If Rafael Soriano was the Atlanta Braves closer that came out of the gate strong and finished poorly, then Mike Gonzalez is the opposite -- the closer who started out poorly and finished strong. Gonzalez was in the co-closer role out of spring training, but he was clearly favored by Bobby Cox to get the lions share of saves. Gonzo blew four saves in the first half of the season before losing his job to Soriano. He also ended up blowing three more saves the rest of the season while mainly working in a setup role.
Soriano's season was relatively easy to point to and say, "look, his ERA increased each month throughout the year, that's what his problem was." But with Gonzalez it's not that easy. He had the typical reliever monthly splits, where he'd have a good month, then a bad month, then a good month, and so on. Though he did finish out the year with two consecutive good months.
Gonzalez and Soriano are pretty similar pitchers, whose 2009 seasons as a whole look mighty similar. Their ERAs were similar, their innings pitched, and most of their percentage numbers were fairly close, with Soriano having a slight edge. Both pitched in high leverage situations with equal frequency. While Soriano may have the distinction of picking up more saves by virtue of pitching more ninth innings, they were in about the same number of save situations (34 for Gonzo and 37 for Sori). The only other Braves reliever who came close to that many high-leverage situations was Peter Moylan, who appeared in 32 save situations.
The luxury that we experienced in 2009, of having two pitchers who were essentially closers pitching in the eighth and ninth innings, is not something the Braves have had in recent years -- at least not two relievers like that who were both healthy for an entire year.
This got me thinking about the biggest question mark of this season. It may not be who plays first or who fills the corner outfield spots, it is more likely "who pitches the last two innings of the ball game?" To get to the point where Soriano and Gonzalez were our co-saviors, we had to trade away a starting pitcher and a starting first baseman. This begs the question, "what will we have to trade away to replace these guys?"
The quick and easy answer is to retain one of both of them, with Mike Gonzalez being the player that many around the team think the Braves have a better shot at retaining. This was thrown a huge curve ball yesterday when it was revealed that Scott Boras is now representing Mike Gonzalez. The m.o. for Boras is to ask for more years at more money per year than the Braves are generally comfortable giving away to a free agent. This may have put Gonzalez out of reach for the Braves. Perhaps our best hope now is that Boras takes those demands to other teams and is turned down, only to fall back to the Braves who hopefully offered Gonzalez arbitration.
There's no reason to think that Gonzalez can't be an effective closer for years to come. He often let's his adrenaline get the better of him, but if he can learn to control that while continuing to harness the positive effects of that adrenaline, then he should still be counted on in the ninth inning.