Saves and Steals is trying to suss out the closer situations across the league. Last week was the American League West, so -- since the west is best -- up this week is the National League West. There are plenty of opportunities for saves prospecting in this division, with injury-prone veterans, unproven new closers, and lights-out young setup men running rampant.
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First Up: J.J. Putz
If you ignore one column in his statistical profile, J.J. Putz looks like he could challenge for the best reliever in baseball. He consistently has elite swinging strike rates, great strikeout rates, minuscule walk rates, and he even gets above-average ground-ball rates. He doesn't give up many home runs, and has kept his ERA under three and his WHIP under 1.05 for three straight years. So what's the problem? He hasn't managed more than 60 innings in five years, and he's averaged around 55 innings for the last three. That's not terrible -- you can't really expect many more than 60 innings from your reliever anyway -- but it's enough to put an asterisk next to his line. His elbow seems like a time bomb. He's best when handcuffed.
Next in Line: David Hernandez
At least his handcuff seems fairly obvious. David Hernandez has been lights out since moving to the pen -- he calmed his control in that role and already had elite swinging strike rates. He almost struck out 13 per nine last season, and he's had the stamina to approach 70 innings most seasons. He's been picking up saves here or there already, but if Putz goes down for surgery, Hernandez will be gone from the wires in seconds, not minutes.
Sleeper: Heath Bell
His numbers have been going the wrong way for years now, and he hasn't been clearly above-average in any facet of the game for the last two, despite his good ERA and WHIP in 2011. Then again, his GM has acquired him twice and may have a soft spot in his heart for the rotund reliever.
First Up: Rafael Betancourt
Save for one season in his career, Betancourt has been an excellent reliever with great whiffs and elite control, even if he's a fly ball dude. The Rockies finally made him a closer and he continued his excellence in that role. He's not paid a ton -- only around five million bucks -- but he might be a trade chip if the Rockies struggle again. Those trade rumors surrounded him last season, but we ignored them here because he had that affordable option coming. That option is no longer hanging over the situation, so he's a little bit more likely to be traded late in 2013.
Next in Line: Wilton Lopez
The Rockies traded for the ground-ball wizard from Houston, so they must want him in a high-leverage situation. Unfortunately, because of his "meh" strikeout rate, he's not worth owning until he's actually getting saves. And then you add in the fact that there are whispers about his elbow health, and he's not the sturdiest saves sleeper.
Sleeper: Rex Brothers
Brothers will get you the strikeouts that Lopez won't, but where the ground-ball guy has elite control, Brothers can't find the plate. One of the best estimators of pitching skill is very simple -- strikeout percentage minus walk percentage. Brothers is still pretty attractive seen through that lens. But walking more than four guys per nine is still risky. He might be the Closer of the Future that he's been rumored to be, or he might just implode too often to be trusted in that role.
Los Angeles Dodgers
First Up: Brandon League
The heavily-tattooed League has his skills -- he can get ground balls with the best of them, and when he's going well, he pairs that with good control. He's not Jim Johnson with the strikeouts, since he still gets six per nine most years, but he's still below-average in that category. So he'll never be an elite closer. The Dodgers signed him to a closer's deal though, and it's three years long, so he'll probably have some leash in the role.
Next in Line: Kenley Jansen
League shouldn't have much leash though. Because if former catcher Kenley Jansen is healthy -- and his heart seems to be fine, he says -- he should be the closer, really. Even though he only throws one pitch (the cutter, 90+% of the time), Jansen is almost Mariano-esque with his number one pitch. It gets top-five whiffs, and he's got Marmolian strikeout rates with decent control. He even gets ground balls. If Jansen is healthy, there's really little reason to denigrate him.
Sleeper: Ronald Belisario
Belisario has had his troubles -- most notably with recreational drugs -- but he has an intriguing mix of elite ground-ball rates and average strikeout numbers. Those peripherals actually have more upside than League's, but given his terrible 2010 and off-pitch troubles, he's probably well back in the pecking order.
San Diego Padres
First Up: Huston Street
Really, you could take most of the write-up for J.J. Putz and repeat it here. Street has elite swinging strike rates and control, but can't stay in the lineup all season. Last year's 39 innings were a career-low, but even before that, he had been hovering around 50 innings a season. Street's strikeout rates haven't quite stayed on a level with those of the Diamondbacks' closer, so maybe his upside is more limited. On the other hand, Street is almost six years younger, so maybe his injury risk is more limited as well. In any case, it's clear the two belong in the same tier, and choosing between them is more a matter of preference than science.
Next in Line: Luke Gregerson
For the longest time, it seemed like the Padres didn't trust their lights-out reliever to close. All sorts of inferior relievers -- Dale Thayer, for one -- leap-frogged Gregerson into saves chances while he continued to strike everyone out, show great control, and keep the ball on the ground. The problem, or so it went, was that he was a slider-heavy guy without great velocity and with a balky elbow and some platoon splits. Call him Sergio Romo if you will. And like Romo got his chance, Gregerson finally got his and showed that he is definitively next in line for saves chances this season.
Sleeper: Brad Boxberger
Given Gregerson's iffy elbow, and Street's iffy everything, it wouldn't be impossible to envision a scenario where the third in line gets saves chances in San Diego. Boxberger showed the swing-and-miss stuff he had in the minor leagues -- his fastball and changeup combo got closer-worthy strikeout and whiff rates -- but he also had the same old problem corralling the ball. He's had up-and-down walk rates in the minors, though, and if he improves this season, he'll be in the late-inning mix for sure.
San Francisco Giants
First Up: Sergio Romo
Sergio Romo has actually been an elite reliever for four straight years, maybe even for all 230+ innings of his career. He has outer-worldly swinging strike rates, double-digit strikeout rates, and 80-grade control, so the ground balls don't even matter -- particularly given his home park. And though he's primarily a fastball/slider guy, he has avoided platoon splits by using his excellent control. "Don't sleep on my fastball" he said with a smile when I asked him about freezing Miguel Cabrera with a fastball even though he throws more sliders than anyone in baseball, by percentages. Some of my research has shown that sliders lead to more elbow surgeries, and the slight Romo is a perennial injury risk, but he'll start the season as the closer, and two out of every five pitchers hits the DL in a given year anyway.
Next in Line: Santiago Casilla
Last year, Romo had a lefty caddy -- either Javier Lopez or Jeremy Affeldt -- most days, but it was Casilla that was the only pitcher on the roster that was ever the unquestioned regular season Closer with a capital C. Casilla uses a 94 mph fastball, a slider and a curve to avoid platoon splits, show passable strikeout rates, and keep the ball on the ground. When his control is on, he's closer-worthy. The Giants just signed him for three and fifteen, so they believe in him. Sounds like he'd be first in line.
Sleeper: Heath Hembree
The sleeper might really be Jeremy Affeldt, who though a lefty is no LOOGY. But if you want to go deeper it's the prospect that's burned up the Giants' minor league system with great strikeout rates. He slowed when he hit Triple-A, but injury was part of the story. If his elbow is healthy, he'll make his way up the ladder quickly. George Kontos is also a name to remember -- his slider has more of a downward break, leading to more ground balls and fewer platoon issues.