Sunday, May 6, 2012

J.J. Hoover: Closer of the future?

Francisco Cordero, Brad Boxberger, Aroldis Chapman, Huston Street, Brandon League, Ryan Madson and Sean Marshall -- what do they have in common? Every one of them has been rumored to be the Reds closer within the last six months. You can go ahead and throw one more name into that group, right-handed newcomer J.J. Hoover.

The 24-year old hurler was acquired from the Braves in exchange for 3B Juan Francisco last month and has been nothing short of amazing since. Touted as one of the top arms in Atlanta's farm system by multiple sources, Hoover already has folks in the Queen City buzzing about his potential.

He began the year in Triple-A Louisville where he recorded a 2.00 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in eight relief appearances as closer for the Bats. He also fanned a whopping 17 batters in just 9.0 IP while converting all four of his save chances. His dominance of International League hitters coupled with injuries to the Reds 'pen earned him a promotion on April 23rd. He made his MLB debut just two days later when he tossed a scoreless inning of relief at home against the Astros.

Although it's unclear how long Hoover's stay with the big club may last, it will be hard to justify sending him back down if he continues to pitch the way he has been. He's yet to allow a hit or a run through his first four innings pitched and looks to have all the makings of a future closer. He boasts an intimidating and stout 6'3", 230 lb. frame, rushes his fastball up to the plate in the mid-90s, demonstrates excellent control (3.48 K/BB in five seasons in the minors), and is still developing what could become a devastating slider.

So, what are Cincinnati's plans with the youngster who hails from Calhoun Community College (AL)? They obviously liked what they saw in him enough to trade away one of their own top prospects in Francisco. But do they a long-term role in mind for him, or was this more of a case of unloading the frustrating Francisco?

One of the intriguing things about Hoover is that he's also shown the ability to start. He started 28 games in the minors in 2010 where he tallied a 14-7 mark and 3.29 ERA. However, he was overshadowed by the enormous depth of pitching prospects the Braves possess that he was relegated to a relief role once he reached AA and AAA. Luckily, he's found the same success or more serving as a reliever as he did as a starter. With that in mind, it doesn't necessarily mean he couldn't also thrive in a rotation.

But just because he could doesn't mean he should, or can for that matter. The Reds rotation is already so full that not even the fireballing Aroldis Chapman can squeeze his way in. And if there's no room for The Cuban Missile there, it's hard to see a scenario where they would be for Hoover either.

That's the bad news. The good news is that the emergence of Hoover could eventually provide the team with a much cheaper option at closer. The Reds will face an interesting dilemma this offseason when they are forced to either accept or decline the $11MM option on injured-closer Ryan Madson. They'll receive no return on their $6MM investment on Madson this season after the 31-year old was sidelined for the season with Tommy John surgery. And there's no guarantee that he'll return as the pitcher he was before the crippling injury -- that's a risk GM Walt Jocketty and the front office will be forced to consider.

If they decide to decline they'll have at least one in-house candidate (Hoover) to assume the role. Previously, many thought the club would explore a similar option with prospect Brad Boxberger before they included him in the package to reel in Mat Latos from San Diego. Hoover would have more experience under his belt by then, but would still likely be relatively unproven.

But that's the chance you take on almost all young players and prospects. Nothing in this sport is a sure bet, but one thing folks in Cincy can be excited about is the potential of J.J. Hoover. Will he be the next young, superstar closer like Craig Kimbrel (ATL) or Drew Storen (WSH)? Probably not. But can he become a valuable asset to the bullpen this season and eventually develop into a reliable closer? Absolutely.

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