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Position Battles: Colorado Closer Conundrum

With southpaw Brian Fuentes defecting to the Angels via free agency, the Colorado Rockies are left without a go-to guy in the ninth inning for the first time in a few seasons. Not that this is necessarily the end of days for the club: as Fuentes (a 25th-round pick by the Mariners back in 1995) himself showed, closers are made, not born. With relief pitching being a volatile practice (save for cutter demigod Mariano Rivera), paying through the nose for one guy to toss 70-odd innings is not an advisable strategy.

The Rockies will now choose between two candidates to rack up the glory stat in 2009: home-grown righty Manny Corpas and trade acquisition Huston Street. Depending upon the health of his elbow, born-again reliever Taylor Buchholz may also factor into the picture at some point.

Signed out of Panama in 1999, Corpas threw nearly 80 innings for the Rockies in each of the past two seasons. While the surface results might appear divergent (he posted a sparkling 2.08 ERA in ’07 and a 4.52 mark in ’08), the underlying numbers were pretty similar. Corpas was neither the relief ace of 2007 nor the Farnsworthian gas can of 2008: his FIP was 3.60 in ’07 (with 6.69 K/9 and 2.31 BB/9) and 3.96 in ’08, as his strikeout and walk rates trended a bit south (5.65 K/9, 2.6 BB/9) and his GB% went from 57.4% to 49.6%.

The main difference? Corpas posted a .260 Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) in 2007, but regression to the mean struck back nastily in ’08 (.330 BABIP). Truth be told, Corpas is probably more middle reliever than high-leverage stopper. His low-90’s fastball (his average velocity fell from 93.1 MPH in ’07 to 91.7 MPH in ’08) and 80 MPH slider don’t fool a whole lot of batters.

Picked up in the Matt Holliday deal, Street sort of comes with the Proven Closer (TM) tag, as he has racked up 94 saves in his career. An absolute beast at the University of Texas, Street has fallen into the realm of merely very good as a professional. With a career 2.90 FIP, 9.07 K/9 and 2.61 BB/9, the near-side-arming slider specialist would appear to be the front man for the job, but recent reports indicate that Corpas holds the edge. Street is dealing with a sore quadriceps muscle after experiencing elbow issues in the past, and he is coming off of his worst year in the big leagues. He whiffed 8.87 batters per nine, but control hiccups (3.47 BB/9) led to a 3.47 FIP and a demotion behind submariner Brad Ziegler in Oakland.

Buchholz had rejuvenated his career out of the ‘pen, but an elbow sprain will sideline him for at least the beginning of the 2009 season. Buchholz (no relation to Clay) was once a hot-shot prospect in the Phillies system. He was considered by the Astros to be a major component of the November 2003 trade that sent Billy Wagner to Philadelphia. Taylor looked like the quintessential pitching prospect, standing 6-4, 220 pounds and throwing gas, but Buchholz was hit hard and often as an Astro, both in the majors (5.18 FIP in 2006) and in AAA (his career ERA at the level is 5.02).

The Rockies snagged Buchholz in a December 2006 trade that sent ticking time bomb Jason Jennings to the Astros. After a run of poor starts in 2007 (43.2 IP, 5.98 ERA), Colorado decided to try Buchholz’s low-90’s heat and hard curveball out of the bullpen, and the results have been impressive. He spent the entire ’08 campaign in relief, posting rates of 7.6 K/9 and 2.44 BB/9. His 2.17 ERA was misleading- Buchholz did have plenty of good fortune on balls in play (.234 BABIP) and had a lower HR/FB rate- but his stuff and peripherals suggest that he could be a solid bullpen cog.