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At most of the positions we consider in this roto racket, you want to play the long game to some degree, trust in the big banks of numbers, be patient.
But if there’s one position where aggressiveness is paramount, it’s at closer. We have to be quick to the jump with the save chasers because we know teams are hasty in that area, too. Momentum has value when it comes to the ninth inning. Possession of the gig is a real thing. The baton matters. More than any other position, you have to consider roles at least as strongly as skills.
The ninth inning is the soul of Closing Time, and most of this edition will be focused on the often-maddening pursuit of saves. Get your facial hair where you need it to be and let’s attack the handshake.
• Although Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller throw from different sides of the mound, they’ve been similar commodities for most of their careers. Both came into professional baseball as starting prospects, and quickly acquired juice in the prospect community. Both dealt with regular control problems, hastening a switch to relief work. Both pitchers finally put it all together in 2014, dominating in a non-closing role (Betances in The Bronx, Miller in Boston and Baltimore).
Both are imposing figures on the mound – Betances checks in at 6-foot-8, 260 pounds, while Miller is 6-7, 210. And neither guy had any problems with platoon splits last year, blowing away hitters from both sides of the plate.
When it came to pricing these guys in March, the fantasy public preferred the righty. Betances was seen by many as the logical guy to close, pushing his ADP inside the Top 100. Miller was there to be had outside the 200th pick.
Perhaps that was a gross error. Yankees manger Joe Girardi refused to endorse a single closer during spring training, and it was Miller, not Betances, who pitched well at Fort Lauderdale. When the Yanks headed north to start the real games, a closer-by-committee appeared alive and well.
It was interesting to watch Girardi manage Wednesday’s high-leverage innings against Toronto. Betances was summoned for the top of the eighth, with New York trailing by a run. He labored throughout, walking two batters, missing the zone on 17 of 32 pitches, and allowing a hit and a run. Not the collapse of the century – and it came against the meat of the Toronto order – but he never looked sharp or comfortable.
The Yankees wound up rallying for the lead in the bottom of the eighth, setting up Miller for a one-run save opportunity. The lefty came through with a low-stress conversion, needing just ten pitches (eight strikes) to navigate the weakest part of the Toronto order. Queue up Frank Sinatra, send everyone home.
If I had to pick one New York reliever to own right now, I’d select Miller without any hesitation. Part of that is my confidence that he’s a more consistent pitcher than Betances anyway, and part of this speaks to my concern about how Betances has looked over the past month or so. I grant you both pitchers, at their best, could handle any role Girardi wants to give them. They don’t have to be treated as platoon specialists. They have profiles that will work in any high-leverage situation.
All that said, let’s return to the themes at the open. Momentum matters with closing gigs. Most managers are fine to go closer-by-committee for a period of time, but not as a permanent strategy. While Miller selflessly claims he doesn’t care when the Yankees use him – it’s refreshing to hear that from someone who has every right to want a closing position – what if he’s the pitcher Girardi trusts the most? Would that turn Miller into a super-reliever who simply came into games at the most critical point, or would Miller be steered more towards the outs at the end of games?
I haven’t forgotten Betances’s 135 strikeouts from last year, or the silly ratios. I’m certainly not kicking him to the curb. I just have to accept that he’s behind Miller right now when it comes to fantasy value, and it’s not always easy to get the baton back.
Place your New York bets in the comments.
• Do Joe Nathan owners have a right to complain about his DL stint, or are they being saved from themselves? The same question can be asked of the Tigers. Nathan is 40, after all, and he was rather awful last year (4.81 ERA, 1.53 WHIP), though he still cobbled together 35 saves in 42 chances. Keep in mind that conversion statistic is often misleading, as it doesn’t count other blowups that technically don't go down as blown saves.
While Nathan rehabs his right elbow flexor strain, Joakim Soria steps in as closer. I think there's a reasonable chance Soria pitches well enough to keep the job for most of the year. The Tigers want you to believe Nathan has the job when he comes back, but what are they going to say? Teams have no incentive to create a controversy while one player is out of commission. If Soria is up to the challenge, it presents a major decision for the club, assuming Nathan comes back anytime soon (and that’s another assumption I’m not willing to make).
If you could get anything for Nathan today, I'd be very tempted to take it. If you can trade for Soria on the presumption that he's just a placeholder, I like the upside of that move.
• Somehow LaTroy Hawkins was able to collect 23 saves for the Rockies last year, despite a mediocre strikeout rate (32 in 54.1 innings) and a ton of MLB mileage (he broke in with the Twins in 1995, turned 42 around Christmas). It’s hard to trust him for the fresh season, although he started the year as Colorado’s baton holder.
Hawkins picked up a blown save (and a vulture win) in Wednesday’s game at Milwaukee, allowing four singles and two runs in the ninth. That’s what happens when you can’t throw the ball by anyone consistently – you have to live with the batted-ball gods, for good or for bad. Fortunately for the Rockies, Adam Ottavino worked a clean eighth and John Axford navigated a tidy tenth. Despite the Hawkins mess, Colorado completed the three-game sweep.
Axford was solid in the spring, Ottavino electric, and Hawkins all over the place. I’m not sure who the Rockies would go to if and when Hawkins loses the post, but I do think that day is coming. The raw stuff points to Ottavino, the “proven closer tag” to Axford (don’t laugh, some teams care about that – and the Rockies are known for their screwball decisions).
Ottavino is six-percent owned in Yahoo, while Axford trades at two percent. If you feel like speculating, they're probably out there, waiting for you.
• There's not much actionable when a universally-owned player goes on a monster tear, but let's at least give Adrian Gonzalez the last word in this edition. Perhaps you were sleeping when Gonzalez clocked three home runs Wednesday night; he's now 10-for-13 on the year, with an absurd five homers. If you landed the sweet-swinging lefty in the March draft season, take your Cadillac trot around the bases.