So far this year, a different obstacle has pushed to the forefront.
Brian Wilson recently undergoing season-ending Tommy John surgery, becoming the third prominent closers who will spend the duration of 2012 on the disabled list. Four others are expected to endure a shorter stay.
For the pitchers, the injuries mean grueling rehab. For the teams they leave behind, it means an adjustment.
"First you have to deal with being sad and the down period. Then you're like, 'Aww, man,'" said Reds manager Dusty Baker, who lost free-agent acquisition Ryan Madson, also to elbow surgery, during Spring Training. "Then after the initial downer you've got to find a solution. So you try to start rearranging things in your mind -- what's good for this and who's next in line and this and that."
The Royals' Joakim Soria is in the same situation as Madson and Wilson. Andrew Bailey of the Red Sox is on the 60-day disabled list with a right thumb injury. The Nationals' Drew Storen and the Rays' Kyle Farnsworth both are on the 15-day DL with sore elbows, while the Blue Jays' Sergio Santos is there with shoulder inflammation.
Differences in personnel make each manager's challenge unique. Some appoint a single replacement, while others employ two or more. Most express their appreciation for pitchers who have experience in finishing games.
This despite the fact that 2011 saw several new closers blossom. Storen, John Axford (Brewers), Craig Kimbrel (Braves), Brandon League (Mariners) and Joel Hanrahan (Pirates) all ranked in the top 10 in the Major Leagues in saves. They combined for 59 prior to last season.
Still, Royals manager Ned Yost has turned to Jonathan Broxton (84 saves through 2011) over Greg Holland (four) and Aaron Crow (zero), at least for now.
"Two-time All-Star. Experience. It was as simple as that," Yost said of Broxton, who has started 1-for-2 in save opportunities. "He's a two-time All-Star with experience as a closer. Holland has never experienced it, although I think he can be a closer. I think Crow can be a closer. But I went with the guy with the most experience to begin with."
Baker said he preferred Sean Marshall, with minimal big league closing opportunities, over Logan Ondrusek, who only has closed in the Minor Leagues. Marshall is 3-for-3 in the early going.
|"If you have a guy that you believe can step in and take over the closing role, then you go ahead and do that and make it easier on everybody else. If you don't have that guy, then you have to do it by committee and you have to kind of ad lib."|
|-- Twins manager Ron Gardenhire|
Boston has tried a closing newcomer in Alfredo Aceves, who is 3-for-5 but gave up five runs without recording an out as part of the bullpen's meltdown in a 15-9 loss to the Yankees on Saturday. Mark Melancon, who saved 20 games for the 2011 Astros, had a 49.50 ERA in four outings before the Red Sox demoted him to Triple-A Pawtucket.
Save chances have been scarce for the Giants, but manager Bruce Bochy has decided to mix and match with Santiago Casilla, Sergio Romo and southpaw Javier Lopez. The plan didn't work the way he had hoped on Friday against the Mets, when Casilla and Lopez combined to blow a one-run lead in the ninth inning and Clay Hensley had to nail down the save in the 10th after Romo put two runners on base.
"I look at it as getting the last six outs," Bochy said. "I'll use them both. The one game [in New York] didn't go well for us ... but I still would do that. If there's three lefties there in the ninth, you'd probably see Lopez out there if I had him available."
For most managers, a committee seems to be more of a last resort than a desired approach.
According to Baker, a multi-closer situation is capable of working, but "it's just a lot more difficult." He pointed to the 2011 Cardinals, who replaced an ineffective Ryan Franklin early in the season and had seven other pitchers record at least one save, led by Fernando Salas' 24. But when the team settled on Jason Motte in September, "that's when they finally came together," Baker said.
Whichever option a manager chooses, teams rarely lose games they lead entering the ninth inning. A 2004 study by Retrosheet's David Smith revealed that over 73 Major League seasons, including a stretch from 1944-2003, clubs won such games about 95 percent of the time, with that rate staying fairly constant.
Each year from 2007-11, the number remained between 95.1 and 95.8 percent, according to data available on Baseball-Reference.com. It was down to 93.9 percent this season in a small sample through Monday, but the six teams with missing closers were a combined 33-1 (97.1 percent).
Back in 2010, Ron Gardenhire's AL Central-champion Twins won 84 of 86 games (97.7 percent) they led through eight innings, despite four-time All-Star Joe Nathan missing the season because of Tommy John surgery. Gardenhire used Jon Rauch until Minnesota traded with Washington for Matt Capps on July 29, and the two combined to convert 37 of 43 chances.
"If you have one, if you have a guy that you believe can step in and take over the closing role, then you go ahead and do that and make it easier on everybody else," Gardenhire said.
"If you don't have that guy, then you have to do it by committee and you have to kind of ad lib."
Andrew Simon is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.