David Shovein covers some of the closers from around Major League Baseball and which bullpens may have potential changes down the road in 2013.
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When attempting to unearth the next valuable closers in fantasy baseball, there are a few incredibly important criteria that must be considered. Our minds have been trained to sift through mountains of statistics, eliminate things that could be fluky or unnecessary, and focus squarely on a pitcher’s true talent level. After all, we should be looking for the most talented and dominating late-inning relievers, right?
Sure, talent and the ability to dominate are very important characteristics that should be sought after. The problem though, is that it doesn’t matter how dominating a pitcher is, or how outstanding the numbers make him out to be, if he isn’t getting the ball in the ninth inning.
The single most important factor that should be considered in this search is opportunity. In particular, we’re looking for teams that have a high degree of uncertainty at the closer position, managers who aren’t afraid to make a move if the incumbent closer continues to struggle, and simply for ninth-inning specialists who can’t seem to stay off the disabled list.
Below, we’ll take a cursory glance at a few of those select hurlers who have above-average chances of finding their way into a ninth-inning gig at some point during the 2013 season.
Mark Melancon, Pirates
One intriguing name to keep a watchful eye on is Pirates’ recent acquisition Mark Melancon. With the departure of Joel Hanrahan, the Buccos will have to rely on the veteran presence of Jason Grilli to handle the closing duties. Even though Grilli has been outstanding in a setup role the past two seasons, he’s still 36-years-old, has zero closing experience and owns a career 4.34 ERA and 1.41 WHIP. Should he falter, Melancon should be the favorite to assume the position. The 27-year-old right-hander struggled mightily with the Red Sox in 2012, but is just a year removed from a 20-save campaign with the Astros in which he posted a 2.78 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 66/26 K/BB ratio over 74 1/3 innings. He’s locked up through the 2016 season, and could become the long-term solution as the Pirates late-inning stopper.
Luke Gregerson, Padres
As previously alluded to, one of the critical factors to monitor is the health (or lack thereof) of each squad’s current closer. As fantastic as Huston Street can be, he’s averaged just 52 innings over the last four seasons, and always seems to find himself on the disabled list. Those who are in the business of speculating on potential closers in waiting have trumpeted Luke Gregerson’s name for several seasons now. When Street hit the DL in 2012, it appeared that Gregerson would finally get that long-awaited opportunity, only to see Padres skipper Bud Black turn to journeyman Dale Thayer instead. Fortunately, after Thayer faltered, Gregerson did receive that chance and displayed how dominating he can be in the role. During his short stint as closer from late-August to mid-September, Gregerson posted a 1.64 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 9/3 K/BB ratio over 11 innings while converting eight of his nine save chances. When Street inevitably hits the DL again in 2013, look for Gregerson to once again fill in admirably.
Sean Marshall, Reds
Sean Marshall opened the 2012 season as the Reds’ closer, and converted eight of his nine save chances before the sheer dominance of Aroldis Chapman took over and ran away with the job. Now that Chapman is moving to the rotation through, the Reds have opted to entrust Jonathan Broxton with the ninth-inning duties. Despite Broxton’s resurgence in 2012, he has been anything but a bastion of good health in recent years. Should he struggle as the team’s primary closer, or should the injury bug bite him again, the Reds will be faced with a difficult decision. It’s unlikely they’ll want to shift Chapman back to the bullpen after he’s publicly stated his desire to pitch in the rotation, which leaves Marshall as the most likely successor. There is potential here to secure an above-average reliever closing games for what should be one of the strongest teams in the National League.
Kyuji Fujikawa, Cubs
The 32-year-old Japanese reliever saved 202 games during his six-year career overseas while posting an incredible 510/94 K/BB ratio over 369 2/3 innings to go along with a miniscule 1.36 ERA and 0.86 WHIP. While Theo Epstein and company want you to believe that Carlos Marmol will begin the season as the Cubs stopper, Fujikawa was signed to be that guy. Even if they are unable to deal Marmol before opening day, he’ll get the job sooner rather than later. He’ll be an extremely attractive option for those speculating on saves on draft day.
Sergio Santos, Blue Jays
The hard-throwing former shortstop was acquired by the Jays after the 2011 season where he recorded 30 saves and fanned 92 hitters in only 63 1/3 innings with the White Sox. Unfortunately, injury and ineffectiveness limited Santos to just six appearances before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery in July. Early word out of Toronto is that Santos will be healthy and ready for spring training, and could be given a chance to compete with Casey Janssen for the closer’s role. While he’s an underdog to win the job outright, he should be second in line for save chances on a much-improved Jays squad.
Ryan Cook, Athletics
Despite it being his first full season at the major league level, Ryan Cook was perhaps the A’s best overall reliever in 2012. He compiled a stellar 2.09 ERA, 0.94 WHIP and 80/27 K/BB ratio over 73 1/3 innings of work, while racking up 14 saves and 21 holds. 35-year-old Grant Balfour, the incumbent closer, is entering into the final year of his contract and is certainly not the future of the team. It’s very possible that GM Billy Beane could deal Balfour at the trade deadline to a team in need of bullpen help, opening the door for Cook to take over. He’s certainly the most talented pitcher in their pen, and will get that opportunity at some point during the season.
Ernesto Frieri, Angels
Big Ern did a tremendous job after coming over in a mid-season trade from the Padres, posting a 2.32 ERA, 0.96 WHIP and 80/26 K/BB ratio while saving 23 games in 26 chances. Despite his success, the Halos went out and signed Ryan Madson this offseason to take the ball in the ninth inning. Madson, who is currently recovering from Tommy John surgery, is expected to be ready for the start of the season. There’s no telling how effective he’ll be though, and the Angels could easily decide to ease him back into action while allowing Frieri to remain in the closer’s role.
Vinnie Pestano, Indians
Once again, rumblings around the league are that the Indians are interested in trading Chris Perez. If they can find a taker, Pestano (as he’s been for years) is the heir apparent to the ninth-inning throne. He possesses lights-out stuff, compiling a stellar 2.45 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 160/48 K/BB ratio over 132 innings in the past two seasons. An unbelievable talent, all it will take is a trade or injury to Perez, and there is potential for a top-ten closer here.
Kenley Jansen, Dodgers
The Dodgers gave Brandon League a three-year, $22.5 million contract this offseason with the expectation that he would come in and close games for them. It’s not a knock against League, but as long as Kenley Jansen is healthy and no longer dealing with heart troubles, he’s far and away their best option in the late innings. The fire-balling righty has posted a 2.58 ERA, 0.94 WHIP and ridiculous 195/48 K/BB ratio in 118 2/3 innings over the past two seasons. Even if he’s not named to the role to start the season, he’s the guy to own in the Dodgers bullpen.
3 more obscure “other names to know”
Josh Fields, Astros
While many casual fans may not have heard of this young right-hander, don’t confuse that with a lack of talent and major league readiness. Fields was the first overall selection in the Rule 5 draft, and must remain on the Astros MLB roster for the entire season, or his rights return to the Red Sox. A former first round pick of the Mariners from the 2008 draft, Fields compiled a stellar 2.01 ERA, 0.96 WHIP and 78/18 K/BB ratio between the Red Sox Double- and Triple-A affiliates in 2012. He’s likely to begin the season working in the seventh or eighth inning in a setup role for Jose Veras and should be monitored closely in deeper formats. With the lack of other quality options, it could very well be Fields who gets the first call if Veras scuffles in his new role.
Jared Burton, Twins
When Matt Capps went down with an injury in 2012, Twins skipper Ron Gardenhire used a combination of Glen Perkins and Jared Burton to patchwork the final outs of the game. While Perkins pitched well in that role, he’s much better suited as a setup man and situational left-hander. Should they decide to go the more traditional route instead, Burton looks like the guy to own. He was terrific during the 2012 campaign, compiling a 2.18 ERA, 0.92 WHIP and 55/16 K/BB ratio.
Octavio Dotel, Tigers
The Tigers have chosen to enter the season by relying on unproven rookie phenom Bruce Rondon handling their closing duties. If he struggles early on, manager Jim Leyland will have quite the dilemma on his hands. While Phil Coke filled in admirably during the postseason, he’s the primary lefty in the pen and unlikely to take over the job full-time. Leyland likes Joaquin Benoit in his eighth-inning role and would be very hesitant to move him from that spot. Therefore, it could very well be veteran right-hander Octavio Dotel that would receive the first crack at closing games. He’s proven successful in that role in the past (109 career saves), and Leyland has always seemed to favor his veterans.