Over the next few weeks, Saves and Steals will take you through each of the divisions in an effort to clear up the depth charts for you. First up is the American League West, which boasts the newcomer to the American League. Fittingly, those Astros are up first, if only because that's how the alphabet works.
First Up: Jose Veras
Recently the Astros' brass admitted what might have been obvious from the moment the team signed Veras: the newcomer would be first in line for saves. There just isn't anybody else in that pen. Veras has his flaws. He walks too many (almost five per nine over his career) and that might end up biting him in the butt. Ask John Axford. He also hasn't been a closer before, but that mostly means his leash might be shorter. Lastly, his swinging strike rates are average but his strikeout rates are above average. Normally, you'd associate that sort of difference to called strikes, but given his control, you might want to wonder how Veras has struck out ten batters per nine despite average whiff rates. No matter. Veras is first in line, and the rest of the pen will need to show something to even be considered for the job.
Next In Line: Hector Ambriz
This is a tough one. The bullpen really is barren. Wesley Wright is good, but only against lefties. Xavier Cedeno is another lefty, but with a fastball and a curve, he might avoid Wright's LOOGY status -- if only he had a fastball that cracked 90 mph. Hector Ambriz got above-average whiffs on his 93+ mph fastball. He mostly uses a slider as his second pitch, but has a curve he can use against opposite-handed hitters. The former Indian had some control issues, but he hasn't always. If he pairs the control he used to own with the swinging strikes he showed last season, Ambriz could be better than the veteran free agent. He's a decent saves sleeper in deeper leagues.
Sleeper: Rhiner Cruz
Cruz is a former rule 5 draft pick from the Mets that showed a six-plus ERA in 60-plus innings last season with a walk rate near five, but it's not all bad news. Cruz threw the ball 95 mph and had an above-average swinging strike rate. So he has that going for him.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
First Up: Ernesto Frieri
This one is slightly in name only -- Ryan Madson was probably signed to close -- but any time you get the first crack at saves, it means you've got a chance to keep the job. Frieri seemed to be in depth-chart trouble all year last year, and it's no good news that the team signed a free agent closer, but if you zoom out and look at his year, it was mostly good. He had an elite whiff rate, a great strikeout rate -- over 13 per nine, or sixth in the league among qualified relievers -- and generally pristine fantasy stats. Of course, his walk rate (over four per nine) and fly ball rate (terrible) were flaws, but nobody made enough contact to make it stick. Frieri could close all season if the new guy's rehab takes a while, or if his control isn't all there on his return. That can happen with Tommy John surgeries.
Next In Line: Ryan Madson
The free agent won't be ready to begin the year, and he's the new monkey in the monkeysphere. That might not mean anything -- he's been great since 2009, and he's done it with elite rates in all three categories. His strikeout rate since that year has been above-average, his control has been elite for most of his career, and he actually gets ground balls, too. Then again, he's missed large portions of his career to injury, and sometimes Tommy John returners don't have the control right away.
Sleeper: Kevin Jepsen
With two great options, the Angels probably won't have to open door number three. Jepsen has seemingly been different pitchers over his career -- sometimes a ground-baller, sometimes a strikeout guy, last year a control artist -- but he's got 96+ mph heat and two legit pitches. He could factor in. Maybe.
First Up: Grant Balfour
When you sum up the year for Balfour, there's little to poo-poo. He got an average strikeout rate for a late-game reliever (almost one per inning), based on an average swinging strike rate for closers. He had an average walk rate. His fly ball rate wasn't great, but he was in a great park, and good defense behind him kept his rates pristine. There was that hiccup, though, when Balfour lost the job, and given his career saves total (24 of his career 34 saves came in 2012), and the quality of the bullpen around him, he's not the safest reliever out there.
Next In Line: Ryan Cook
Cook throws 95+ mph and gets more strikeouts, whiffs and ground balls than Balfour. Why isn't he the closer again? Well, he's had some control issues in his career -- although his walk rate last season was only slightly worse than average -- and he's only 81 innings into his career. Oh, and he's a fastball/slider guy, so he may need help against tougher lefty lineups.
Sleeper: Sean Doolittle
Queue the lefty. Doolittle did a lot for the Athletics last year, and if it came down to a timeshare with Cookie, the former first baseman could bring heat from the left side to complete a closer tandem. He doesn't really have platoon splits, and he gets great whiffs against elite control. Sure, he throws his fastball almost 84% of the time, but it's one of those Mariano-type cutters that maybe people will never figure out. Managers don't like lefty closers, but Doolittle might push the issue.
First Up: Tom Wilhelmsen
The Bartender is up first, and he was quite the value last year. After being pimped here all preseason, he promptly took the job in the first half and ran with it. It looks like his control issues -- which almost torpedoed his career his first time around -- have been corralled. What's left are strikeouts (almost ten per nine) and ground balls built on the back of a closer-legit 96 mph fastball and a hammer curve. The only worry with Wilhelmsen -- that the team sees him as a legit trade chip in front of a stacked group of relievers that could easily take his spot -- has to be assuaged a little by the fact that the Mariners made some win-now moves in the offseason. You don't bring in Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay to blow it all up do you? Oh. Wait. There's still a chance Wilhelmsen gets dealt in-season, but predicting that sort of thing is folly.
Next In Line: Carter Capps
This bullpen is loaded with gas, and the only difficult part is deciding who is in front of whom. Let's call it Capps for now, but make sure you watch who's pitching the eighth in the early going. Capps does hump it up over 98 mph on average and into triple digits most games, and he follows with a curve of his own. His strikeout rates have been double-digit his entire professional career, but his history is so short (119 1/3 minor league innings) that it's hard to know exactly what this former starter will do with more time. Probably close at some point, but when?
Sleeper: Stephen Pryor
Woe be upon the team that's trailing the Mariners in the seventh inning this season. Fitting in perfectly with the heat around him, Pryor throws over 96 mph and follows with a slider-like cutter a quarter of the time. Of the three, though, he probably has the least control of where it's going -- he walked almost five per nine last season. And he gave up almost two home runs per nine innings. So there are a few more rough edges to his game. But don't forget him.
First Up: Joe Nathan
Yeah, Joe Nathan is 38. But his elbow ligament is as fresh as a 25-year-old's! Maybe. Anyway, Nathan finally recovered his swinging strikes and control in his second year removed from Tommy John, and he looked as elite as he ever was. As a mostly fly ball guy, he's at a slight risk of homer-itis in Texas, but his incredible control and above-average strikeout rate -- built on a strong swinging strike rate -- means that there's not usually a ton of people on base in case someone hits a home run. Even for a guy his age, there's not really a ton of risk here. According to research by Jeff Zimmerman, new Tommy John ligaments usually hold for about 400 innings before they snap again, if they are destined to. Teammate Joakim Soria managed a little over 325 between surgeries.
Next In Line: Jason Frasor
Soria won't be ready to start the season, and Frasor's 36 career saves would be second-most on the team with him out rehabbing. That isn't to say that Frasor doesn't have other things going for him. He can manage a strikeout per inning, and sometimes his control is good. He can still hump his fastball in there at 93 mph, and with a slider and a split-finger, he's got multiple whiff weapons.
Sleeper: Joakim Soria
Provided that Soria's career-worst whiff and strikeout rates last season were a function of his ailing ligament, there might not be that much to worry about with him this season. Sure, control sometimes deserts you on the way back, but if he can get his whiffs back, he can survive a league-average walk rate, even if that would be almost a walk per nine innings worse than his career rate. But Nathan's great. Soria's probably a holds guy when he comes back.