The American League East is where more marginal pitchers go to their graves, and it's also where the top teams win plenty of games. That makes the closers on these squads potential behemoths -- see Rivera, Mariano -- but all the attention this division gets also pumps some names up before it's their time. Let's try to sort out which is which.
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American League East
No bullpen has as many split-fingers as Boston's. That's great, because despite the fact that the pitch is linked to forearm injuries in some minds, and is one of the hardest pitches in baseball to throw for a strike, it's also the pitch that gets more whiffs than any other in baseball. Koji Uehara rode his -- along with impeccable control -- into a season for the ages. There's no real reason to think he can't do it again. He's led the league in K-BB for what seems like forever, and that control is good enough to survive the occasional bout of homeritis. Perhaps the fact that he came from Japan and has been here a while is the only source of concern -- Uehara is 39 years old and time isn't always kind to relievers. Whether by injury or reduced velocity, last year's work load could come back to bite him.
If he does go down, my money is on Junichi Tazawa. Newly signed Edwin Mujica is a Uehara clone in terms of pitching mix, but his velocity is lower, his control not quite as elite, and his strikeout rate almost half as good. Velocity and strikeout rates are the only leading indicator I've found for closer switches, and so Junichi Tazawa will own both of those things over Mujica. In the pen, Tazawa has been a revelation, pairing great control with an okay curve, a plus splitter and a 93 mph fastball. He might be the next Uehara. Everyone should learn a splitter!
Closer: Tommy Hunter
Setup Man: Ryan Webb
Man of Intrigue: Bud Norris
Since he's moved to the pen, Tommy Hunter's fastball has lurched from around 90 mph to around 96 mph. That's made his curve and cutter play up into good but not great strikeout pitches. Paired with this great command, he's a legitimate closer candidate that could do well with the job. That doesn't mean there aren't huge questions. For one, despite a good whiff rate, he hasn't yet put up a good strikeout rate on a full season. And two, he doesn't get ground balls, and so his high fastballs -- as fast as they come in -- sometimes turn into homers. Since he's a righty with breakers that cut in on lefties, he's given up homers to lefties -- all 11 of them last year were from southpaws -- but now in the spring he's given up a few to righties. His splits, arsenal, and strikeout results all suggest that this is no done deal.
The problem is that the guys behind him aren't necessarily demanding the ball. Darren O'Day is a submariner that relies on a sinker and slider and usually has the bad platoon splits that are associated with pitchers like that. He doesn't have the velocity or the strikeout rate to push for the role in a traditional sense. Brian Matusz is much better against lefties, and Suk-Min Yoon is a question mark. Could Ryan Webb be the new Jim Johnson? Webb has managed a ground-ball rate close to 60% for his career, and he pairs it with good control and a fastball that hums along anywhere from 92 to 95mph in any given year. The team has gone with a sinkerballer before, so it could turn to Webb. If I ran the team -- and I don't -- I might consider putting Kevin Gausman in the rotation and pushing Bud Norris to the closer's role. Gausman has the best stuff on that roster right now and is the only pitcher with ace-like upside. Norris has had bad platoon splits on his fastball/slider combination and could use the velocity boost he'd get from moving to the bullpen. This happening is not impossible.
This job really looks like it's David Robertson's, and with decent leash. The team did reach out to Brian Wilson, and they did sign Andrew Bailey, but David Robertson is really good. We mentioned this about Steve Cishek last week, but Robertson is one of five relievers last year that paired one strikeout per inning with above-average control and had more than a 50% ground-ball rate -- and he, like Cishek, is in the smaller group that has been doing that for more than just a year. A 92 mph cutter, an 80 mph curve, and the occasional change -- when backed by great command -- is enough to dominate when paired with great command like it has been for the past two years. The last guy only needed one pitch! Robertson looks like one of the best values on closer day when you look at his strikeout and walk rates and his average draft position.
But Robertson used to have worse command, so there's some risk of regression here. Matt Thornton is probably too washed up at this point to close, and Preston Claiborne and Dellin Betances are probably not ready yet. Andrew Bailey is always hurt, and is hurt now. How about Shawn Kelley? At one point last year, he led the entire league in strikeout percentage! He ended up in the top 25 at the end of the year, but that's still a standout performance. He's got a little Luke Gregerson in him, in that he throws the slider a ton and has a couple versions of the pitch. Those two sliders can combat platoon splits -- a slower, more up-down curve type slider he can use against lefties, and a sharper, more horizontal slider that works for same-handed hitters. Any improvement in homers allowed would make him look like a bona fide closer candidate.
Tampa Bay Rays
Closer: Grant Balfour
Setup Man: Jake McGee
Man of Intrigue: Heath Bell
There's no reason to doubt Grant Balfour when it comes to talent. On the field, he's put up the kind of strikeout and walk rates that make for a decent closer. He was perfectly average last year, and he could do it again. And, based on cost, that would make him a draft-day value. The problem is that there's this dark cloud over his health. The Orioles looked inside his arm and didn't like what they saw, and so the Rays got him cheap. Now his velocity is down in the spring and he's talking about a dead arm. These things could mean nothing, especially since he's felt better recently. Or they could mean that Balfour will have to deal with some injuries this year.
Jake McGee has been around forever, and the team has only trusted him to save one game. That might be because he's a lefty and managers prefer righty closers, or it might be because saves make a reliever expensive in arbitration. Either way, those things haven't really changed, so despite McGee's good control and strong strikeout numbers, paired with gas, he's maybe not the best handcuff for Balfour. Could the next in line actually be former closer Heath Bell? The Rays are great with reclamation projects, and Bell's biggest problem last year was home runs. He could benefit from the pitcher-friendly confines of Tropicana Field. At least his (near) customary walk and strikeout rates returned last year, and he still throws 93. Now he's adding a splitter, too. With other teams footing most of Bell's bill, cost is not a concern. He could end up with some saves this year.
Toronto Blue Jays
Closer: Casey Janssen
Setup Man: Steve Delabar
Man of Intrigue: Sergio Santos
Casey Janssen has out-produced his swing-and-miss stuff for three years now, so maybe you can project him for decent strikeout rates, even if he doesn't strike out at least a batter per inning like most closers. More worrisome is the fact that he was shut down in camp for shoulder issues. He threw live batting practice yesterday, but time is getting short. He may not even be available at the beginning of the year, and that gives another pitcher a chance to get the first crack at the job. And it's always better to bet on the incumbent than the newcomer.
That *probably* means to bet on Janssen, but it's Sergio Santos that has closer stuff. Once he got healthy last year, Santos returned to his elite swinging strike rates. His elite strikeout rates may be on the way back too. 95+ with a wicked slider and improving control are the foundations of future closer-dom, and when paired with Janssen's shoulder woes, Santos is one of the better non-closers available on draft day. Steve Delabar is the setup man, but he's coming off shoulder issues of his own, and his surgically repaired arm always seems iffy to bet on. He's also never really improved his control past 'passable.' If he is fully healthy, though, he's an interesting name.
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