Brian T. Chan, Sports Editor

Two years ago, baseball writer for ESPN Insider Jerry Crasnick argued that the best closer debacle was between J.J. Putz, formerly of the Seattle Mariners, and current Boston Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon.

Closers are known for two things: saves and heavy metal music. They have a reputation of instilling fear in opposing batters. The ideology behind winning ball games seems to be that teams must find reliable closers, ones that have the mentality of pitching in the ninth inning and ending games with a handshake with their catchers.

Trevor Hoffman, who pitched with the San Diego Padres, Florida Marlins, and Milwaukee Brewers, and New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera are currently the only two players to have reached the 500-save club.

Yet, most of today’s current closers did not originally start their careers picking up saves. Many pitchers became closers after converting from a starter. Rivera was one of them. Joe Nathan of the Minnesota Twins earned his first save as a member of the San Francisco Giants in 1999.

Nathan did not get his second save until 2004, a year after he was traded to the Twins. By then, he was already a 30-year-old, pitching for a small-market team. Rivera and Nathan are among a short list of long-term closers in the game today.

Other big-name closers include Brad Lidge of the Philadelphia Phillies, Francisco Rodriguez of the New York Mets and Francisco Cordero of the Cincinnati Reds.

While Rodriguez and Cordero have at least 230 saves under their belts, Lidge is approaching the 200-save milestone. Lidge is an interesting case, especially since he converted all of his 41 save opportunities last season and won the World Series. This season, Lidge leads the league with 10 blown saves and a 7.15 ERA. Despite the complete turnaround he did not hope for, the Phillies still choose to keep him in as their closer. This is where the problem of having a primary closer emerges.

The closer, usually regarded as the best of the bullpen, has the task of putting pressure on opponents even though it seems the pressure is also on him.

The interesting part of baseball is that there is more emphasis on the ninth inning than the preceding innings. Assuming the score in the seventh or eighth innings stays unchanged entering the ninth inning, the team leading would have a higher win probability in the latter innings.

Why does the ninth inning has the greatest importance among all the other innings? Like any other inning, there is great uncertainty in the ninth inning, where a walk-off home run can change the complexion of the game.

Even the great Hoffman could not stave off the four consecutive home run-ninth inning from the Los Angeles Dodgers three years ago. Instead of having a primary closer, the alternative is the bullpen-by-committee.

The argument in support for this strategy is that the closer can be a very expensive asset. The Cleveland Indians gambled on former starter Kerry Wood for $20 million over two years and it has not paid off for them so far.

To examine the case where there was no set closer, the Mariners began the season with flamethrower Brandon Morrow as their closer.

David Aardsma, who never recorded a single save prior to this season, seized the closer role. The question that has emerged in the past few months is whether Aardsma, who has 34 saves, is seen as a long-term piece for the Mariners as his value escalates.

For now, the Mariners hit the jackpot with their $419,000 closer. Their division rival Oakland Athletics wisely manages their closers as if they were playing the stock market.

This season, the Athletics have first-time closer and rookie Andrew Bailey pitching in the ninth inning. Before him, there was Huston Street, who was part of last offseason’s deal for slugger Matt Holliday. Before Street, the Athletics acquired their upgrade in Octavio Dotel.

Before Dotel, Keith Foulke pitched one of his best seasons, recording a career-high 43 saves. As a result, the Athletics were compensated first-round and supplemental round draft picks after the Red Sox signed Foulke in the following offseason.

In order to acquire Foulke from the Chicago White Sox the year before, the Athletics sent Billy Koch, who had a one-year stay, but did so by increasing his value. Before Koch, the Athletics gained value from Jason Isringhausen, who was part of the Athletics’ early success in 2000 and 2001. Before Isringhausen, there was Billy Taylor, who was the original closer in the Billy Beane regime.

Why were the Athletics successful in the past decade? While working on a tight budget, the Athletics were able to acquire undervalued assets for highly-valued closers, whose value only appreciated in the short run.

The Mets attempted to bolster the back-end of their bullpen by acquiring two closers in Rodriguez and Putz, who were formerly divisional rivals, but it seems their plan backfired on them. Putz has been disappointing this season, and what is even more disappointing is that his season-ending injury diminishes his value again. Putz looks to return to his dominant 2007 form, but right now, he is one pricey setup man.

Maybe there is an argument about why it is necessary for a primary closer. The Red Sox experimented with their bullpen-by-committee, which had failed miserably. Papelbon took over as the full-time closer in 2006 and has been one of the top closers in the game. The same could be said about Eric Gagne, who currently pitches in the independent Can-Am League. At the end of the day, closers save games, but they may not be able to save their jobs of saving games.