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December 19, 2012
The Keeper Reaper
Relievers for 12/19/12
Brandon League | Dodgers
Brandon League, newly rich and the Dodgers’ undisputed closer, probably feels pretty fortunate right now. By midseason 2012 (his walk year), he was toiling in middle relief in a no-name Mariners bullpen after being demoted in favor of Tom Wilhemsen, an obscure 28-year-old rookie. Then, he was fortuitously bailed out of that bleak situation when he was acquired by the Dodgers. It was one of many moves Los Angeles made during the 2012 season that foreshadowed what has become an offseason in which they’ve spent lavishly—including on the likes of League, who inked a fat three-year deal before his market ever really took shape.
League may be compensated like a closer, but the question remains: is he really a viable stopper or merely a decent relief pitcher who’s been in the right places at the right times? Well, there’s often little distinction between the two, as we’ve seen many times before, but League mostly falls into the latter category for me, hence the conservative ratings. League’s calling card is his impressive groundball tendencies, but he doesn’t miss enough bats and has been too inconsistent with his control to be considered a truly dependable closer.
Obviously, the Dodgers see things differently. Re-signing League and naming him closer, however, may also underscore an organizational concern that stud reliever Kenley Jansen, who has missed time in each of the past two years due to a heart condition, can’t remain healthy over the course of a long season. Sure, beginning the season with League as closer should somewhat offset the domino effect that would be caused if Jansen were to be shelved again, but if League struggles for a stretch, as he did in 2012, will he be able to hold off a healthy Jansen? I’m not so sure.
Kenley Jansen | Dodgers
Nice segue, eh? But before we get into the analysis, first things first: Jansen’s ratings are for holds leagues. Obviously, he’s out of consideration as a keeper candidate in standard (i.e. non-holds) leagues. That being said, Jansen must be a tantalizing commodity for those of you in NL-only and Super Deep keeper leagues that count holds.
Why? Because last season, Jansen was once again one of fantasy’s most valuable relievers on a per-inning basis, ranking as the 10th-best reliever and 81st-best player overall in 12-team mixed leagues, according to our PFM. Those rankings might not jump out at you at first glance, but consider the fact that he wasn’t named Dodgers’ closer until nearly a month into the season and didn’t record another save after August 18th. That’s what 99 strikeouts and 25 saves in 65 innings will do for you. If he’d been named closer out of the gate and stayed healthy all season, we could conservatively tack on another 10 saves and 15 strikeouts or so. That would have easily made him a top-five closer and a top-50 player overall. But therein lies the rub with Jansen: his health is a major concern, and the Dodgers are apparently hedging their bets accordingly.
Though he underwent heart surgery after the season and says he’s finally 100 percent healthy (a scary proposition for opposing hitters), he’s penciled in as a setup man behind League for now. There are two huge potential payoffs for those holds-leaguers bold enough to keep Jansen, though. One is that he stays healthy in a setup role and finishes the season among the league leaders in holds and strikeouts, with great ratios to boot. The other is that he does all of that but manages to supplant League at some point along the way. Jansen is a classic risk-vs.-reward upside play.
Tom Wilhelmsen | Mariners
Sticking with the loose Dodgers-Mariners theme, we move on to Seattle, where the M’s will enter the 2013 season with a closer in Wilhelmsen who was entirely out of baseball and tending bar here to make ends meet only a couple years ago. This is precisely the sort of story baseball writers love, but Wilhelmsen is no narrative creation. He’s been quite effective in his season-plus as a big league reliever, and I don’t see much reason to expect anything less than that from him in 2013 aside from the typical year-to-year peaks and valleys to which relievers are often subject.
That’s my primary reservation with Wilhelmsen. It’s not that I don’t trust him, per se, because there’s nothing in his profile to suggest what he did last year was a fluke. The strikeouts are solid, the groundball rate is too, and his control isn’t alarming, albeit unspectacular. Even if you fear he’s a product of pitcher-friendly Safeco Field, his home and road splits don’t bear that out. Instead, what I’m not convinced of is that whether the Mariners fully trust T-Wil.
Should Wilhelmsen run into a rough patch this season, I don’t see why the Mariners would feel especially compelled to stick with him, despite the lack of an overwhelmingly obvious alternative candidate. The scouting reports on 23-year-old flame-thrower Stephen Pryor suggest he’s something of a one-trick pony who suffers from a lack of command, and his small-sample in the bigs last year seemed to indicate as much. I like Wilhelmsen, and there’s a good chance he could provide a lot of value, but investing in him too heavily after one impressive run as the closer of a bad team in a lost season may be too hasty.
Addison Reed | White Sox
After tearing through four minor league stops en route to the big leagues in 2011, Reed had quite the buzz heading into 2012. First-year manager Robin Ventura was hesitant to name Reed his closer coming out of spring training but finally settled on the hard-throwing rookie after first souring on Hector Santiago and then Matt Thornton in the season’s first month.
Reed was uneven at times in his rookie year. He finished the season with a 4.75 ERA and needed to be bailed out a couple times in September with the Pale Hose still fighting for a postseason berth, but advanced ERA estimators were far kinder than the ugly 4.75 mark, and 29 saves in five months of closing for a 23-year-old with a strong pedigree was mostly considered a net win.
I’m still bearish on Reed despite his presumed role as White Sox closer for a couple reasons. First, the White Sox, as an organization, seem to have adopted a proclivity for playing match-ups in the ninth inning, at least when things get hairy. That’s a win for progressive baseball analysis but a loss for us fantasy types, as we tend to like things uncomplicated. Additionally, Reed’s eye-popping minor league numbers didn’t quite translate to the bigs in 2012. His strikeout and walk rates were solid but unspectacular, and he had trouble with left-handed hitters (.290/.349/.424). I like Reed in the long run, and there’s still plenty of room for him to grow, especially considering he’s with an organization that has a habit out of molding fine relievers; I just prefer to see him take a step forward in 2013 before I invest too heavily.