Closer controversies can full of intrigue, like the Reds' decision to return Aroldis Chapman to closing duties. They can also be stupid and kind of sad, like the mess at the end of the Milwaukee bullpen right now. And then there are closer controversies that are just the worst, which is in the case in Boston.
As the owners of the best record in baseball, the Red Sox don't have a lot of problems, but their closer position is a problem and it is a doozy. Ironically, the Boston front office has gone out of the way to try and make their closer situation a strength but instead it has ended up becoming both a weakness and a constant concern.
Before 2012, they traded for Andrew Bailey who is an All-Star when healthy. Well, he wasn't healthy and barely pitched for the Red Sox at all in 2012. Recognizing the error of their ways, the Sox once again took to the trade market and acquired an All-Star closer in the form of Joel Hanrahan. Hanrahan was seen as a hedge against Bailey as Hanrahan had no real history of health problems. He did however have some alarming indicators in his peripheral stats, like a spike in walk rate, home runs allowed and FIP, that suggested Hanrahan might be in for a decline in production. You'll never guess what happened next.
Sure enough, Joel Hanrahan was dubbed the team's closer entering the season, a mantle he held for all of a handful of games, games in which he pitched poorly, before landing on the disabled list. Fortunately for the Red Sox, they still had Bailey waiting in the wings to take over as closer. Having the depth paid off as Bailey excelled to the tune of a 1.46 ERA, 14.59 K/9 and 5 saves. But then the inevitable happened and Bailey landed on the DL last week with a bicep strain because that is just what Bailey does.
The silver lining in the injury was Bailey's timing. he went on the DL just as Joel Hanrahan came off of it. Perfect, right? Yeah, not so much. Hanrahan was back, but he was just as bad as he was before his DL stint, allowing runs in two of his three appearances in the last week. But to top it off, Hanrahan left last night's game with an injury to his forearm and seems destined to return to the disabled list. That is probably not the roster spot Boston envisioned Hanrahan and Bailey competing for.
Now, despite their best laid plans, the BoSox need to find someone else to serve as closer. Even with the loss of both of their preferred options, Boston is not without recourse. In fact, they might be in pretty good shape. The likely choice to fill in would be Koji Uehara. Uehara has been very effective this season, just like every season, His ERA is 2.63 and he is fanning over 11 batters per nine while issuing just two walks all season. A pretty strong argument could be made that Uehara is just plain better than Bailey and Hanrahan regardless of health. Really the only thing that holds Koji back is that, as an extreme flyball pitcher, he is prone to giving up homers. He also doesn't throw very hard, so he doesn't fit the traditional mold of a power arm that most teams prefer to use in the closing role.
If the Red Sox really want to go that route, they could also turn to Junichi Tazawa whose line this season is almost identical to Uehara's, but he can average over 93 MPH with his heater, so he fits the profile better. What he doesn't have is much experience in the majors, much less as a closer. Both he and Uehara seem more than capable of closing games, which should help Boston survive without Bailey and Hanrahan. The question is what will become of their late inning relief roles when Bailey and/or Hanrahan both return?
With so many quality options at their disposal, the only thing that Boston should really be worried about is some actual stability in the late innings. If and when Uehara or Tazawa steps in to show they can be a good closer, perhaps Boston should just leave well enough alone. Andrew Bailey is a great reliever, but he just can't stay on the field. The last four years of his career has just been a constant shuttle between the mound and the DL. If Boston re-installs Bailey as the late inning hammer, they'd be doing it knowing full well that really at any moment he could tweak, strain or sprain something and end up on the DL, once again leave the Sox having to shake up their high leverage relief roles.
As for Hanrahan, his health problems are newer, but his decline in effectiveness is not. The last thing the Red Sox should be interested in doing is waiting for him to come back, tabbing him as the closer again and hoping that he pitches well all in some sort of misplaced effort to justify their decision to acquire him in the off-season. That same need for justification is the same driving force that would lead Boston to forcing Bailey into the role even though his fragility suggests that he needs to be placed into.
Controversy is never a good thing on a baseball roster but that is exactly what the Red Sox will continue to court if they insist on trying to force Bailey and Hanrahan into the role. There is no worse controversy than one that is self-inflicted.