It only took three games for LaTroy Hawkins to lose his job as the Colorado Rockies closer.
Fixing unfortunate typo: #Rockies Walt Weiss has removed LaTroy Hawkins from closer role for time being. Rafael Betancourt would close today— Thomas Harding (@harding_at_mlb) April 13, 2015
This, friends, is a damn shame.
I'm not saying he deserves to keep his job, mind you. His velocity seems down a little, though we don't exactly have a lot of evidence of that at the moment. And the Rockies are right to worry that a 42 year old who gives up five runs over his last two appearances might not be up to the job. While Hawkins works to sort himself out, it sounds like Rafael Betancourt and Adam Ottavino will get the opportunity to pick up saves, at least until John Axford returns from emergency family medical leave (and, in all sincerity, my hopes and prayers are with the Axfords).
For me, however, LaTroy Hawkins is the embodiment of a lot of competing ideas. They are, as follows:
1. There is no such thing as a pitching prospect.
That's not strictly true, of course, and is very reductive. There are obviously pitching prospects. It's how we get Jose Fernandez and Matt Harvey and Chris Sale and Felix Hernandez. But, by their very nature, pitching prospects are incredibly volatile.
When Hawkins was called up to Minnesota, he was 22 and the Twins were awful. Kirby Puckett was in his final year. Kevin Tapani, Scott Erickson, and Rick Aguilera were all traded mid-season. The team lost 88 games in a 144 game season. Before the year began, Hawkins was the 30th ranked prospect in the minors according to Baseball America.
He broke camp with the Twins and allowed 16 runs (15 earned) in his first three starts, which lasted a total of 10 innings. He disappeared into the minors, then returned in September to allow 13 runs (11 earned) in 17 more innings. He dropped his ERA to 8.67. He never fulfilled that promise as the Twins sank ever deeper. It's the first time I remember being truly that a prospect didn't pan out. It would, of course, not be the last.
2. A bad starting pitcher can still be a pretty damn good reliever.
From 1995-1999, Hawkins started 98 games for the Minnesota Twins and posted a 6.16 ERA. Even in the high octane late-90s, that was bad. A 79 ERA+. In 2000, he became a full-time reliever and would post a 3.32 ERA (132 ERA+) in 904 appearances over the next 15 years.
3. A good reliever can still be a bad closer.
It's 2001 and I'm spending the summer at a cabin in northern Wisconsin, listening to Twins games on the radio deep into the gloaming, when the solar-powered radio tower that carried the broadcasts out of Duluth would eventually conk out. LaTroy is closing for the Twins through early September. Starting at the end of July, I'm dreading every single appearance. Over 13 appearances, spanning 8.2 innings, Hawkins allows 34 baserunners and 19 runs (all earned). He blows four saves and loses another game.
He is lost and you can feel his confidence evaporate over the airwaves. Eddie Guardado finishes the year as the Twins' closer and saves eight of the last 20 games. Guardado effectively closes for the Twins for the next two seasons, with Hawkins serving as a dominant setup man in front of him. As much as I want to believe that every good reliever can be a closer, I think back to LaTroy Hawkins and I think that that's only mostly true.
4. Just because a pitcher failed before, doesn't mean he'll fail forever.
At the age of 40, LaTroy Hawkins saved 13 of 16 chances for the Mets in 2013. In 2014, he converted 23 of 26 chances for Colorado. With age comes wisdom and maturity. With time comes experience. With acceptance that the end is near comes calm. LaTroy Hawkins was finally able to throw as if no one was watching him and as if every pitch wasn't going to be the end of the world. LaTroy Hawkins was finally successful as a closer. Redemption can be earned and there is a way back from the abyss. Some days, I need to be reminded of that. Don't we all?
That's what, in 21 years, LaTroy Hawkins has taught me. He is struggling now, but I hope he can finish his career with the dignity and excellence he demonstrated for most of it. Especially as he is universally acclaimed as one of baseball's truly good guys, I want a better end to his story, if he can manage it.