February 14, 2011
Just so you know, our purpose today is not to review every team's bullpen hierarchy — we'll save that project for the first edition of Closing Thoughts, a few weeks down the road. Instead, we're looking only at MLB teams that will reassign closing duties in 2011. As usual, it's not a short list; roles are unsettled in several cities.
Arizona Diamondbacks – Last year, four pitchers earned at least one save for the Diamondbacks: Aaron Heilman(notes), Juan Gutierrez(notes), Sam Demel(notes) and Chad Qualls(notes). None of those four finished the season with an ERA below 4.50. This bullpen recorded just 35 total saves and 24 blown saves. It was a mess. The ninth inning was essentially a running joke in Arizona, until Gutierrez finished strong in September.
JJ Putz(notes) was signed to a two-year deal this offseason (with a club option for 2013), and he's expected to close in 2011. Putz is coming off an excellent year on Chicago's south side (1.04 WHIP, 10.8 K/9), and he appears to be a safe draft day investment.
Atlanta Braves – Billy Wagner(notes) is out of the picture, so the closing gig is up for grabs. Manager Fredi Gonzalez recently suggested that Jonny Venters(notes) and Craig Kimbrel(notes) may share the ninth, in a lefty/righty platoon arrangement. Both pitchers were outstanding in 2010, both can throw a million miles an hour. (OK, 95 mph-plus). Consider Kimbrel to be the early favorite to lead the team in saves; in his 20.2 innings for the Braves last season, the ratios were ridiculous (0.44 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 17.4 K/9). Command is the worry with Kimbrel, but he should be the first Atlanta reliever off the board.
Baltimore Orioles – The leading candidates here are Kevin Gregg(notes), Koji Uehara(notes) and Mike Gonzalez. And death is not an option. These were manager Buck Showalter's comments, shortly after Gregg agreed to a two-year deal:
"Do I think [Gregg] has potential to be our closer? Of course I do," Showalter said. "Do I hope Koji tells me [he's ready to close], just like Kevin does, and it makes us have a better bullpen? We'll see. We get down in spring training here in about three weeks, and we'll start the process. But I like Kevin's chances."
Chicago White Sox – Manager Ozzie Guillen recently declared that his preference was for 21-year-old Chris Sale(notes) to pitch from the 'pen in 2011, which should suit the fantasy community just fine. Sale was brilliant in relief last year, delivering a 1.07 WHIP and 32 Ks in 23.1 innings. The lefty also went 4-for-4 in save situations. He's clearly in the mix to close following the departure of Bobby Jenks(notes). Matt Thornton(notes), however, is still considered the frontrunner. Both relievers should be roster-worthy in mixed leagues, regardless of their roles, because they'll maintain high K-rates and low ERAs. Right-handers Jesse Crain(notes) and Sergio Santos(notes) are on the radar for saves speculators, too.
Houston Astros – This situation is relatively straightforward: Matt Lindstrom(notes) has relocated to Colorado, leaving Brandon Lyon(notes) in charge of the ninth. The primary setup role belongs to Wilton Lopez(notes). Many of you refuse to draft closers from lousy teams (huge, silly mistake), but it's worth noting that the 2010 Astros actually provided 45 saves.
Los Angeles Angels – Over the past three seasons, Fernando Rodney(notes) has delivered a WHIP of 1.52, yet he's also successfully saved 64 games. He's the spring favorite for saves, but Mike Scioscia has also used the word "committee" to describe his closing situation. If (or when) Rodney falls apart, Scott Downs(notes), Kevin Jepsen(notes) and Jordan Walden(notes) are viable replacements.
Minnesota Twins – We mention this situation only to remind you that Joe Nathan(notes) is recovering from Tommy John surgery, and thus he's no lock to return as a top-tier closer. He's reportedly throwing in the 89-91 mph range at the moment, which is obviously a few ticks off his peak. Matt Capps(notes) is Plan B for the Twins; the team lost Crain, Matt Guerrier(notes) and Jon Rauch(notes) via free agency.
Pittsburgh Pirates – Apparently the team has already made a decision regarding the closer's role, but nothing will be announced until the players themselves are informed. The candidates here are Joel Hanrahan(notes) and Evan Meek(notes), and both were effective last season. Hanrahan has the edge in both experience and strikeout-rate (12.9 K/9 last year).
Seattle Mariners – David Aardsma(notes) is likely to miss the opening weeks of the regular season, following offseason hip surgery. It's possible that we won't see him until May (which should make him a decent bargain at the draft table). Brandon League(notes) is Aardsma's understudy.
Tampa Bay Rays – At present, this looks like a committee. Jake McGee(notes) is the guy that many of us are rooting for, because … well, because the alternative is Kyle Farnsworth(notes). Or Joel Peralta(notes). Or Juan Cruz(notes). Eventually JP Howell(notes) could claim a share of the ninth, but he's recovering from shoulder surgery and isn't likely to be ready until May. McGee has the traditional closer's arsenal (slider, mid-90s fastball), though he's also a 24-year-old lefty with only five major league innings on his resume, so he'll have some work to do this spring.
Texas Rangers – The team is still threatening to stretch out Neftali Feliz(notes) as a potential starter, so that's a small worry. The CJ Wilson(notes) situation taught us that in Texas, these possibilities can't be completely dismissed. The Rangers also apparently intend to give Alexi Ogando(notes) a shot at the rotation this spring. This franchise has plenty of starting candidates to choose from — Derek Holland(notes), Brandon Webb(notes) and Dave Bush(notes) among them — so it would be a significant surprise if Feliz is removed from the ninth. No immediate need to alter your draft board.
Toronto Blue Jays – Both Gregg and Downs are out, while Rauch, Frank Francisco(notes) and Octavio Dotel(notes) are in. And Jason Frasor(notes) is still lurking. The Jays are facing a four-man closer battle this spring. All four Yahoo! fantasy analysts gave the edge to Francisco in the early RP ranks, for what it's worth. (Not much, because Toronto's front office has never once asked for our opinion when assigning roles).
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