Looks like the winter meetings came a bit early this year. Trades and signings are already beginning to burn up bullpens. It's almost as if the General Managers want to get work out of the way so that they can just make the winter meetings a long break at the bar with buddies. (It pretty much is a long break at the bar with buddies, at least at the end of the day.)
So let's look at impacted bullpens and see what they look like today. Maybe some of this will hold until next week, when I'll check in from the winter meetings themselves.
The A's lose Grant Balfour, but pick up Jim Johnson instead. Balfour struck out more batters, but he gave up more home runs and had worse control. Johnson has been steady for three years. And he's only under contract for this coming year (with an option for 2015), which is important to the Athletics. Billy Beane said on Tuesday that they only have a one-year lease on their stadium, so they're not about to hedge bets right now. And we know that they don't do long-term deals. Sean Doolittle makes the conversation a little interesting -- he gets many more whiffs than Johnson, has better command and control, and keeps the ball in the park at the same rate. He could be considered a better pitcher. But he's a lefty, and even though his splits are fine, managers don't prefer lefty closers. Luke Gregerson and Ryan Cook are the right-handed setup men, and it's Gregerson for ground balls and Cook for the whiff. Considering Johnson almost lost his job this year, it wouldn't be a huge surprise to see someone else closing for the A's at some point in 2014, but Johnson will be the man to start the year.
This one's easy, and not because of who the team signed. Joe Nathan is the closer, yeah that much is obvious. But he'll also get a lot of leash. Because it looks like Drew Smyly is headed to the rotation and Joaquin Benoit is gone. There's nobody behind Nathan now. The team may have to go out and get a few more guys -- one guy does not make a bullpen, and Joaquin Benoit was not the problem anyway -- but if they don't get established closers, there may not be much competition for Nathan in the pen. And at 39, there is some risk, mostly related to his reliance on getting whiffs from the fastball and his up-and-down fastball velocity. But right now he's all alone at the end of that pen.
Tampa Bay Rays
This one is really hard to figure out right now. We'll have to track information as it comes in over the next few months. As it stands now, though, Heath Bell is suddenly more interesting. He's moving from Arizona and that homer-encouraging park into Tampa and that homer-suppressing park, which is extra notable because homers were the big problem for Bell last year. In terms of strikeouts, walks and fastball Velocity, the portly reliever saw three-year bests in Arizona. It was the career-worst homer rate that did him in. At 36, we're not talking about a huge bounce-back necessarily. Just a better home park that might steal a few homers and make him look like the decent back-end reliever he can be. Set against the competition provided by Juan Carlos Oviedo, Jake McGee and Joel Peralta, Bell suddenly looks like the best bet for closer. He was even told that he would have a crack at the ninth inning when he learned of the trade. Unless he gives up a ton of homers in Spring Training, the bet here is that he'll be the closer in Tampa, and that he'll be a good value pick… unless everyone gets excited about finding The Next Fernando Rodney and bids him up too high.
The Rockies signed LaTroy Hawkins for one year and $2.5 million and indicated he was their closer. That's really weird, but that team has been doing some weird things this offseason. It's true that LaTroy had fewer than half as many walks per nine innings as Rex Brothers last year, but it's also true that Brothers had three strikeouts for every two that Hawkins got. And Brothers had a better ground-ball rate. And if ground-ball rate alone doesn't excite -- after all, it's a proxy for home run rate -- then Brothers gave up fewer home runs per nine innings than Hawkins. Brothers throws harder and gets more strikeouts and those are the two rare stats that are associated with closer changes. This is easily the most obvious place for closer change in 2014 -- it may happen in Spring. Rex Brothers is still draftable, and is probably the value pick of the two.
Toronto Blue Jays
Casey Janssen re-signed, so it's not really 'news' per se. And after spending much of last year talking about how over-rated Janssen was because of a lack of stuff, Janssen ended up a decent closer in the final rankings. Pretty much average, as his year-end ranking at fourteen suggested. The names to watch behind him are Sergio Santos and Steve Delabar, with the edge to Santos, who showed better control when he was healthy again. Delabar throws as hard as Santos, gets more Ks, and also has a third pitch -- which might help him get lefties and righties out -- but he's got worse control. Both are absolutely worth watching, if not drafting.