The Colorado Rockies have signed veteran reliever LaTroy Hawkins to a one-year, $2.25 million contract with second-year option worth $2.25 million. That unto itself is not that noteworthy. Hawkins is a solid reliever and that contract is perfectly reasonable given his track record. What makes this either headscratchingly stupid or sneakily brilliant is that when announcing the signing of Hawkins, the Rockies also let it be known that he will most likely be their closer in 2014. Yes, that's right. LaTroy Hawkins who is about one month away from turning 41 years old is going to close games.
Why are they doing this? We don't really know. There are both very good and very bad reasons to make this choice. The bad reasons would be pointing to Hawkins's "closer experience." He does have 101 saves over his very, very long career, including 13 as the fill-in closer for the Mets last year. However, he hasn't been a full-time closer since 2004 with the Cubs. That is for a very good reason because Hawkins, despite his "veteran guile" has basically been altering pretty good seasons with pretty bad ones. 2013 was one of the good ones though, so maybe that fooled the Rockies into trusting him even though it was the first time he breached the 70-inning and 7.0 K/9 plateaus (not counting his 16 inning, injury-shortened 2010 campaign) since 2004. Even with Hawkins being so solid in 2013, he hardly had the effectiveness that one expects from the end of game closer and there is very little reason to believe he can actually replicate that same level of performance.
That is a particularly vexing problem because the Rockies actually do have in-house alternatives to use at closer that should be as good if not significantly better than Hawkins. Many had assumed Rex Brothers, long considered the closer of the future, would assume the mantle. In 2013, Brothers fanned 10.16 batters per nine innings and paired it with a shiny 1.74 ERA. Granted, he had a 3.36 FIP and 4.81 BB/9, but he should still be excellent even if he regresses to his peripherals some. There is also Adam Ottavino, who had a very strong campaign in 2013 with a 2.64 ERA and 3.15 FIP. Maybe he isn't closer material, but he should factor into the late innings next season. And then there is Matt Belisle, who has very quietly been a rock solid veteran middle reliever the last several years. If age and experience is what the Rockies wanted, Belisle has plenty of that and has been largely better than Hawkins the last five seasons to boot. Yet now Hawkins is going to be getting the most exposure to high leverage situations out of all of them.
Of course, that could all be by design. If we are to give Colorado's front office the benefit of the doubt, which is probably not a good idea, then this might be an under-the-radar stroke of genius. There are many, myself included, who consider the closer role wildly overrated. Perhaps the Rockies have seen that light and don't wish to pigeonhole their best relievers, like Brothers, into that role and will stick Hawkins there so that they can use Brothers liberally in high leverage situations regardless of what inning it is. That would come with the added benefit of keeping Brothers (and to a lesser extent Ottavino or any other young reliever) cheap during his arbitration years as those figures are very much influenced by save totals.
If that is really what the Rockies intend to do, then it is quite ingenious. Make Hawkins the vaunted "capital C" closer while keeping the younger, better arms cheaper and freed up to be used more efficiently in high leverage situations. It is a strategy more teams should adopt, especially those not ready to contend. However if the Rockies actually think they can contend and somehow believe that relying on a more traditional bullpen setup with Hawkins as their late inning hammer, they could be in for a very rude awakening. It won't cost them much money, but it sure could cost them some wins and last time I checked, Colorado doesn't have many of those that they can afford to give away.