Kyle Farnsworth–A Tale of an “Unproven Closer”


The reputation of Kyle Farnsworth tells you that he’s had a disappointing career. He came up with the Chicago Cubs in 1999 as a starting pitcher. The Cubs soon realized that he was much better suited to be a reliever, where he could use his high 90’s fastball to get key strikeouts in pressure situations. He looked the part of the closer, with a tall frame (six foot four inches) and is still in fantastic shape–barbed wire tattoos encasing bulging biceps. Yet, he’s never been given the opportunity to become as a great stopper as some thought he would be. Because he was not a “proven closer”, he was available to the Rays for under $3 million. He was given the role out of spring training and has been fantastic, showing once again, that to a successful closer, you don’t need a great resume.

I remember when he was with the Cubs and how their closer at that time-Joe Borowski-just didn’t look the part. It seemed only a matter of time before Farnsworth would ascend to that status. He was traded to the Tigers for the likes of Bo Flowers, Scott Moore and Roberto Novoa before the 2005 season. I was sure that the Cubs had made a mistake. How could the Cubs trade away their future closer? The more optimistic fan in me believed that Novoa would eventually become that power arm to replace Farnsworth in the Cubs bullpen. The trade was pretty much a wash as neither of the players involved did much for their respective teams. Kyle was traded after half a season with the Tigers to the Atlanta Braves. The 2005 Tigers and Braves used Farnsworth as their closer for that season as he accumulated 16 saves. That’s the only year he has accumulated more than 10 saves in his career before this year.

He has been used primarily as a set-up man since then. In 2006, he was signed as a free agent by the New York Yankees to set-up Mariano Rivera. He had some decent years with the Bronx Bombers with an ERA primarily in the mid 4.00’s. He was seen largely as a disappointment when he was eventually traded in 2008 back to the Tigers for Ivan Rodriguez. He signed as a free agent with the Kansas City Royals in 2009 and delivered a 4.58 ERA in an injury plagued season. He was traded back to the Braves for the stretch run in 2010.

Even though he has never really gotten a fair shot to close games, Farnsworth has been labeled as another hard-throwing reliever who doesn’t have what it takes to get the last three outs of a game. He did have one memorable meltdown that might have contributed to this myth. In Game Four of the 2005 National League Division Series, Farnsworth was brought in to get the last six outs of the game but gave up a grand slam to the Astros’ Lance Berkman in the eighth inning that tied up the game. Another run wouldn’t score until the 18th inning when Chris Burke homered to send the Astros to the National League Championship Series.

Perhaps the Braves manager Bobby Cox was still remembering that Grand Slam when he elected not to have Farnsworth be his closer after Billy Wagner was sidelined with an injury in the 2010 National League Division Series. That didn’t work out too well for Cox either as a host of other Braves relievers (Craig Kimbrel, Michael Dunn and Peter Moylan) desperately tried to close out a one run game in Game Three, but eventually blew that one also. By the time Kyle got the call, the Braves were already losing.

Perhaps, Farnsworth’s problem has been that teams that acquire him don’t believe in what he can do. For many years he has set up the likes of Rivera and Joakim Soria. So, of course we come to this year. Joe Maddon has a whole new bullpen to work with and sees that Farnsworth has probably the most experience in closing out games. Kyle was given the shot and I don’t think Maddon could have asked for anything more at this point. He is nine for 10 in save opportunities with an ERA of 1.76 in 15.1 innings. Even more impressive is the measly one walk that he has allowed. I don’t think Farnsworth could have asked for anything more either. He finally has a manager who believes in his abilities, who isn’t afraid to put him in the really tight situations. Either way, it’s been a great start.

The early success that Farnsworth has found just goes to prove the fallacy of the “proven closer”, which Farnsworth, no doubt, is not. The Yankees and Red Sox, for example, have a lot of guys in their bullpen with that label. Just to name a few: Bobby Jenks has a 9.35 ERA, Dan Wheeler, who picked up some saves in the past few years for the Rays, has an 11.32 ERA and another old friend, Rafael Soriano, has a 5.40 ERA. His recent injury problems have led to some talk that he is about to become the new Carl Pavano of free agents.

I think the Rays have it down. The cast has been changing, but so far the results have been much the same. They have shown that there are a lot of pitchers in Major League Baseball who can get important outs. Whether it’s the 2010 version of Joaquin Benoit (who is having an awful year for Detroit after signing a big deal) or the 2011 version of Joel Peralta, Kyle Farnsworth or Juan Cruz, the Rays have been getting the right version of every pitcher.

Maybe Farnsworth finally has found the role that he was destined for. Maybe he’ll continue to have a great year and leave as a free agent for millions elsewhere. Either way, the Rays will find someone who will be able to do the job just as well.