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The Closer Race And The Darkhorse Candidate

While it might be hard to believe these days, Ken Griffey Jr. is not the only Seattle Mariner present at camp. There are actually 62 different players - or there will be, anyway - and many of them are going to be participating in competitions for spots and roles on the Opening Day roster. With this many names collected in the same place, a whole lot of jobs are going to be there for the taking.

One of those jobs is that of the team's closer. With JJ Putz busy badmouthing the clubhouse from 2500 miles away, someone has to take his place, and right now, the race is wide open. There are a ton of relievers hanging out in Peoria, and while five have emerged as the most prominent candidates, five is still a pretty big number that leaves a lot left to be decided. Between Tyler Walker, Miguel Batista, Mark Lowe, Roy Corcoran, and David Aardsma, this is one competition that may very persist until the last day of Spring Training.

When confronted with that list, a lot of people assume that the competition will come down to the first three. Both Batista and Walker have a fair amount of closing experience, and Lowe has electric stuff that includes a sharp slider and an absolute slaughterhouse of a change. Out of that group, most believe the team will select its stopper. Neither Corcoran nor Aardsma seem to be getting much attention.

And that might be fair in the case of Corcoran. As neat as it is to have an extreme groundballer, Corcoran's due for some regression, and he doesn't have anything to offer to lefties. He's a platoon reliever who will thrive most in a role in which his situations can be closely monitored.

In the case of Aardsma, though, I think people might just be looking at his overall numbers and jumping the gun. There's a reason Zduriencik picked him up when he did, and there's a reason he stands as one of the five candidates. David Aardsma has a gifted right arm.

I don't need to sit here and remind everyone that Aardsma can throw 99. We've been over that. But in light of the whole closer competition, I think it's worth pointing out just how similar Aardsma's repertoire is to that of the guy we're trying to replace. Over his three years as the Mariners' closer, JJ sat as a ~70/20/10 fastball/splitter/slider guy, with a heater in the high-90s and a splitter that fell off the table. Aardsma's coming in as something like a 75/15/10 fastball/slider/splitter guy with the same sort of velocity and movement. In PITCHf/x terms:

Putz (2007)
Aardsma (2008)
Movement (x) Movement (z) Movement (x) Movement (z)
Fastball -4.9 9.2 -4.7 11.8
Slider 2.3 2.3 1.3 1.9
Splitter -4.8 5.4 -5.7 4.8

Aardsma's fastball is straighter, but it's equally fast and fairly effective. His splitter, meanwhile, has even more vertical break than JJ's, and follows the same kind of path in towards a right-handed batter. It doesn't precisely mirror his fastball in that regard like JJ's does, but it's pretty close. It's an offspeed pitch that looks a lot like a heater until it dies. That's a potentially dangerous weapon. (I'm not going to talk about the slider, since it's not a putaway pitch for either guy.)

Aardsma's no clown. Yes, he has a lot of work to do when it comes to hitting his spots, but he has a very similar arsenal to the one that made our last closer successful, and he's not an easy pitcher to hit. It's also important to highlight, as others have, the fact that Aardsma was pretty good last year before his season was derailed by a groin injury. Prior to landing on the DL, Aardsma had a .637 OPS against and the same swinging strike rate as Mike Gonzalez and Joakim Soria. His command and control were still below-average, but you can get away with a few extra walks when you're difficult to hit and difficult to hit hard.

This is going to be a fiercely competitive spring, and the opportunity is there for David Aardsma to finally launch the kind of career so many people thought he'd go on to have. He just needs to work on refining his location, and while that's no easy task, his arm gives him a greater margin of error than most. And hell, even if someone else wins out at the end of ST, it's not like that guy will have a very firm grip on the job. Until someone truly steps up and takes the closer role by the throat, no one occupying the spot is going to have much in the way of job security, and given Aardsma's dynamite arsenal - and Lowe's, too - there's the potential here for a major breakout. You'll want to keep an eye on these two. After all, it's a heck of a lot easier for a guy with good stuff to develop command than for a guy with command to develop good stuff, and when guys with good stuff develop a little command, that's when the magic starts to happen.