Time to look at the AL West, which should be a tight division. With the Mariners spending, and the Angels revamping their rotation, could it become a four-team race? The parks make it fun: three extreme pitcher's parks and two hitter's havens. Let's take a look.
First only by the alphabet, the Astros had one of the worst bullpens in recent history last year. At least they went out and signed two interesting relievers last year. Really, you could switch the Man of Intrigue with the closer here... provided the intriguing Jesse Crain is healthy. But Jesse Crain had shoulder trouble with the Rays. And biceps surgery in the offseason. And just suffered a calf strain and needs and MRI. That's a lot of body parts that are going in the wrong direction. When healthy, he brings on-again, off-again control to a 95 mph fastball, an okay slider, a strong curve, and a wicked splitter that he throws less often. That's a nice arsenal for a reliever, and that's why the strikeouts have come by the bunch. And if he's healthy, the walks won't really matter, and he'll be the best reliever in that pen, with an arsenal that's effective against both hands. But obviously that's a huge if.
It's probably best to assume he's *not* healthy to begin the season, or that he won't be healthy all season at least. That means new free agent signee Chad Qualls is a legit sleeper for saves, or maybe even the front-runner. That might be milk-snarf crazy to some, but Qualls is maybe not the guy you looked at the last time you looked at his stats. Qualls had a bad knee injury in 2009, and up until last season, he had changed his mechanics to relieve stress on that knee. In 2013, he decided it was time to let it fly, old-school style. That resulted in an extra mile per hour on his pitches. And his slider recovered its bite, seeing its whiff rate go from below-average to above-average in one year. Qualls still throws a sinker/slider combination, which isn't ideal for closing -- both pitches have platoon splits. But Qualls has been okay against lefties over his career, and his numbers last year would have been absolutely fine for a low-end closer, which would be an upgrade over the guys the Astros were running out there after Jose Veras left town. Josh Zeid isn't mincemeat -- his slider and split are plus, and his fastball carries mid-nineties heat -- but his command is very shaky. If he can't figure that out, he won't be interesting. Even if he can, he might not get saves until the team trades away their first-half closer in the second half. Even then, it doesn't make a ton of sense to let a young pitcher get expensive in arbitration, at least not until the team is competitive. If you're banging the Josh Fields drum based on the fact that he had five saves to Zeid's one, that's defensible. But Zeid had more swinging strikes than Fields, better control, and more velocity on the fastball. And by pitch peripherals, all three of Zeid's pitches graded better than Fields on swinging strikes and ground balls. Fields was used in higher leverage innings, Zeid was a better pitcher.
Look at the good side of things, and Ernesto Frieri seems like a value proposition this year. Only six closers had a higher strikeout rate, for example. And though he had a few rough patches, he made it through the year as a closer and his manager is likely to remember that. He also showed the best walk rate of his career, so it's possible he's improving a bit. His fastball, with great deception and movement, has an elite major league whiff rate, on par with some of the better sliders in the game. Okay, time for the bad news. His change-up is no good, his cutter is only okay, his control is bad, his ground-ball rate tiny, and his home-run rates huge. Basically that whole part of the game other than strikeouts and velocity, that part of the game is not Frieri's forte. At least fastball velocity and strikeout rate seem to be the numbers best associated with holding on to the closer's role.
If he gives up the job -- probably because a spate of homers did him in -- let's say that the incumbent back-up closer gets first shot. After a mechanical change brought the former realtor back into baseball, Dane De La Rosa showed enough to snag a couple saves last year when Frieri was iffy. Because his change was fairly radical in terms of mechanics, it's not super instructive to look at his old numbers. Last year, on a per-pitch basis, all of his pitches save the curve were above-average by whiffs. And the curve got a 72% ground-ball rate. If he retains all his rates, and maybe mixes in what looked to be a plus slider more often, he could easily be a good mid-tier closer, with a ground-ball rate to make him a *safer* option than Frieri. Newcomer Joe Smith should have the best ground-ball rate of the crew, but he throws his fastball 89 and is basically a league-average pitcher against lefties. Expect him to set up and get most of the righties in the late innings, but De La Rosa to be the closer in waiting.
Closer: Jim Johnson
Setup Man: Ryan Cook
Man of Intrigue: Sean Doolittle
Jim Johnson is a good pitcher. He's a good reliever! There's no way you can project him into 50 saves again this season. There's nothing he does inherently to 'deserve' 50 saves. Last year, the top 30 closers averaged a save in 88% of their chances. Jim Johnson did it successfully 91% of the time. Though bad teams give slightly fewer save chances, the only thing I could find that was correlated with save chances was team scoring, and even that was weak. The Athletics had 11 fewer save chances last year and scored 22 more runs than the Orioles. Go figure. The fans are projecting Johnson into 36 saves, and that's a respectable total that mirrors Grant Balfour's 38 last year. But Balfour had 72 strikeouts last year and Johnson is likely to put up a total in the low 50s. 20 strikeouts matter, and with a saves total in the mid-thirties, Jim Johnson will be a below-average closer.
That's if he keeps the job all year. That's likely if he's healthy, after all he's trading those strikeouts for the relative safety of ground balls. If he falters, Ryan Cook could be there for the team. His three pitches are all good and suddenly his control is league average. He could close for many teams. Cookie has some inflammation in his shoulder but isn't worried about it. Sean Doolittle is intriguing because he's all fastball and the deception in his delivery has helped him avoid platoon splits. Still, Doolittle is an important piece of the eighth-inning puzzle and hasn't been moved to the ninth much so far. And managers prefer righties.
Last year, Danny Farquhar had better walk, strikeout and homer rates than Fernando Rodney. So naturally the team had to go and sign the inferior pitcher to be their closer. Honestly, on a team level it makes sense. They're trying to compete, and having two good pitchers at the end of the bullpen instead of one will be helpful. But you don't care about that sort of thing, and all that matters is who will close. Once again, though, we're stuck with a pitcher that made a radical change to his mechanics recently. Farquhar used to throw in the low nineties from a sidearm angle, and then the Mariners asked him to go over the top. The result was a four mph boost in velocity, and a curve that suddenly was elite in terms of whiff rates. His cutter isn't bad either. And he's got much better control than Rodney. Of course, Rodney still has the advantage in velocity, and should be the incumbent, so he has to be drafted first. But I'll probably pass on Rodney and take Farquhar late in the draft or off waivers. I think he'll close... eventually.
Behind them, the pen's a mess. Yoervis Medina has nice velocity and a great breaker, but no idea where it's going and terrible platoon splits. Stephen Pryor will be hurt half the year. Carter Capps is gone. Lucas Luetge doesn't have the velocity of the a closer, and is a lefty, but may pitch the late innings for this team. That leaves The Bartender for Man of Intrigue, perhaps fittingly. In 2012, the ball rate on Tom Wilhelmsen's curve was average and the whiff rate was plus. In 2013, the ball rate on his curve was 50% (which is bad), and the whiff rate dropped below average. Using a curve as your primary weapon can be good -- the platoon splits on curves are mellow -- but it can also be problematic. Whether it's because of the release point or the shape of the curve, batters swing at curves less than any other pitch in baseball. If you can't control it, they'll swing even less. But! Wilhelmsen has velocity and two good offspeed pitches. If he can find the plate again, he'll be useful in the late innings.
Closer: Neftali Feliz
Setup Man: Joakim Soria
Man of Intrigue: Tanner Scheppers
No matter what I say now, this is worth watching in the spring. There are three legit candidates for the role here -- all excellent pitchers if healthy -- and either could step forward. I have them ranked as I would rank them if all were healthy, and that's the news you should be looking for. Since Neftali Feliz was supposedly throwing 98 in the second half of a back-to-back in the winter leagues, he jumps the top rung. We've seen how good he can be when he's averaging 95+ -- in 2010 and 2011, he had a 96 mph fastball, a sizzling curve, and managed nearly a strikeout per inning with good control and home-run rates. It's the kind of velocity that's too hard to ignore, and he's also under team control longer than the other guy with previous closing experience.
It's no lock, though. Soria, despite throwing six mph slower, actually owns a better career strikeout rate. And walk rate. He's been throwing the change-up less often as his career has gone on, but with three other pitches, he should be okay with respect to platoon splits. If Feliz is throwing fire but not controlling it well, that might be a reason to go to Soria. Another year removed from Tommy John surgery, he should find his customary plus plus command. Basically a starting pitcher that couldn't stay healthy, Soria has a full arsenal and is completely able to be a top-half closer if healthy. I'd watch mostly for health and command in the spring.
The pen with the three good options gets three paragraphs. Two 96 mph fastballs, an average change-up, and a plus curve mean that Scheppers is another pitcher with a starter's array of pitches at the back end of the Ranger bullpen. Since the curve is his primary weapon, perhaps it's not surprising that his strikeout rate wasn't his best statistical feature, though. A great ground-ball rate, strong control and great velocity mean he checks most of the boxes. Just not all of them. And at his age, the Rangers could use his excellence in the late innings, develop him slowly, and keep him cheap later on in arbitration. All they have to do is make one of the veterans the closer instead.