Over the weekend, Ron Gardenhire related to reporters that he plans on opening the season with a "closer by committee" approach at the back end of the bullpen. This means that rather than having one reliever dedicated to save situations, Gardenhire will divvy up ninth-inning duties based on who's available and who matches up best against the hitters scheduled to bat.
I have a couple reactions to this. My first is that I'm not entirely convinced Gardenhire actually intends to follow through with the plan. While I generally like him as a manager, one of Gardy's most annoying flaws is his stringent adherence to traditional baseball tactics. He'll repeatedly trot out a No. 2 hitter with a sub-.300 on-base percentage, he'll waste good hitters by calling for needless sacrifice bunts and he'll insert demonstrably bad players into his lineup or rotation based on phantom intangibles like hustle and veteran presence. Sure, Gardenhire is saying that he'll run an organic bullpen this year with no designated closer -- something he has never done in his career as a big-league manager -- but my sense is that this is just a smoke screen.
My second reaction is that I hope the first one is wrong. Because I think a closer-by-committee approach is absolutely the right decision, at least initially. Heck, I think it would be the right decision -- in some form -- even if Joe Nathan were healthy.
It has been discussed ad nauseum in other places, but the role of the closer is vastly overrated in contemporary baseball. The strategy surrounding closer usage seems more concerned with helping a particular player accumulate a relatively meaningless statistic than actually winning ballgames, which is sad. While the ninth inning of a close game carries extremely high leverage and is often the ideal time for a team's best reliever to take the hill (as illustrated by the extremely high WPA figures posted by players in this role), there are plenty of times when a hurler like Nathan could be more optimally used earlier in a game, or saved for the next day. Managers will default to their closer in almost all save situations, even one where their team leads by three runs while the opposing club is sending a weak part of the lineup to the plate. Meanwhile, those same managers will not even give a thought to calling upon the closer in, say, a seventh inning situation where the game is on the line and the opposing club has runners on base for the best part of their lineup.
Of course, Nathan won't be around this year so the above paragraph doesn't necessarily apply to the situation at hand. Yet, the core argument remains. If Gardenhire is truly planning on implementing a committee for this year, he can more optimally utilize the options available to him without the restriction of being forced to save his best reliever for the end of a game in preparation for a save opportunity that may no longer exist because inferior relievers blew the lead in the middle innings. If the Twins enter the ninth inning with a one-run lead and the heart of the opposing lineup due to bat, use whichever reliever has generally been the most reliable. If the opposition is sending up a pair of tough lefty hitters in the ninth, give the ball to Jose Mijares. If the "save situation" that presents itself is one where a pitcher will be coming in to face the bottom of the lineup with a three-run lead and the bases empty, use anyone -- even Clay Condrey -- while saving the top relievers for the next day. It is extremely rare for any reliever to blow a lead under these circumstances.
One could basically always feel comfortable sending Nathan out to protect a slim ninth-inning lead, because he is good enough to be trusted in basically any save situation (and, as mentioned before, perhaps too good to be wasted on some save situations). However, the current candidates to replace Nathan in the closer role all have their own sets of strengths and flaws that will make them well suited for particular save situations and ill suited for others. With that in mind, an adaptive committee approach is the correct solution, at least until someone (perhaps Jesse Crain or Pat Neshek) emerges as a reliever dominant and reliable enough to be regularly trusted with high-leverage ninth-inning duties.
Even then, I'd love it if Gardenhire would avoid committing himself to the restrictions involved with using his designated closer in each and every save situation. But, knowing his tendencies, that's probably just wishful thinking.