Eno Sarris

Saves and Steals

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Bullpens in Flux

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Boston may have finally reached the bottom of their coin purse. How else can you explain the fact that, despite the fact that a perfectly cromulent closer -- Ryan Madson -- remains on the free agent market, the team has completed two winter trades for options at the position?

Their loss is our gain. Now we have some bullpens to dream about as the snow falls. Fantasy baseball!

Let's look at the three teams that saw their bullpens change the most during Boston's 'spending' spree.

Just when the Astros had seemingly found a young reliever that could strike batters out, limit the walks, and get ground balls, they trade him away. Ah, this is refreshing leadership -- Ed Wade might have made Mark Melancon untouchable. The truth is that even a flawed every day player like Jed Lowrie is probably going to be worth more to a rebuilding team than a shut-down reliever.

What's left in the pen behind Melancon? It's not very pretty. Wilton Lopez is in the driver's seat, as he limits the walks and gets ground balls -- he's walked fewer than two per nine over the last two years, and his ground-ball rate is among league leaders. The 'problem' with Lopez is that he doesn't get the strikeouts. Among the top 30 in saves last year, only four had worse strikeout rates than Lopez showed last year: Brandon League, Francisco Cordero, Chris Perez and Matt Capps. If Lopez joins this group, he'll be a serviceable and unexciting mid-to-bottom-tier closer. And managers prefer closers that can get outs at the plate (fantasy managers too, since it's a category like any other).

Who else could close? Wesley Wright had a nice ERA, but he has platoon issues and is better used only against lefties. The rest of the bullpen was actually pretty bad… except David Carpenter. The 26-year-old got above-average swinging strikes and more than a strikeout per inning on the back of his 94-MPH fastball and 85-MPH slider combo. He struggled a little with the walks -- over four per nine -- but has shown a better-than-average walk rate in the minor leagues since 2010. If he takes a slight step forward with that control he could be an exciting young closer. It happens that quickly.

Did we forget anyone? Brandon Lyon? Meh. He's 32, coming off a labrum tear (perhaps the worst injury for a pitcher), and hasn't shown the ability to get strikeouts, limit walks, or induce ground balls in over three years. And new General Manager Jeff Luhnow has already said that he's not necessarily the closer, which is management speak for "No, probably not, and we have no idea why the last guy gave him so much money and three years."

The Athletics traded away their two best relievers from last year -- Andrew Bailey and Brad Ziegler -- and what's left might be an open battle for the closer's role all year. The two highest-paid relievers are Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour, so they might be the front-runners -- if only so that Oakland can pump up their value and dump their salaries for prospects.

The problem with Fuentes is that his swinging strikes have dried up. He went from well above average in 2008 to below average last year. He hasn't ever had great control -- not bad, but not great -- and he's a pretty extreme fly ball pitcher. If he can recover some of the swinging strikes, he could be the candidate, but he hasn't made any friends in Oakland management with his statements to the media.

Balfour has undergone the same gradual loss of swinging strikes over the same time frame -- guess Billy Beane didn't pick the right pair of relievers to spend money on. But while Balfour had some struggles with control, he finally stayed above-average in the walks department for two years running in 2011. He's also a fly ball pitcher, but at 34 years old, he's two years younger than Fuentes. He's more likely to rebound and take the closer's role next year. Call him the favorite.

But it is Oakland, and their best bet would be to find a younger reliever that would stick around for a while and provide value on the cheap. Fautino De Los Santos struck out almost 12 batters per nine last year, which is great, but he also walked four and a half per nine, which is not great. Jerry Blevins pitched well, but his splits suggest he's a LOOGY and not fit for work against righties.

Here's a sleeper for you: past Closer of the Future Joey Devine. Devine lost all of 2009 and 2010 to Tommy John surgery, and is only under control for two more years, but when he's been in, he's shown some promise. His career swinging strike and strikeout rates are above average (the swinging strikes have never dipped below average). The problem is that he's only once shown the control required to be a closer. Watch his control and leave him on the waiver wires until he proves something -- unless you are in a very deep league.

Not happy with one former closer on their roster in Mark Melancon, and one Closer of the Future in Daniel Bard, the Red Sox went out and got Andrew Bailey. This one is relatively easy to suss out, since Bailey is the best pitcher when healthy. He combines great control with passable ground balls and gets the swinging strikes of a closer.

The only caveat is that he's only managed just more than 100 innings over the last two years combined. Forearm, elbow, trunk and knee -- virtually every body part has failed him at some point. And that followed him up from the minors -- it was basically why he was converted to relief -- so he'll likely get hurt sometime again in the future. Hopefully it won't be a second Tommy John, since he had one in college already, but you never know.

When he does get hurt, it might be Melancon cleaning up. Well, if Bard doesn't successfully convert to starting, it will be Melancon. And that's just fine -- Melancon has shown swinging strike rates that suggest he could strike out a batter per inning while showing good control and keeping the ball on the ground. That's the trifecta -- it just doesn't come with as much velocity (or as many pitches), so he's the clear second fiddle to Bailey.

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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