Almost done going through the divisions as we creep towards the land of the rising sun, or Australia. Even if, like Zack Greinke, you're not excited about where we'll start this year, you have to admit it's exciting to start another season.
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National League East
How do we love Craig Kimbrel? Let us count the ways. 1) Over the last three years, he led the league in strikeout rate (14.85 per nine). 2) Over the last three years, he led all closers in ERA (1.48). 3) Over the last three years, he led the league in saves (138). 4) His strikeout rate last year was so much better than your average closer that he would have turned your Hisashi Iwakuma into a Felix Hernandez. 5) His fastball was so good, it got twice the whiffs of an average fastball. 6) Only one curveball in baseball (Paco Rodriguez') got more whiffs per pitch. 7) Once a hitter swung at his curveball last year, he missed it more often than he hit it. 8) Nobody has ever hit one of his curveballs out of the park.
That said, all pitchers are mere mortals, and Jordan Walden has shown he can close, jump-step and all. His change and slider are both elite by whiffs, so he's got weapons against batters on both sides of the plate. His fastball averages around 97, so he's got the gas to go with the whiffs. Last year, he even found the plate, with his first better-than-league-average walk rate. Jonny Venters is exciting in that he pairs elite strikeout rates with elite ground-ball rates, but he's coming off of Tommy John and is therefore at least a slight question mark. His control was never that great to begin with.
Look at a picture of Jonathan Papelbon's velocities on his pitches, and it's not pretty. They've all dropped year-to-year for about four years now, and last year was the worst. He spent four months last year not sitting over 92, and this was a man that sat over 94 not just two years ago. Maybe even more concerning is that his slider now hums along at about 75 mph, which is the speed you expect from a curveball -- but it has slider movement. That's hittable, no matter how good his command and splitter are. Basically, Papelbon has to be Koji Uehara to make this package work, and there aren't many Koji Uehara's.
The fact that the Phillies were reportedly shopping Papelbon this offseason probably means that they aren't too invested in him anymore. If the team falls out of contention, they'll most likely push him harder on the market. Antonio Bastardo seems like the heir apparent, but he's a left-hander and managers have used lefty closers about half as much as you'd expect given the number of lefties in the game. He's also all four-seamer and slider, so his rare change isn't a weapon he uses against righties. The good news is that his platoon split is not pronounced, though. So he's found a way to make it work. And Justin De Fratus hasn't proven himself yet. His whiff rates suggest that his strikeout rate might be higher in the future, but he hasn't shown that yet. Mike Adams might get healthy, Brad Lincoln might take as step forward, but Antonio Bastardo seems like the legit frontrunner should something happen to Papelbon (if it hasn't already).
Name the relievers last year that paired one strikeout per inning with above-average control and had more than a 50% ground-ball rate. David Robertson. Nate Jones. Steve Cishek. Wesley Wright. End list. That's checking all the boxes. Sure, Cishek has had worse control in the past, but he's pretty much settled in as the kind of guy that can get you average strikeouts for a closer while being super homer-safe. Maybe his team won't give him the most saves. He'll still be a great value where he's being drafted, and he's probably safe… unless his team holds a fire sale, which they have the propensity to do.
If they sell, there's a newcomer in town with a blazing fastball and a wicked slider. Watch Carter Capps some time, it's a lot of fun. 96 mph gas, a crazy slider, and a decent change -- and yet he can't corral the stuff. Or he can show a good walk rate, but then he gets homeritis. You'd think Miami could cure homeritis, but Capps came from Seattle. In any case, he's been terrible against lefties and you'll need to see some progress in that arena before he can be a closer. He's walked six lefties per nine innings and given up almost two homers per nine against southpaws. A.J. Ramos had a bad walk rate last year, but he also had 93 mph gas and a starter's arsenal that could help him avoid platoon splits in the future. If he can improve the command even slightly, he should iron out his own platoon problems -- at least he has the pitches to do so. This is a tough handcuff to pick, and you might just want to watch their usage in the early going to figure out who you like.
Bobby Parnell says he's healthy, and if he is, he's a proven closer with gas (95+), a good breaker, and a splitter he's working on. If you're wondering where the strikeouts are, he's made a concerted choice to pitch low in the zone and aim for grounders over whiffs. That's helped him to plus ground-ball rates and tiny little homer rates, but it's also eroded his upside. Now, he's a little bit better than a Jim Johnson type when it comes to strikeout rate, but he's in that mold. His lack of a long track record in the closer role makes him so cheap his valuable, though.
Should the team trade him, or should his neck act up again, there is a fresh new arm in town that has been touted as a Close of the Future in the past. Vic Black is all fastball (96) and curveball (plus whiff rate), but in the past he's had command problems. If the strikeout rate comes up to make his walk rate passable, he could be a closer for sure. But it's Gonzalez Germen that spent a year in the pen with a great whiff rate. It didn't quite turn into a strikeout per inning, but almost, and he's had much better walk rates in the past. With two breaking pitches that are elite by whiff rates, and a fastball that goes 93, all he needs to do is work on his fastball command to be a great reliever. Seriously. Don't forget the name. 31% whiff rates on change-ups are rare -- that rate beat the rate that Cole Hamels showed on his vaunted change-piece.
Rafael Soriano's story is a little like Jonathan Papelbon's, just a little less obvious when it comes to velocity. Yes, last year was a career-low in velocity for Soriano, but it was only by about a tick on the fastball. But, like Papelbon, Soriano also showed a career-low strikeout rate, backed up by a career-worst drop in swinging strikes. He used his slider less than usual and this is a man that has had elbow issues in his past. Too many red flags for me to pay retail on that arm.
Tyler Clippard seems to be the obvious speculation play here, especially since the team supposedly shopped Drew Storen in the offseason. And Clippard does have at least three pitches, great whiff rates, and good command. He's been huge for the Nationals and even had 32 saves for them in 2012. So what's the risk? Pitches. Clippard has thrown more pitches than any reliever in baseball since 2010. He's thrown 340 more than second place Matt Belisle. He's racked up the most innings, too, but it's his particular style of pitching -- strikeouts and walks -- that has led to all the pitches. Matt Belisle only has six fewer innings over the same time period, for example. If those pitches do catch up to him, Drew Storen might be happy he wasn't traded. He's still got 94 mph gas, a three-pitch mix to avoid platoon splits, and excellent control. And he was the Nationals' closer in 2011, so he's done it before. Don't forget Storen.
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