Colorado. Hopefully those factors combine to create an environment for him to succeed in a relatively new role. His current moment in the arc of his career and in his time with the Rockies makes his situation distinct from the others mentioned above.
If he fails it might not be fair to blame it all on him. Maybe the Rockies cannot reasonably expect any pitcher to sustain success closing games. Whether it’s the park or the mental challenges of the job, it is hard to recall any closer in the club’s history who did not fizzle after a short burst of successful saves. You can trace this as far back as Bruce Ruffin, as Michelle did in a post this morning. We remember Ruffin as a successful relief pitcher, and rightfully so, but even his stint as the closer proved short in terms of years.
Can Rafael Betancourt be the first pitcher to buck this trend? That seems unlikely to me given his struggles in the role prior to last season and his painfully straight fastball. Yes, he keeps hitters out of rhythm with his plodding pace and hides the ball well, but we know those last 3 outs are just that much more difficult than the rest of the game. Over time, I do not believe Betancourt can get by the same way he has as a set-up man throughout his long career.
If Betancourt succeeds, it solidifies one part of an otherwise shaky pitching staff. If he does not, it shortens the window the team has to groom presumed closer of the future Rex Brothers. Like the other question marks on the team, this might be a key factor in whether the team is relevant or rebuilding in 2012.