Eno Sarris

Saves and Steals

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Closer Market Heats Up

Wednesday, December 07, 2011


The Winter Meetings are in full swing. In between all the breathless news updates about the big names like Jose Reyes, Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, though, there have been some important moves that will impact more than a few bullpens.

 

Let's break down the moves and what they mean. And then next week we'll have to do it all over again -- 'tis the season.

 

Jonathan Papelbon signs with the Phillies

After being getting hot and heavy with Ryan Madson on a deal worth more than ten million a year over four years, the Phillies switched course and gave Jonathan Papelbon $50 million for four years. That's a lot of coin for a pitcher that will be lucky to pitch much more than 65 innings a year, but that's another story for another time. Papelbon reversed some disturbing trends in his control last year and should enjoy a move to the weaker league. He'll be an elite option once again in 2012.



What happens behind him is more interesting. The Red Sox were immediately linked to Madson once they lost Papelbon, but now the rumor is that Madson might accept arbitration and try again next year, when the closer market should be less saturated.

The team could still sign someone like Francisco Rodriguez, provided the price is right, but they also have a natural in-house option in the 26-year-old Daniel Bard. He doesn't have the other-worldly strikeout rate and awesome control of a Papelbon, but he does add a strong ground-ball rate that Paps never showed. It's all built on a 97 MPH fastball which is closer-worthy, a slider and sometimes a changeup. There's little reason to think he wouldn't be successful if given the role, but since Boston is so active in free agency, we'll just have to wait and see.


Joe Nathan signs with the Rangers

It looks a little like the Twins are re-evaluating their approach and entering what might be a mini rebuilding phase. Two years and $14 million was too hefty for them at the closer position, in any case, and the Rangers snapped up a possible value in Joe Nathan.

The 37-year-old Nathan had a strange year in his return from Tommy John surgery. His velocity was down for much of the early season, and that contributed to the worst strikeout rate of his Twins career. Then he went back on the DL, jarred some scar tissue loose, and came back with velocity that was only a tick or two short of his pre-surgery levels. And he was much better -- he struck out more guys and regained the closer role.

The only problem is that there were a few late-season outings in which his velocity once again dipped. If Nathan doesn't have closer to 94 MPH gas, he'll be less effective as a fly-ball guy in a batter-friendly park. That might also open the door for Mike Adams or Koji Uehara, both effective setup men. But Uehara is an extreme fly-ball guy that was left off the World Series roster, and Adams has never closed for a long period of time. It's Nathan's job to lose.

What this also means in Texas is that Neftali Feliz is most likely headed to the rotation. Much of his success there will depend on his ability to refine his changeup -- and his durability. Monkeying with his role last year may or may not have lead to some of the aches and pains Feliz suffered in 2011, and his career high in innings in the minor leagues was 127 1/3 back in 2008. Also, pitchers lose about a mile per hour on their fastball and some of their strikeout ability in a move to the rotation. Feliz is better as a late-round flier than a major investment in 2012.

Matt Capps signs with the Twins

There might have been an opening for a young pitcher to take over in Minnesota, for just about a minute, but then the Twins swooped in and have reportedly signed Matt Capps to a one-year, $4.5 million deal with a $6 million option. For ten million dollars less, they got the other half of their 2011 closing tandem.

Capps, compared to a healthy Nathan, is the lesser half of that tandem. The 28-year-old has never once struck out batters at an average rate for a reliever, and he's also a fly-ball pitcher. The one thing he does really well is limit the walks -- his 2.14 BB/9 is elite, and never once has he even been average in the category. Unfortunately, below-average strikeouts and a reliance on control and balls in play will limit his effectiveness in fantasy leagues.

Heath Bell signs with the Marlins

The Marlins ignored the fact that Heath Bell was a 34-year-old bad-body pitcher with a herky-jerky delivery who just saw a precipitous drop in his strikeout rate and signed him anyway. Bell never had great control, has been giving up more fly balls as he's aged, and is a long way away from his peak. A three-year, $27 million contract probably won't sink the team, but there's some risk here. Unless he recovers his great strikeout rate, there's a chance that he'll give up many more home runs in a new Miami park that won't feature the Teal Monster in left field any more.

Back in San Diego, the Padres are rumored to be in on some of the late-inning relief options still on the market. If they go in-house, they should be fine. They mint relievers in PetCo. Ernesto Frieri racked up the strikeouts, but also the walks, and was an extreme fly-ball pitcher. Luke Gregerson is coming off a bad year, but when the slider is going, he's lights out with the strike out. He still got the swinging strikes last year, and if he's healthy, he's the favorite. And every year, there's a new wizard in that pen. They could just wait.

Sergio Santos traded to the Blue Jays

In the surprise move of the meetings, non-Marlins edition, the White Sox signalled the beginning of a rebuild by sending Sergio Santos, on an affordable three-year eight-plus million dollar contract (with three team-friendly options), back to the team that drafted him as a shortstop.

The Blue Jays sent their second-best pitching prospect back to the White Sox, Nestor Molina, but scouts are divided on the starter. He had a whopping 148 strikeout against a mere 14 walks in High-A and Double-A combined last year, but some feel that he's a command-and-control guy lacking the real stuff to be a great starter.

In any case, Kenny Williams admitted that this was the beginning of a look to the future, and that complicates any look at the bullpen as it's currently constituted. For example, Chris Sale could close, but he's slated for the rotation. He could be an excellent starter, as his relieving numbers were so lights-out that he they can afford to be rolled back a little. Matt Thornton has closed before, to less-than-exciting results, but now he's rumored to be headed out of town as well.

If they don't sign anyone, and Thornton is indeed shipped out of town, the veteran option is probably Jesse Crain, who had a resurgent year in 2011. But the more exciting option is Addison Reed. The soon-to-be 23-year-old burned through every level in the White Sox minor league organization with elite strikeout rates and elite control, and then repeated that performance at the big league level in a short late-season stint. Remember his name, even if the team is talking about Crain in spring training. Reed should take that job eventually.



Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch sign with the Mets

In the space of what seemed like an hour, the Mets traded for Ramon Ramirez and signed both Jon Rauch and Frank Francisco to the pen. Through one prism, you could be derisive of the moves. Rauch and Francisco didn't put up an inspiring performance in Toronto in their inaugural performance as co-closers, and Ramirez wasn't anything special before last year.

But don't count out Francisco as a decent closer next year. He's always had great strikeout ability and good control -- it's home runs that have been the problem. Calling Texas and Toronto home has not helped. Citi Field is undergoing some changes, but it's not likely to go from suppressing home runs around 10% to encouraging home runs over 15% like Texas and Toronto.

A few less home runs, and a little bit of luck with his health, and Francisco could actually be a great closer for the value. For the Mets and for you.



Eno Sarris is an editor and writer at FanGraphs.com. You can find his work gathered in one place at and enosarris.com. Follow his misadventures in writing on Twitter as well.
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