Royals turn to Dotel to fill closer's role
Right-hander relishes opportunity to revive career
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The frustration factor associated with losing a lead and the game in the late innings can be devastating for a team.Imagine having it happen 31 times in one season. That's how many blown saves the Royals had in 2006 -- the most in the Majors Leagues and tied for the fifth-highest in MLB history. Finding a quality closer ranked near the top of general manager Dayton Moore's offseason wish list. Say hello to Octavio Dotel. "We made a strong effort to improve that area, and I think we have done that," Moore said Sunday at the team's Spring Training complex. "Before his surgery, he was one of the premier relievers in all of baseball." Dotel, a 33-year-old from the Dominican Republic, underwent Tommy John ligament replacement surgery on his right elbow a month into the 2005 season and pitched only 10 innings for the Yankees last season. During a five-year stretch beginning in 2000, he appeared in 347 games, pitched 599 innings and struck out 624 batters. His year-by-year ERA: 2.66; 1.85; 2.48; 3.69 and 3.12. The past two seasons have been just the opposite. But the light workload last season just might have been beneficial. Dotel says his arm hasn't felt this good since the end of the '04 campaign and he's champing at the bit to return to the closer role that he relishes. "It is something I really wanted to get back," he said. Dotel has 71 career saves, including 36 in '04, and was the closer for the A's before he apparently threw a split-finger fastball too hard and tore a ligament in his right elbow. "I was working on a new pitch and everything was pretty good until maybe the third game in Spring Training," he recalled. "I threw a splitter in the game, and I guess I threw it too hard. I felt something in my elbow." Dotel eventually had the surgery and it has been a long road back. Despite his limited action with the Yankees last season, the Bronx Bombers wanted him back to serve as a late-inning setup reliever for closer Mariano Rivera. Dotel decided to accept the Royals' one-year offer that included a chance to become the team's closer. The fact the Yankees wanted Dotel convinced Royals management that the pitcher's arm was fine so they pursued him even harder -- with eventual success.
"We see his work ethic and his attitude, there's no question he could return to the form he had in the past," Moore said. "It's a good fit for us."So when the regular season begins April 2 against the Red Sox at Kauffman Stadium, Dotel figures to be manager Buddy Bell's last call with the game on the line. Mark this down: Dotel won't throw a splitter. "Never again," he laughed. "I have a fastball, slider and sinker. No splitter anymore." That should be enough of an arsenal to get the three outs that were so difficult to get last season. "For him to do what we think he can do would be huge for us," Bell said. "We had a lot of games that we should have won last year we didn't win because we just couldn't finish them. I believe he has the kind of stuff to do that." The mere thought of going through another season of lost leads and games makes Bell shudder. "I don't think there is anything more frustrating than to battle back, take the lead and then lose it," he said. "We had a team that really played as hard as they possibly could. We came back in games and went ahead, and not to finish out and get the win was really frustrating. "I don't care what anyone says, it's all about pitching. If you don't have pitchers who can start it and finish it, you're just not going to win very often." But if you ask Dotel, those bleak days are history. He's coming to the rescue carrying an extinguisher. "I think with the way I feel right now, there are no questions about my elbow," he said. "I heard about how many blown saves they had and that's one of the reasons I wanted to come here; to help them out in that role. I think I am the guy for that. "I don't think we'll have so many blown saves this year."
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.