A trade this morning reminds us that bullpens are always in flux. Still, a young reliever with desirable skills is always interesting in fantasy leagues.
Of the top 35 relievers by saves last year, only six were on multi-year contracts. General Managers, for the most part, know that bullpens are built, not bought. That means a young reliever is even more significant.
So let's look at some lights-out youngsters from around the league.
Bard is in the news today because of a big trade: His Boston Red Sox gave up infielder Jed Lowrie and young starter Kyle Weiland for the Astros' Mark Melancon on Wednesday in a trade that could come back to bite the Boston team. Even an oft-injured and flawed middle infielder seems like a better foundational piece than a late-inning closer, in any case.
But the point is that now the Sox can really give Daniel Bard a chance to start, and that has been what they've said so far. But if they value a cost-controlled reliever this highly, they may not have a Ryan Madson or Francisco Rodriguez up their sleeve. And if Bard can't cut it as a reliever -- there aren't that many Alexi Ogando (or even Ryan Dempster) success stories in the league -- then he's in the first seat for the closer's role. Bard has always put a great strikeout rate together with a strong groundball rate. If he can take one more step forward with his walk rate, he'll be a dominant late-inning reliever. Based on Melancon's history, it won't be much of a battle. If Bard is in the pen.
If Bard isn't in the pen, Melancon could do a good job of closing, even in the AL BEast. He had the swinging strike rates of a strikeout guy, and his minor league strikeout rate suggests that he can whiff a guy per inning. If he can continue to walk guys at an average rate and garner half of his contact on the ground, he could be Bard-esque closer even. He's worth keeping an eye on as the Sox continue to make moves.
Might as well follow the trade back south to see what might happen in the Houston pen, right? Brandon Lyon is coming off of surgery and was never really good to begin with. Wilton Lopez had one year with superlative control, one year with not so great control, and a career ful of ground balls. That might make him a great reliever, but outside of Brandon League, it doesn't usually make for a great closer.
Enter David Carpenter. He's got a 94 MPH fastball and a good slider, and the strikeout rate of a late-inning closer. He can give up the fly balls, and his control wasn't superb last year -- nor has it been for all of his career -- but he has the upside. The last two stops in the minor leagues have produced above-average walk rates, and that's really all that stands between him and some saves in 2012. Make sure he's drafted by the time you hit your final three rounds in this year's drafts.
If strikeout rate -- and strikeout rate alone -- was the only requirement for closing, Jansen would be the best closer in the league. He has put up strikeout numbers that would make Craig Kimbrel blush. Last year, he struck out more than 16 batters per nine innings. The converted catcher does have an Achilles' heel in that he's struggled with his control since he moved to the mound. But he hasn't been pitching long -- just since 2009 -- so he can be forgiven for that flaw. And he's been making progress every year. And he's not as bad as Carlos Marmol in the category anyway.
Of course, Javy Guerra did an okay job at the end of the year last year. But Guerra doesn't strike out half as many batters as Jansen, and also has a long history of control problems of his own. If he regresses to his career mean -- and most pitchers do -- Guerra will lose the job early in 2012 and the fireballer with the unhittable 94 MPH fastball will take the role for the forseeable future.
The White Sox are rebuilding, they say. But even bad teams have save opportunities. And with Sergio Santos out of town and Matt Thornton rumored to be on the next plane, the White Sox are looking for a closer. They shouldn't have to look far past their 2010 draftee Addison Reed. All Reed has done since being drafted is use his 95 MPH fastball, slider and change combo to strike out double-digit batters per nine innings at every level. He blew through the minors and then struck out almost fifteen batters per nine in the majors. He has a flaw -- he's an extreme fly ball pitcher -- but with strikeout-to-walk ratios like he has... it won't matter. He struckout 12 guys in 7 1/3 innings in the majors last year. And walked one. He's also had pinpoint control at every minor league stop. Reed will close eventually, the question is only when.
Surpisingly decent closer Kyle Farnsworth is back in Tampa Bay, but he could turn back into a pumpkin if his new-found control doesn't hold for another year. Jake McGee wasn't as good as advertised in his first long stint with the team, and he even had to go back to the minor leagues at some point to find it. But he's had double-digit strikeout rates in the minor leagues, and his control has taken a leap forward with his move to the pen. The lefty has a 95 MPH fastball, a nasty slider, and a change he can throw in there to keep righties honest. His third attempt at the league might prove to be an exciting one, and with his team always looking to cut corners in terms of cash, his price tag may be enough to move him ahead of Farnsworth, who is in the last year of his deal. Dont' draft McGee until you hear something definite, but make sure to watch him.
Now we're talking about a player that has a real flaw that might keep him from being a passable reliever, let alone a closer. The Rox lefty has the strikeout rate of a closer -- he struck out 13 per nine last year -- but his walk rate has been pretty bad throughout his career. He even walked seven per nine in Double-A. If he can continue to walk around four per nine, he could carve out a Marmol-esque space on the mound, but that requires him to keep his strikeout rate as high as it's been so far. Also, the Rockies are fine with going into the season with Rafael Betancourt as the closer -- as they should be, he's a fine reliever -- so Brothers doesn't have a clear path ahead of him. But Betancourt only has one year left on his deal, and if the team doesn't compete, they may just look to the future. Keep Brothers on your radar.