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December 10, 2015

Pitching Backward

The Real-Life Closer Report

by Jeff Long

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Trade rumors regarding top closers are common in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline, but typically less so during the offseason. This doesn’t seem to be the case this year: Craig Kimbrel was traded, then joined in his new bullpen by Carson Smith; Aroldis Chapman was traded, then wasn’t, but might still be; Andrew Miller is reportedly being shopped. Coinciding with these moves is a boom period for young and/or elite closers, with many guys earning both of those titles. Coinciding with that boom period comes a rise in teams looking for not just one but multiple elite arms for prospective playoff runs. And, finally, all is complicated by the fact that this winter saw very few great closer candidates in free agency, meaning that trades are necessary for teams looking to shorten games.

Every fantasy baseball site has a fantasy closer report, but what about for IRL GMs? There are a few factors to consider when targeting a potential closer, each of which would be weighed differently in the final determination:

  • Performance
  • “Proven Closer”
  • Salary
  • Years of Team Control
  • Track Record

Of course, other factors—like the willingness of the other team to negotiate—come into play. For now though, we’re focusing on those first five considerations to produce a Reliever Trade Target Rankings for the GMs packing up at this year’s winter meetings.

10. Carter Capps
Current team: Marlins
2015 DRA: 2.26
2015 RE24: 5.18
2015 WPA: 0.46
2015 Saves: 0
Salary: $650,000i
Yrs. Left: 3

Capps was one of the hardest pitchers to rank because he was absolutely filthy for the Marlins this past season, but he has even less of a track record of excellence (quite a bit less, even) than Giles. Still, Capps is very cheap and comes with three years of team control, so he’d be desirable for small- and large-market clubs alike. Capps was shut down with an elbow injury in August, so his medicals would have a significant impact on his theoretical trade value.

9. Aroldis Chapman
Current team: Reds/Dodgers
2015 DRA: 2.48
2015 RE24: 9.39
2015 WPA: 2.59
2015 Saves: 33
Salary: $9,000,000ii
Yrs. Left: 1

We did these rankings before news broke that, earlier this offseason, he allegedly fired gunshots and choked his girlfriend in a domestic incident. Rather than trying to figure out how much that affects his baseball value—a fraught and, frankly, tacky pursuit—we’re leaving the rankings unadjusted.

Baseball’s hardest-throwing pitcher is only under team control for one more season, and while he’s not yet collecting a market-rate salary, he’s also not cheap. That said, he’s a pretty safe bet for a sub-2 ERA, and will boast absurd strikeout numbers no matter what team he’s on. Chapman is essentially the prototypical closer archetype cranked up to 11.

8. Craig Kimbrel
Current team: Red Sox
2015 DRA: 3.04
2015 RE24: 9.48
2015 WPA: 3.32
2015 Saves: 39
Salary: $12,300,000
Yrs. Left: 3

Of course, he's the polar opposite of available, but fun to include anyway because he is one of the few names on this list whose price we know fairly well. The Red Sox shipped Manuel Margot, Javier Guerra, Carlos Asuaje, and Logan Allen to San Diego for him. In other words, the Padres were able to net a couple Top 100 guys for him, no doubt because of the three years remaining on his contract and elite track record. He comes at a high cost, but for big market teams that’s less of a concern. He’s at least elite, but his 2015 season wasn’t as good as past ones. It remains to be seen whether he will regain his superelite form.

7. Jeurys Familia
Current team: Mets
2015 DRA: 2.99
2015 RE24: 17.89
2015 WPA: 3.36
2015 Saves: 43
Salary: $2,000,000ii
Yrs. Left: 3

The Mets’ closer struggled a bit in the World Series, but he’s shown that he has the chops to shut down the ninth inning for a serious contender. He offers a relatively low salary option, but still comes with three full seasons of team control. He’s not a top-five reliever necessarily, but he has proven that he can handle the job, and will do so with minimal headaches. He’s also probably less available than almost any name above him on this list.

6. Roberto Osuna
Current team: Blue Jays
2015 DRA: 2.97
2015 RE24: 15.84
2015 WPA: 0.82
2015 Saves: 20
Salary: $650,000i
Yrs. Left: 5

Osuna is a tantalizing combination of youth and experience. He notched 20 saves as the closer for the Blue Jays during his rookie season, though he didn’t post elite numbers on the way to doing so. Osuna has a starter’s fastball-slider-change repertoire, and has performed well in the pressure cooker of stretch-run baseball on a playoff-bound team. That, combined with his cheap salary and contract status, makes him an attractive option for a contending team. He carries more risk than the names ahead of him.

5. Wade Davis
Current team: Royals
2015 DRA: 1.67
2015 RE24: 28.46
2015 WPA: 4.22
2015 Saves: 17
Salary: $9,000,000
Yrs. Left: 2

Wade Davis’ numbers are nuts. He has pitched nearly 140 innings over the past two seasons while posting an ERA under 1. He has faced 530 opposing hitters during that time, striking out 187 of them and allowing just three home runs. Over the past two seasons he has been the best relief pitcher in baseball. He also made the transition from automatic setup man to elite closer in 2015, where he closed out 17 games for the World Series champions (not counting his 11 scoreless innings and four saves the postseason). He’ll make $9 million per year over the next two seasons, and after that he’ll be getting free agent cash. That said, a team with the financial resources of the Dodgers might justifiably have Davis higher on their wish list, since the salary impact is all relative.

4. Dellin Betances
Current team: Yankees
2015 DRA: 2.13
2015 RE24: 26.35
2015 WPA: 4.24
2015 Saves: 9
Salary: $650,000i
Yrs. Left: 4

The Yankees’ setup man has all the makings of an elite closer despite sharing time in that role with Andrew Miller last season. Betances is under team control for another four seasons, and his pre-arb status makes him incredibly affordable, at least for the time being. There’s an argument to be made that Betances has been the most valuable reliever in baseball over the past two seasons, throwing a whopping 174 innings with an ERA under 1.50. Betances uses his hammer curveball and high-90s fastball to strike out nearly 40 percent of the batters he faces, though walks have given him trouble. He has all the stuff of an elite closer, though he has very little experience in the role. That experience closing out games is the only real knock to his trade value.

3. Jake McGee
Current team: Rays
2015 DRA: 2.76
2015 RE24: 6.69
2015 WPA: 1.19
2015 Saves: 6
Salary: $4,200,000ii
Yrs. Left: 2

A solid combination of performance, experience, and reliability—not to mention, perhaps, availability. The big concern is whether, after being injured for much of 2015, his future looks more like 2012/2014 (1.95 and 1.89 ERAs, 2.44 and 2.08 DRAs respectively) or 2013 (4.02 ERA, 3.92 DRA). He is essentially a one-pitch pitcher—throwing his fastball nearly 95 percent of the time—but the approach has been effective. He strikes out plenty of opposing hitters without surrendering walks; his 6:1 strikeout to walk ratio is a direct result of his fastball-heavy approach.

2. Zach Britton
Current team: Orioles
2015 DRA: 2.20
2015 RE24: 19.50
2015 WPA: 3.28
2015 Saves: 26
Salary: $4,200,000[ii]
Yrs. Left: 3

Britton’s 1.77 ERA is tied for fifth best in baseball over that time, as is his WPA. He offers a unique combination of solid track record, elite performance, and several years of team control still ahead of him. Britton has two big red flags that might dissuade a potential suitor. The first is that he’s no longer “cheap.” Because he has been serving as the Orioles’ closer, he is getting a closer’s salary in his arbitration years. That salary will go progressively higher. The other is that Britton has relied on an extreme groundball rate—the best GB% in baseball actually—to be successful, rather than a typical strikeout-based plan of attack.

1. Ken Giles
Current team: Phillies
2015 DRA: 2.42
2015 RE24: 11.48
2015 WPA: 1.71
2015 Saves: 15
Salary: $650,000[i]
Club control: Five years

Well, okay, so there's that for timing. Giles is the perfect mix of performance, salary and club control. He offers a traditional two-pitch mix, with a 97 mph fastball and 87 mph slider. He’s also traditional for a closer in that he boasts high strikeout rates, and since his 2014 breakout he does it without issuing walks. His exceptional sophomore years was actually than his debut, in which he struck out nearly six batters for every walk he allowed. He can slot right into the closer role, having saved 15 games last year, though there might be concerns about what closing higher-leverage games for a playoff contender might bring.

The Next Five

If Capps isn’t your thing—and that’s totally reasonable—the next five pitchers would make for a solid acquisition in his place. They are, in alphabetical order: Cody Allen, Kenley Jansen, Mark Melancon, Andrew Miller, and Trevor Rosenthal. Allen had the lowest save total among the five with 34 last season, so this group represents established closers who’ve seen success for their current teams. Each pitcher in this group has his downside.

Rosenthal offers youth and a small salary, but he’s also the least established and has shown inconsistent control. Andrew Miller has the highest salary, and was also rested with forearm soreness. Jansen and Melancon offer incredible performance, a track record of success, and reliability—but both pitchers are in walk years. Finally, Cody Allen represents the middle of the group. He’s had success as a closer, and offers a light salary with three years of team control. He’s also probably a tier shy of total dominance.



[i] Pre-arbitration salary estimated

[ii] Arbitration salary estimated

Jeff Long is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jeff's other articles. You can contact Jeff by clicking here

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