Matthew Pouliot

Strike Zone

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2014 Breakdowns: Relievers

Saturday, March 22, 2014


With one week to go before the season starts in earnest, here's the final position breakdown, this one looking at closers. I'm eschewing the usual format this week, since I don't recommend targeting closers as much as just grabbing them when the value happens to be there. I will say that established closers I'm high on include Glen Perkins, Jim Johnson and Ernesto Frieri; they're all in my top 10. I also like Fernando Rodney and Jim Henderson a bit more than most. The established closers I'm especially low on are Rafael Soriano and Jonathan Papelbon, and that was true long before they had their bad springs. I also worry about the injury risk with Koji Uehara, Casey Janssen and Sergio Romo.

 

But instead of writing a column on established closers, I'm going to write about the more up-in-the-air closer situations, breaking them down by team. Also, the teams I don't dedicate paragraphs to will be touched on in the Handcuffs section.

 

American League

 

Baltimore: I don't think Tommy Hunter will be a disaster, but I'd be more confident in him as a closer if he didn't have to deal with Camden Yards and AL East lineups. As is, it's easy to imagine him giving up a couple of early walkoff homers and losing his job quickly. The whole "to whom" part is what really complicates things. The Orioles don't view their best reliever, Darren O'Day, as being closer material. I'd like to see Bud Norris in the role over Hunter, but the Orioles haven't wavered yet, and if he pitches badly enough to get booted from the rotation, it's not as though he'll be put into the closer mix right away. I still think Norris has a real chance of ending the season with the job. Another sleeper candidate is Kevin Gausman, who finished last season by striking out 23 in 14 1/3 innings of relief. Now, my preference there is to see him in the rotation, but that won't happen initially. He'll have the best stuff in Baltimore's pen if he is used in relief, so mark him down as a big-time sleeper. One more of some intrigue: left-hander Zach Britton, who has been sitting in the mid-90s with his sinker while being used in one-inning stints of late. I don't think his future is as a closer, but stranger things have happened.

 

Chicago: Even though he missed the early portion of the spring with a glute strain, Nate Jones is set to inherit Addison Reed's old role in the White Sox pen. Jones disappointed with a 4.15 ERA last season, but that came with a terrific 89/26 K/BB ratio and just five homers allowed in 78 innings. He's one of the AL's hardest throwers, and it's realistic to think he'll be one of the league's better closers this season. What does make him a bit risky is the presence of excellent relief prospect Daniel Webb behind him. Also, one can't completely rule out a Jones trade in light of the White Sox moving young closers Sergio Santos and Reed previously. Webb is the best handcuff option, even though the White Sox will likely go with veteran setup men initially.

 

Cleveland: John Axford was just fine after a disastrous start cost him the closing gig in Milwaukee last season, and he's also been strong this spring, allowing one run and striking out eight in six innings. That said, I fully expect Cody Allen to be Cleveland's best reliever again, and the only good reason not to install Allen as the closer now is that it will drive up his arbitration salary in future years (Axford being a prime example of how closer salaries take off long before they're eligible for free agency). So, with that financial incentive, the Indians might not be as quick to make a move with a struggling Axford as the Brewers were last year. Still, I see Allen winning out in the end: I have him projected for 20 saves and Axford for 18.

 

Houston: Jesse Crain projects as far-and-away Houston's best reliever, and if he comes back strong from his biceps surgery and calf strain, he could run away with the closer's role a month into the season. It might be more complicated than that, though, particularly since Crain has never closed before; if someone else does a decent enough job in April, the Astros won't be in any hurry to make a change. The candidates to start off the season in the role are Chad Qualls, Josh Fields and Matt Albers. Qualls was the heavy favorite going in, but he's been the worst of the bunch (all have pitched seven innings, Qualls has allowed four runs, Fields one, Albers two). I'm digging Fields' 6/0 K/BB ratio so far, and if he can continue to avoid walks, he should be the best pitcher of the bunch. Of the April 1 options, I still have Qualls rated highest for now, but Fields could overtake him prior to Opening Day. Crain is the best bet overall. Obviously, no one here should get a substantial bid.

 

Texas: The Rangers officially announced that Joakim Soria would close on Saturday. They also moved one of the two prime alternatives, Tanner Scheppers, into the rotation, eliminating him as an option for the foreseeable future. That leaves Neftali Feliz as the most likely fallback, but Feliz has been shaky enough this spring that a stint in Triple-A could be a possibility for him. Soria is throwing very well, and while he's still a bigger injury risk than most, I think he'll be good for 30 saves. He could be a top-10 closer if things break right.  

 

AL Handcuffs (Necessity on a 1-10 scale)

 

Boston (Koji Uehara) - Edward Mujica - Necessity: 7
Detroit (Joe Nathan) - Al Alburquerque - Necessity: 2
Kansas City (Greg Holland) - Wade Davis - Necessity: 4
Los Angeles (Ernesto Frieri) - Joe Smith - Necessity: 3
Minnesota (Glen Perkins) - Jared Burton - Necessity: 4
New York (David Robertson) - Shawn Kelley - Necessity: 2
Oakland (Jim Johnson) - Sean Doolittle - Necessity: 3
Seattle (Fernando Rodney) - Danny Farquhar - Necessity: 9
Tampa Bay (Grant Balfour) - Jake McGee - Necessity: 4
Toronto (Casey Janssen) - Sergio Santos - Necessity: 8

 

So, my necessity concept, which I completely made up on the fly here, is based on three things: chances of the closer losing his job/getting hurt/getting traded, the presence of a clear No. 2 reliever and the quality of said No. 2 reliever. For instance, while I don't completely trust Johnson and I do like Doolittle, I'm not at all sure he'd be picked over Ryan Cook or even Luke Gregerson for saves if something happens. On the other hand, Farquhar is the obvious No. 2 in Seattle and probably Rodney's equal or superior as a pitcher, making him an excellent handcuff.

 

As with Doolittle, I'm not sure about Alburquerque in Detroit, Kelley in New York or McGee in Tampa Bay. Bruce Rondon would have been the Tigers' No. 2 guy, but he's out for the year, leaving Alburquerque and Joba Chamberlain to battle it out for now. Kelley should be Robertson's setup man in New York early on, but ideally, Dellin Betances would overtake him later. Tampa Bay also has Joel Peralta and Heath Bell as alternatives to McGee if Balfour makes the Orioles look smart.

  

 

National League

 

Chicago: The Cubs signed Jose Veras to be the closer and probably won't make a switch unless he forces their hands. Of course, this being Jose Veras, there's a good chance he will force their hands at some point. When that happens, I expect Pedro Strop to be the choice to step in. Strop had a 4.55 ERA last year, but that came with a 3.55 FIP. After joining the Cubs from the Orioles, he had a 2.83 ERA, a 2.31 FIP and 42 strikeouts in 35 innings, allowing just one homer in the process. Two other possible alternative are Kyuji Fujikawa, who is due back in June or July after Tommy John surgery, and Arodys Vizcaino, who is back throwing well after two years off. Vizcaino will open up in the minors to continue shaking the rust, but he might finish the year as the Cubs' best reliever if he can stay healthy.

 

Cincinnati: The debate over who would fill in while Aroldis Chapman heals up got a lot quieter with the news that Jonathan Broxton and Sean Marshall would both join Chapman on the DL to start the season. They're returning from shoulder injuries. Marshall's DL assignment was expected, but Broxton was hopeful of being ready after making his spring debut next week. While I rate Marshall as the Reds' best reliever after Chapman, since a winter off didn't take care of his shoulder problems, I'm guessing he won't be a factor in the closing mix at any point. Broxton still might factor in by mid-April, but the Reds' best choice is just to stick with J.J. Hoover until Chapman returns. Hoover is a better bet than a healthy Broxton anyway, and after a terrible start to his spring, he's turned things around in his last two outings. He should be stashed away in mixed leagues.

 

Colorado: The Rockies brought in LaTroy Hawkins to close with the idea of keeping Rex Brothers' arbitration salary down. That's really all there is to it. Still, most likely, Brothers is going to end up with the job, and it might not take long at all. I don't want to knock Hawkins, who has lasted longer as a quality reliever than anyone would have imagined five or 10 years ago; it was no fluke that he posted a 2.93 ERA with the Mets last season. However, Coors Field and his low strikeout rate won't mesh very well. Brothers should prove quite a bit more effective, and I project that he'll lead the Rockies in saves, 21 to 16.

 

Milwaukee: Henderson has fanned 120 batters in 90 2/3 innings as a major leaguer, and now he's suddenly picked up a changeup that looks like it could be a real weapon against left-handed hitters. My guess is that he does just fine and racks up 30+ saves as the Brewers' closer. Still, he has struggled some this spring, giving up six runs in six innings to date, and as we've seen before, the Brewers have a very quick trigger finger in making closer switches. They also have a 300-save guy as a fallback in Francisco Rodriguez, plus Brandon Kintzler, who quietly posted a 2.69 ERA with an exceptional groundball rate last year. I suggest pairing K-Rod with Henderson, just to be safe. I actually have Kintzler with the best ERA of the bunch again, but he's more likely to stay in a setup role.

 

San Diego: That Huston Street finished with a 2.70 ERA last year was little short of a miracle; he gave up 12 homers in 56 2/3 innings and finished with easily the lowest strikeout rate (7.3 K/9 IP) of his career. His FIP was a whopping 4.92. I suspect his peripherals will bounce back somewhat this year, but with his velocity diminishing, he's not the reliever he used to be. The newly acquired Joaquin Benoit is a better bet. Last year, he fanned 73 and allowed five homers in 67 innings in the American League without Petco Park helping him. Since Street is both an injury risk and a candidate to be traded, Benoit is my favorite of all the non-closing relievers in drafts this year. In fact, I have him 27th overall among relievers, two spots higher than Street.

 

NL Handcuffs (Necessity on a 1-10 scale)

 

Arizona (Addison Reed) - Brad Ziegler - Necessity: 3
Atlanta (Craig Kimbrel) - David Carpenter - Necessity: 2
Los Angeles (Kenley Jansen) - Brian Wilson - Necessity: 2
Miami (Steve Cishek) - A.J. Ramos - Necessity: 6
New York (Bobby Parnell) - Vic Black - Necessity: 5
Philadelphia (Jonathan Papelbon) - Antonio Bastardo - Necessity: 4
Pittsburgh (Jason Grilli) - Mark Melancon - Necessity: 8
St. Louis (Trevor Rosenthal) - Carlos Martinez - Necessity: 5
San Francisco (Sergio Romo) -Santiago Casilla - Necessity: 8
Washington (Rafael Soriano) - Tyler Clippard - Necessity: 9

 

If I had more faith in Bastardo, he'd get more than a four behind Papelbon in Philadelphia. The Phillies would like to see Mike Adams return from shoulder surgery and reemerge as their top setup man. Likewise, I'd have given Black a higher mark if he hadn't been so wild all spring. The Mets might actually go with Jose Valverde in a setup role early on. On the plus side, Jeurys Familia seems on the verge of taking a step forward and might be able to establish himself in the eighth.

 

In St. Louis, I'm assuming Martinez will lose out on a rotation spot and remain the eighth-inning guy. If I'm wrong about that, then there won't be anyone worth handcuffing until Jason Motte returns from Tommy John. Rosenthal seems plenty safe anyway.

 

The Nationals have already named Clippard their eighth-inning guy over Drew Storen, so he's the guy Soriano owners will want around.

 

///

 

One final note: while the Strike Zone will typically be posted early Sunday evenings during the season, I'm hoping to have the next one up on Friday the 28th in advance of the weekend drafts. 



Matthew Pouliot is the Executive Editor of RotoWorld.com and has been doing the site's baseball projections for the last 10 years. Follow him on Twitter at matthewpouliot.
Email :Matthew Pouliot



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