September 12, 2011
Resident Fantasy Genius
For the past four years, I’ve written an article at the end of each season discussing one of my favorite keeper league strategies: stashing potential closers. Today, I’m going to do the same, explaining the strategy and then trying to figure out which middle relievers are poised to step into the ninth-inning role.
All keeper leagues are different, but if you are in one where your leaguemates make a habit of keeping top closers, this strategy will be especially good for you. In these leagues, when auction day or draft day rolls around, the number of closers will be limited. Those who haven't kept a top closer will be bidding against each other for the leftovers, the second-tier closers. By default, their prices will rise, quite possibly above their raw value. This can trickle down the list of closers until Kevin Gregg is being auctioned for some crazy amount, like $18.
So how do you avoid this? Do you simply punt saves? Do you overpay for a closer? Hopefully closers won’t see such heavily inflation and you won’t be pressed to make such a decision. But the intelligent owner will prepare, read the market come draft day, and decide on a course of action.
If you're out of the running this year, the stats you accrue over the remainder of 2011 make no difference to you. You shouldn't have your keepers set in stone yet, although you definitely should have a good idea who they will be. You could, theoretically, drop every player you don't intend to keep, tank, and it wouldn't make an ounce of difference. Of course, I don't advocate this; this type of behavior skews league results, and it certainly would anger the rest of your league if you drop a $45 Miguel Cabrera because you decide he's too expensive to keep. It might even get you kicked out before you make your run for the title in 2012.
Knowing this, feel free to drop any overpriced, old, or otherwise unkeepable players (within reason) and pick up some that fall into the next category: middle relievers with the inside track for a closing job. The owners in your league who are in it for this year might be ignoring these guys since they can't afford to waste active (or even bench) roster spots. However, since you are concerned with next year, take the inside track while you can. Any advantage you can get is one worth pursuing, and there are several to be gained this time of year while many of your opponents don't have the flexibility to make the types of moves you can if you're out of the race.
When Chris Perez gets auctioned for $20 next year, you might be sitting on the Padres’ newly-anointed closer, Luke Gregerson, for $1. The great news is that it won't cost you anything in the short term because you're already out of it. Free value.
Of course, there's no way to know who will be closing next year, but you don't have to. If you're out of it, you just need to play the odds a little. Pick up five guys from the next list and, come March, if any of them have been promoted, decide to make that guy a keeper. That'll show the guy who's keeping Jose Valverde for $17.
Last Year’s Results
Last year, six of the 25 pitchers on my list ended up starting the season closing games. Of the seven I thought had the best chance, five ended up closing: Francisco Rodriguez, J.J. Putz, Matt Thornton, Brandon League, and Frank Francisco. Of course, these relievers had mixed results this season, but starting the season with the job is really the best we can ask for of these flier types. Of course, there’s no guarantee of a repeat performance. My picks are merely speculation, and there are always off-season moves that can throw a wrench into any evaluation.
This Year’s List
The Orioles are currently rolling with Kevin Gregg, but that seems unlikely to last. He hasn’t been very good this year, has been terrible of late, and fans are calling for his head. He’s under contract for 2012, but there’s a good chance the Orioles demote him and go with Jim Johnson, who Jason Collette made a case for the other day. Pedro Strop is a couple years younger and makes for a decent darkhorse candidate.
Boston Red Sox
Jonathan Papelbon is entrenched as Boston’s closer as long as he’s around, but he’s a free agent at year’s end, and the Sox could decide to save money by letting him go and promoting dominant set-up man Daniel Bard. If they go this direction, Bard makes for an excellent closer option.
The team holds a $12 million option on incumbent closer Francisco Cordero, but there’s no chance they exercise it. Still, they’ve said they’re open to working out an extension at a lower price, but the highly-touted Aroldis Chapman is around should they decide against it. Everyone knows Chapman has good stuff, and his 13.3 K/9 this season accentuates it. The concern coming into the season was his control, and a 7.6 BB/9 shows this hasn’t been solved. Still, he’s been able to keep the ball in the park, post a 3.32 FIP, and mitigate some of the damage from the walks thanks to a 55 percent ground-ball rate, though it may not stay that high. His arsenal doesn’t suggest a ground-ball pitcher, as his blazing fastball gets a lot of vertical rise and is generally one of the worst pitches for grounders. The slider is an above-average pitch in general, but combined with the fastball Chapman wouldn’t look like anything more than an average ground-ball pitcher. It’ll be interesting to see how it holds up in 2012. Even with a drop, he could still be a fairly effective closer due to all the strikeouts.
The team holds a $9 million option on closer Jose Valverde, so it seems like a pretty safe bet it will be picked up and he’ll remain in Detroit. But if they decide to let him go, they could promote Joaquin Benoit—who they spent big money on last offseason—to the role. He had a rough start to the year, but he’s been excellent since and would likely make a very good closer. The team also has some younger darkhorse options, such as Al Alberquerque, Daniel Schlereth, and Ryan Perry. Alberquerque would be the best bet out of that group by a wide margin.
The Fish debated trading Leo Nunez at this past trade deadline but opted to keep him. It’s possible they again look into a trade this offseason since they’d have two fairly capable options to replace him. Edward Mujica was the guy manager Jack McKeon said would replace Nunez if he were traded this year, but McKeon probably won’t be managing the team in 2012, and Dunn is younger with better “closer stuff.” I’d call Mujica the favorite if Nunez is traded, but Dunn would very much be in the mix.
Kansas City Royals
It may never happen, but there always seems to be talk of current closer Joakim Soria being traded or moved to the rotation. With excellent young set-up men in Greg Holland, Aaron Crow, and Louis Coleman now waiting in the wings, it’s possible the Royals could choose to move Soria this offseason, though there are better bets on this list.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Yikes. This Dodger bullpen has been a mess all year, with Javy Guerra finally providing the team some “stability” in the late innings. The problem is that Guerra isn’t actually very good and doesn’t profile as a closer long-term. However, Kenley Jansen does. He has excellent stuff and, while he has some control issues, could still be very successful in the way Chapman would be. Or in the way Carlos Marmol currently is. It’ll be interesting to see what the Dodgers do this winter, but if they go in-house and decide they don’t want to press their luck with Guerra, Jansen could finally step into the role.
Matt Capps is a free agent and Joe Nathan has an expensive $12.5 million option, so it’s possible neither is closing for the team come Opening Day 2012. The problem is that the team doesn’t have any obvious in-house candidates to take over. Lefty Glen Perkins would be the best bet, but it seems more likely the team re-signs Nathan or looks externally.
New York Mets
The Mets had given Parnell the chance to close and audition for the role in 2012, but he didn’t do particularly well, and the team has moved to a committee approach. Still, if the team doesn’t look externally for a closer this offseason, Parnell remains the best in-house bet for next year.
The Phils are currently employing a closing committee with Brad Lidge, Ryan Madson, and Antonio Bastardo, but with Lidge and Madson facing free agency this winter, the team could easily let them move on, leaving 2011 breakout Bastardo to take over.
San Diego Padres
The Padres opted not to trade closer Heath Bell at this year’s trade deadline despite heavy speculation they would and one report indicating they did. He’ll be a free agent this winter, and the team could simply offer him arbitration and collect their draft picks, but there’s also talk recently that they could try to re-sign him. If he leaves, Luke Gregerson is an excellent bet to close and excel.
Tampa Bay Rays
The team has a fairly cheap $3.3 million option on closer Kyle Farnsworth, so it seems likely he’ll be brought back to close in 2012. They could decline and let Jake McGee close, but he hasn’t had the best year, and they could give him one more year of seasoning to see if he could close long-term.
The Rangers came into this season with an absolute mess of a bullpen, and while they allowed Neftali Feliz to train as a starter during spring training, they ultimately decided to give Alexi Ogando the spot in the rotation and keep Feliz at closer. Now that they’ve solidified the bullpen by adding Mike Adams and Koji Uehara to a solid group of Darren Oliver, Mark Lowe, and Yoshinori Tateyama, there’s talk that the Rangers could finally move Feliz to the rotation with C.J. Wilson potentially leaving via free agency. If they do so, look for Mike Adams to inherit the role and become an excellent fantasy option.
Toronto Blue Jays
Frank Francisco is a free agent and Jon Rauch has a club option (not to mention not being nearly good enough to be even a middle-tier closer), so it’s possible the Jays have a new look in the ninth inning in 2012. Francisco has been pretty good of late, though, and it’s becoming more and more likely the team re-signs him. If they don’t and they look in-house, Casey Janssen could be the guy. But between the possibility of Frankie returning, Rauch’s option, and looking externally, there are better bets.
Drew Storen was reportedly almost traded for Denard Span at this year’s trade deadline, and it’s possible he could get traded this offseason. The Nats don’t really have much incentive to move their young, cost-controlled closer, so they’d likely need to receive a very good offer to do so. If they do, Tyler Clippard makes the most sense to step in. But with lots of closers available via free agency, it seems unlikely a team will overpay for Storen.
My Top 5 Picks
If I had to make pickups today, here are the five guys I’d target in my keeper league (in order):
Francisco Rodrigurez (late addition—see comment 24—so I didn't remove anyone)
Kenley Jansen (if Parnell doesn’t count)
Aroldis Chapman (if Bastardo doesn’t count)
Since Parnell and Bastardo are currently sort of closing for their teams (part of committees, really), I listed my next two picks in case they are already owned in your league. Bard was also in heavy consideration for the list, but I think it seems more likely that the Sox keep Papelbon. If they let him go, they’d need to find someone to replace Bard in the eighth, and there aren’t many teams anyway who need a closer and have a lot of money to spend on one. Add in the fact that there are likely to be a ton of closers available, and it seems Papelbon will be affordable enough for the Red Sox to keep.