Minus a practiced hand to close games, Rays turn to duo with tools, if not know-how.
By MARC TOPKIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 21, 2001
ST. PETERSBURG -- They appear to have all the necessary physical attributes to be a successful closer. They're big and strong righthanders. Each throws hard and fast, and can be as competitive a cuss as you'll find.
There's only one thing Esteban Yan and Tanyon Sturtze seem to lack.
Yan, in parts of five seasons, has saved one major-league game. And that would be exactly one more than Sturtze has in his five-year career. The minor leagues weren't much different, with Yan saving four games, Sturtze seven.
But as the Rays seek a replacement for Roberto Hernandez to finish off games, they start with this unlikely duo.
"They both are competitive, they both have arm strength, they both have another pitch (besides a fastball), so they're bringing two quality pitches," general manager Chuck LaMar said. "I think they both are going to be very effective bullpen guys for us this year. Whether one steps up to be, quote, the closer is yet to be seen."
For Yan, 26, the job would be a natural progression. The Rays used him somewhat extensively and relatively effectively in middle relief and setup work for the past three seasons, and he says he learned plenty from Hernandez during those hours in the bullpen.
He has limited but intense experiences as a closer in the Dominican Republic winter leagues to draw on, and he says he is excited and eager about the opportunity for a promotion. "Believe it," Yan said. "I think I'm ready."
For Sturtze, 30, it's a different ballgame. He had been primarily a starter throughout his career and thought he would have a shot at a slot in the rotation this year after going 3-0 with a 2.28 ERA in five August outings. Most of his previous relief work has been of the long or mop-up variety, though he spent a good part of the 1996 season at Triple-A Iowa as a setup man.
Still, he says he is ready for the new assignment. "I've never done it before, and it's always a challenge to do something new," Sturtze said. "But now that I know I'm probably not going to be in the rotation, I'm glad they're giving me an opportunity to be the closer, and I definitely want that. I'm going to go after it, and I'm going to go after it as hard as I can."
Manager Larry Rothschild, who had the luxury of Hernandez being a phone call away for three years, acknowledges the process of picking a closer may not be clear cut. It can be difficult to gauge a closer's effectiveness in the spring, when teams are using minor-leaguers late in games. There is a chance a final decision won't be made until the season is under way, or even at all. One possibility is that Yan, Sturtze and even others, including a possible late-spring pickup, could end up sharing the job in a bullpen-by-committee.
"Este is going to have the first chance to be the (closer), and then we'll go from there," Rothschild said. "That doesn't mean when Este falters I'm going to put someone else in there. I've got to have confidence in him if I want to try to get him to end up being the (closer) here."
Rothschild said that even if successful, Yan will be a work in progress but that patience is sure to have its limits. Yan can get into the mid 90s with his fastball, but he has had trouble with command of his slider and split-finger pitches. He allowed 211 baserunners in 1372/3 innings last season, including a team record 26 home runs. In three seasons, he is 1-for-10 in save situations.
"I'll need to see him progress and be able to put games away at some point in spring training," Rothschild said. "Obviously, I want to see the stuff, and I need to see the command of the stuff. If those things happen, you know at some point everything is going to come together for him and he's going to be a pretty good closer."
While Rothschild is trying to pick a closer, a larger issue must be resolved.
Since May, the Rays have moved Albie Lopez into the rotation and moved Rick White, Jim Mecir, Mark Guthrie and Hernandez to other teams, wiping out what had been one of the league's best bullpens.
Assuming Yan, Sturtze and at least one lefthander (with incumbent Doug Creek likely atop the list of a dozen candidates) will make the team, the Rays need to fill at least three other spots.
"The whole bullpen is a priority for me, and it's something that has to be focused on all spring," Rothschild said. "One thing I'd like to prevent from happening -- and I don't know that I'll be able to -- is that this becomes a daily conversation about the bullpen.
"I would like to get it settled as quickly as possible or at least limited to certain numbers and go from there, but the truth of the matter is that it's all pretty wide open."
HT/WT: 6-4; 230.
REPERTOIRE: Fastball, slider, split-finger.
MINORS STATS: 53-42, 3.05 ERA, 4 saves, 115 starts, 167 games.
MAJORS STATS: 15-17, 5.76 ERA, 1 save, 23 starts, 164 games.
HT/WT: 6-5; 205.
REPERTOIRE: Fastball, split-finger, slider.
MINORS STATS: 65-65, 4.34 ERA, 7 saves, 173 starts, 270 games.
MAJORS STATS: 7-3, 5.93 ERA, 0 saves, 12 starts, 47 games.