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September 6, 2013

Five to Watch

Would-Be, Could-Be Closers

by Craig Goldstein

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Joe Borowski, Brandon League, Todd Jones, Kevin Gregg, Frank Francisco, Billy Koch. No, I’m not working on a baseball version of We Didn’t Start The Fire (that you know of). These are all relievers who have ascended to the closer role, whether they deserved it or not. They acquired the closer mystique that allowed them to beef up their earnings and hold on or land jobs long past when they should have. To be clear, I’m of the mind that it’s often helpful to have a Gregg or a Koch at the back of the bullpen—someone who is competent enough to finish most games and allows the use of a more efficient or dominant reliever, a fireman, to enter into the higher-leverage situations.

That opinion belongs to the baseball analyst in me, though, not the fantasy analyst. As a fantasy owner, I’d rather see the most talented bullpen option in the closer role because then I don’t have to roster nincompoops who destroy my ERA and WHIP, all while chasing the dragon save. Of course, being blocked by an incompetent colleague is not the only reason that pitchers get denied coffee. Injuries, a couple of poorly timed blow ups, or a lack of experience can also cost a reliever a shot to use SemiSonic as his entrance music as well. The point of this article, then, is to shine a spotlight on some guys who would be closers, but for a minor flaw, be it in their game or their situations. These are players who could be elite-level fantasy closers if they are presented with the opportunity. The key is identifying them before the opportunity arises.

Cody Allen, Cleveland Indians
Reason he’s not a closer: Chris Perez’s chalk outline

Vinnie Pestano is the long-suffering heir to Chris Perez’s “throne” in Cleveland, but just as he was on the verge of filling Perez’s shoes, Pestano suffered from some ineffectiveness himself (5.04 FIP). Pestano’s struggles have many looking at Allen as the next in line for save chances in Cleveland, if or when Perez leaves during free agency. It might not even matter if Perez stays, though, as despite some gaudy save totals, he’s been merely decent. He has converted 22 of 26 save chances thus far in 2013, but that comes with a 3.59 ERA (okay), a 4.57 FIP (yuck), and a 4.75 FRA (gross).

Allen on the other hand has produced a spectacular season, with a 77 strikeouts in only 61 innings pitched. Allen’s 2.35 ERA (shiny), 2.86 FIP (pretty), and 2.74 FRA (oooooooh) all best what Perez has produced this season. While I could say that Cleveland would have benefited the most from handing ninth-inning duties from Perez to Allen, the reality is that with only four blown saves, it wouldn’t have been a dramatic difference (although Cleveland is only 3 ½ games out of the second wild card right now). The reality is that those who would benefit the most from such a change are us fantasy owners. Allen would be a star if he were racking up saves to go with his great peripherals, but in the meantime he will toil in anonymity. I am against speculating for saves if it’s going to cost a roster spot, but if you play in a holds league or are just looking for middle relief options, a guy like Allen is going to be very valuable, and should get the closer gig in the near future.

Tanner Scheppers, Texas Rangers
Reason he’s not a closer: His name is an old-world profession Blocked by Joe Nathan/Joakim Soria

First things first, the situation ahead of Scheppers: The Rangers have a $9 million 2014 option on Joe Nathan, who has been remarkably good in 2013, but might not be worth $9 million specifically to the Rangers due to their relief depth. They have Soria behind Nathan, and he’s been above average despite an exaggerated walk rate. He’s signed through 2014 with a 2015 option, and if the Rangers don’t retain Nathan, I’d expect him to get the first crack at the closer gig. Things get even more complicated when you consider the potential return of Neftali Feliz, who could put Scheppers at either third or fourth in line for the closer job, depending on the Nathan situation.

So what exactly does Scheppers have going for him? As much as it shouldn’t matter, there’s draft status. The Rangers invested a supplemental-first-round pick in Scheppers in 2009, and for a pick that high to be spent on a reliever, they assumed he would be an impact arm. By most organizations’ standards, that means a spot at the back of the bullpen. The second thing he has going for him is a power arsenal. Per Brooks Baseball, Scheppers is averaging 97.6 mph on his fastball, 96.6 mph on his sinker, and 86.6 mph on his slider. Soria, on the other hand, is averaging about five mph lower across the board. Again, effectiveness should carry the day, but managers often love a power arm in high-leverage situations.

Scheppers has been outpitching his peripherals with a 2.04 ERA compared to a 4.01 FIP, and while his K/9 has dropped what would normally be a worrisome amount, further digging reveals that his strikeout rate has actually only dipped a percent and a half. What he has improved upon dramatically from 2012 to 2013 is cutting his HR/9 by more than half. Not coincidentally, Scheppers has also seen his ground-ball rate jump eight percentage points, from 42 percent to 50 percent. While he has a mountain of accomplished closers to climb, there’s a chance that Nathan isn’t in Texas, that Soria isn’t effective for a short run, and that Feliz will be eased into low-leverage situations. It seems like a lot to overcome, but no one expected Brad Ziegler to be closing games in Arizona either. Scheppers is worth a look as a speculative saves candidate as long as you’re rostering middle relievers anyway.

Sergio Santos, Toronto Blue Jays
Reason he’s not a closer: Health, Casey Janssen

The current reason that Santos isn’t closing for Toronto is that they don’t win any games. That and the fact that Casey Janssen has, improbably, turned into some sort of relief pitching deity, posting FIPs of 2.45, 3.08, and 2.84 over the last three seasons. And yet, I can’t help thinking that Janssen never would have had the chance had Santos been able to stay healthy in the first place.

Santos’ story is as old as time. Got drafted in the first round as a shortstop, was moderately good up the chain, flamed out, reinvented himself as a reliever, reached the majors, became a closer, got a 30-save season under his belt, got traded, got hurt. Your usual fare, really. When Santos the reliever was traded to Toronto, many assumed the Jays had just acquired their closer of the present and future for the low, low price of Nestor Molina. Unfortunately, Santos only logged five innings his first year with Toronto, and they were ugly innings at that. Back healthy in 2013, though, he’s registering a 2.12 ERA, a 2.63 FIP, and a stellar 25.8 percent strikeout rate. Add in a relatively meager 6.5 percent walk rate and a 1.11 GB-to-FB ratio, and we’re looking at a very good pitcher, albeit in only 17 innings pitched. Santos has also shown the ability to limit the long ball despite playing in generous offensive run environments his entire career.

Potentially under contract through 2018, I find it hard to believe that eternal opportunist, Alex Anthopolous, wouldn’t hesitate to deal a “proven closer” like Janssen to plug another role—and hand the closer role back to Santos down the line. That’s obviously only a hypothetical, but Santos has been relatively unmentioned since returning from his injury despite positive results and the peripherals to back them up.

Drew Storen, Washington Nationals
Reason he’s not a closer: Long-term memory, Rafael Soriano

Storen shares a lot of qualities with the previous members of this list. He was a first-round pick and a successful closer in the past, but he’s different in that he lost his closing gig largely due to one game. There’s a little bit of exaggeration in that last statement, but living in DC, I can attest to how much the blown save from the playoff game against the St. Louis Cardinals that ended Washington’s 2012 season has affected the fan base and the general attitude toward Storen. I mean, this was written the day after it happened.

Obviously the presence of Rafael Soriano and his entire wardrobe of untucked shirts looms large in any discussion focused on Storen returning to the closer’s role. He posted 42 saves in 2012 and has another 38 thus far in 2013, though that does come with six blown saves and a strikeout rate that’s fallen six percentage points.

Of course Soriano’s struggles pale in comparison to Storen’s struggles this season if you look on the surface. Digging past Storen’s bloated 5.16 ERA, we find that his FIP is a mere 0.03 worse than Soriano’s 3.73. Storen also boasts a higher strikeout rate than Soriano by about 4.5 percentage points, though that’s accompanied by a higher walk rate. Where Storen has been hurt this season is the long ball, giving up 1.20 home runs per nine innings. Given his career rate of 0.76, I would expect some regression in that category going forward, and if that comes down, his FIP should be even lower, and a better ERA should come with it.

Rounders aptly states “...In ‘Confessions of a Winning Poker Player,’ Jack King said, ‘Few players recall big pots they have won, strange as it seems, but every player can remember with remarkable accuracy the outstanding tough beats of his career.’” So it is with all of us, no? And while there is a clear difference between a fan-base’s fear and a manager’s, it seems that Nationals coaches are also weary of using Storen much in the ninth inning and a clean start elsewhere might be for the best. In the meantime, allow ugly surface stats and bad memories to drive down his price. His skills are still solid and his velo remains consistent. Storen is largely the same guy he was when he held down 43 games in 2011.

Jake Arrieta, Chicago Cubs
Reason he’s not a closer: Still a starter

I’m ignoring calls to talk about Nathan Eovaldi in my example of a starter who might be better off as a reliever, mainly because Eovaldi can hold elite velo deep into starts, and because at 23, he’s got a much better shot of sticking in the rotation than Arrieta, who has been shuttled back and forth between the majors and the minors, starting and relieving. Arrieta is 27 years old, which is odd because it feels like he’s been around forever, but is perceived as still full of untold potential. Instead of trotting him out and watching him fail as a starter once again, it would be interesting to see what Arrieta could do in the bullpen.

While there’s been little talk of moving Arrieta to the ‘pen, I think it’s the perfect place for him. While he was in Baltimore, I often heard the announcers speak of his “ace-like” stuff. While the pure stuff might be somewhere in that range (I’m still skeptical), his complete and utter lack of command has always held him back. Poor-command pitchers with impressive stuff have found success in the bullpen, where the limited innings have allowed them to hide their weaknesses much like a platoon player being hidden against his weak side.

Often exposed by the big inning in his starts, Arrieta could benefit from shorter stints in the bullpen, where those innings will still surely come, but perhaps less often over the course of a full season. It’s also possible that a player with Arrieta’s velocity and power arsenal could experience a bump in velo when shifted to the pen, which could give him a greater margin of error when he does throw non-quality strikes. Add in a free agent to be in Kevin Gregg, and the ticking time bomb that is Pedro Strop, and the opportunity might not be as far off as it seems for Arrieta.

All of this is conjecture and theory, I acknowledge. But keeping an eye on the types of arms that could make a successful transition to the bullpen is what allows prospective owners to be the first to grab them on the waiver wires. While I believe that Arrieta belongs in the bullpen, what I believe doesn’t much matter to the Cubs. Average or worse starters have long been made into successful relievers, so even if you think Arrieta should remain a starter, stay open to the type of pitcher I’m describing, and you’ll snag a future closer in no time.

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

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