The Borowski Ultimatum
The Indians are four wins away from the World Series. Do they have the guts to dump their closer?
The Indians, however esteemed, are also the League Championship Series club most likely to be second-guessed if the bullpen fails this month. No other team will be scrutinized for using the wrong closer—Papelbon, Valverde, and Corpas have dominated for virtually the entire season. But Borowski, despite leading the American League in saves, is arguably no better than the Indians' third- or fourth-best reliever. His aforementioned 5.07 ERA is by far the worst in major league history among 40-save relievers.
So, what is Cleveland thinking? Given the conventional presumption that the ninth inning carries special anxiety, Borowski gives the Indians a defense to the criticism they received late last year for lacking an "established" closer—i.e., a reliever who has saved a lot of games in prior seasons, irrespective of his qualitative performance. But the Indians have succeeded elsewhere by bucking unenlightened orthodoxy even in the face of public pressure. In 2002, the team traded fan favorite Bartolo Colon for a package of prospects that included Sizemore. And unlike many of its better-heeled rivals, Cleveland has smartly resisted the perennially inflated market for veteran free agents. Given this track record, the continued employment of Joe Borowski seems atypical.
It's possible to conjure substantive reasons for Borowski's job security. Decisive game situations often occur before the ninth inning, and there the Indians will rely on a better reliever. Perhaps it's better to reserve Borowski for the end of the game than to hold back a superior pitcher when a bases-loaded jam arises in the seventh inning. If Betancourt and Perez put out the fires in the seventh and the eighth, Borowski gets to start fresh in the ninth. He may get hit hard, but if he survives more often than not, perhaps it's more knack than luck.
Boston, however, will solve the same substantive problem by bringing in Papelbon, its closer and best reliever, as early as the eighth inning. Remember, too, that assigning relievers well-defined, predictable roles helps a club maintain bullpen stability through the marathon regular season, whereas the high stakes of playoff baseball will tempt any club to sell its soul for a win that night. And don't worry about hurting Borowski's feelings—he's only signed through the end of this season.
All may end well for the Indians. It did in Game 4 of the Division Series, when Borowski gave up one home run (and nearly a second) with a three-run ninth-inning lead after Betancourt breezed through the eighth. But what if the ALCS comes down to this: Cleveland nursing a one-run lead in the ninth inning of Game 7, with David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez getting set to bat. Do the Indians stay with Rafael Betancourt, risking the pennant on a guy who's not used to pitching the ninth, or do they pull him in favor of their established closer, risking the pennant on a substandard pitcher? I'm guessing the Red Sox, at least, want the Indians to stick with baseball convention. That means sticking with Joe Borowski.