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Middle men becoming baseball's top priority

As starters, closers pitch fewer innings, set-up men become more crucial to success.

By JOHN ROMANO

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 8, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- It remains a simple game on sandlots across America. Uncomplicated and unburdened, baseball lives on, as if in some long-forgotten era with only the most imperceptible of changes. Big kids want to play first base and hit home runs. Cocky kids want to be starting pitchers and rack up strikeouts. Smart kids want to be middle relievers and earn millions.

Okay, so some big-league trends cannot help but be acknowledged. How can you not notice when Jim Mecir gets a better deal than Tony Gwynn? Or when Jose Mesa can lose six of 10 decisions, record one save, compile a 5.36 ERA and be rewarded with a two-year, $6.8-million contract from the Phillies?

These are the pitchers who specialize in the seventh and eighth innings. The liaison between the starter and the closer. They have come to be known as set-up men. In an earlier day, they were called scrubs.

"Look, I would love to go back to the four-man rotation and go back to starters who throw seven, eight, nine innings, but the game is constantly evolving," Royals manager Tony Muser said. "The fact is, you really can't compete anymore without a stocked bullpen."

It would probably be safe to say the evolution of the set-up man is complete. Two years ago, Texas rookie Jeff Zimmerman made the All-Star team as a set-up man. The New York Yankees, owners of three straight World Series titles, are fretting over the loss of set-up man Jeff Nelson to the Mariners. The Phillies recently invested $15.55-million in Mesa and Rheal Cormier, and Cormier has the same number of big-league saves as you.

"Oh yeah," Cormier said, when asked if he was surprised to have landed a three-year, $8.75-million deal after leaving Boston via free agency. "I had never been in a situation where I was in demand before. The Phillies were the first team to make an offer and I was like, 'Wow, that's a lot of money.' "

Cormier was in demand because he is left-handed and had proven he could provide a bridge between a starting pitcher and a closer. And more and more teams are deciding that that role is critical to success.

This, of course, was not an issue 50 years ago when pitchers actually threw complete games. In 1950, American League pitchers completed 40 percent of their starts. In 2000, AL pitchers completed 5 percent of their starts.

And though relievers have been in vogue for three decades or more, never have middle relievers been so coveted. In the '70s, a team was happy to get seven-plus innings out of a starter and then let Rollie Fingers or Sparky Lyle or Goose Gossage get the final five or six outs.

Now, the starters only go six innings and the closers only get three outs. That leaves the seventh and eighth innings wide open.

"It's not unusual now to use four pitchers in a game," Phillies pitching coach Vern Ruhle said. "You only want your closer pitching one inning or maybe 11/3 because you want him available again tomorrow. So if you have a reliable set-up guy, he is almost like a second closer."

There are legitimate reasons starters are not lasting as long. The offensive explosion means pitchers are throwing more pitches per game. And with millions of dollars tied up in a starting pitcher's arm, teams are reluctant to let them go beyond 110 pitches a game.

That means teams are willing to pay to get set-up men, both monetarily and with players. When the Rays were ready to make trades last summer, they raided their bullpen to save some salary and bring in some prospects. Mecir, Rick White and Mark Guthrie were involved in trades that brought Jesus Colome, Paul Wilson, Jason Tyner and Brent Abernathy to Tampa Bay.

"Only two teams in the American League last year averaged more than six innings a game out of their starters and only one pitcher in the American League averaged over seven innings, and that was Pedro Martinez," Rays general manager Chuck LaMar said. "Set-up men have become more important, not because their role has changed, but because we're just not getting many innings out of starting pitching.

"Consequently, quality set-up men are making millions of dollars and that's why we've had to turn them over. Everybody in this organization knew the quality of a Jim Mecir and the quality of a Rick White, but combined they would have made $3-million this year. And, right now, we're not in a position to start paying our set-up men $3-million. You have to have them to win championships and when we get to that point, we'll wish we had a Jim Mecir. But for now we have to invest in our starting players and our starting pitchers, and hopefully through the ranks develop our own set-up men."

Shrewd teams can develop set-up men because, by the very nature of the job, those pitchers are mostly castoffs anyway. If your stuff is not good enough to start and you don't have the makeup to be a closer, than the alternative is middle relief or night school.

Set-up men will complain, with some justification, that they do not get enough credit because they often are credited with blown saves when they were never going to get the opportunity to save the game in the first place. Set-up men also are usually called upon with men on base, while closers often begin the ninth inning fresh.

On the other hand, set-up men are getting millions of dollars to work four or five innings a week, which makes Alex Rodriguez look underpaid.

"Every competitor would rather be out there to get the final three outs of the ballgame," Zimmerman said. "A closer shuts the game down for a win and the catcher comes out and hands him the ball and gives him a high five and congratulates him. That's what every relief pitcher shoots for.

"But I'm not complaining. I don't think we'll ever be on the same pedestal as starters or closers, but we're getting there."

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