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September 20, 2013

Five to Watch

The Save Rush

by Craig Goldstein

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In his September 12 Bullpen Report, Mike Gianella broke down the contract situations of all the closers in baseball, giving us an idea of where there might be change and throwing out some names so we could capitalize early. I loved this idea and wanted to take it a step further in the cases of the five teams that will be losing a closer to free agency. With that in mind, let’s get to it:

Oakland Athletics

Option 1: Ryan Cook
This seems like an obvious choice for an organization that doesn’t traditionally spend big money on the closer position. He’s done it before, with 14 saves in 2012 while Balfour was ineffective, and he’s been consistently great over 137 innings the last two seasons. His career rate of a strikeout per nine innings would sit well with fantasy owners and while he has had trouble with control in the past, he’s reduced his walk rate a full two percentage points from 2012 to 2013. I would expect his experience in the closer role to carry the most weight, and given his otherwise terrific numbers, there’s very little reason not to give Cook the nod if Balfour does indeed depart.

Option 2: Sean Doolittle
While the surface stats wouldn’t portray it this way, Doolittle has been a bit better than Cook these last two seasons, albeit in 24 or so fewer innings (which matters). While his ERAs have been in the threes each of the last two years, Doolittle actually sports a lower career FIP than Cook, thanks to a slightly higher strikeout rate and a significantly lower walk rate (four percentage point difference in career numbers). Cook does have the GB/FB rate advantage, but some of that advantage is neutralized when you play half your games in the O.co Coliseum, as demonstrated by the minor difference between their career HR/FB rates (Cook at 4.3 percent, Doolittle at five percent). The biggest factor against Doolittle may in fact be that he’s left-handed. We’ve certainly seen our fair share of southpaw closers, with Oakland having used one in their recent history (Brian Fuentes). That said, there is a bias toward right-handed relievers in the closer role, in part so a team doesn’t feel burdened to carry an “extra” lefty specialist.

Darkhorse: Dan Otero
Perhaps jokingly, Jason Wojchiechowski left the comment “Dan Otero, duh” on my article about “Would-Be, Could-Be Closers.” If he was joking though, he wasn’t wrong. Otero might not have the profile one would desire in a standard closer, but Oakland hasn’t been about doing things the standard way for quite some time now. One might blanch at Otero’s 17 percent strikeout rate as a reliever and think he doesn’t have the stuff to close, but they’d be ignoring his miniscule walk rate (3.4 percent for his career), his stellar ground-ball rate (59 percent career) and zero home runs allowed in 49 career innings. Otero’s strikeout rate and batted ball profile compare favorably to that of Jim Johnson, the league leader in saves each of the last two years, all with half the walk rate. So while it’s not a conventional closer profile, we know that he could book ‘em as well as anyone else.

Detroit Tigers

Option 1: Bruce Rondon
With the Tigers entering the 2013 without a closer in place, much of the speculation settled on Big Bruce and his vaunted fastball. The issue of course being that Rondon had little else besides that fastball. In the end the Tigers went back to Jose Valverde, tried Jose Veras and finally (FINALLY) trusted Joaquin Benoit to get the job done. Of course with Valverde gone, and Veras and Benoit eligible for free agency, the Tigers are right back where they started. Rondon has acquitted himself well in 28 major league innings, sporting a 3.58 ERA and 3.23 FIP. He’s walking too many with a nine percent BB rate, but the strikeouts are there are just a hair under 23%. While there’s not a huge (no pun intended) case to be made for Rondon based on the major league numbers (small sample size and all), a 34 percent strikeout rate and 14 saves at Triple-A say to me that the Tigers are grooming him for this job eventually, so why not 2014?

Option 2: Al Alburquerque
Across 2011-12, Alburquerque posted a 1.59 ERA spanning 57 innings, racking up 85 strikeouts and walking 57 batters. This season though, appears to have taken a wrong turn at… well, you know. Alburquerque has imploded to the tune of a 5.19 ERA, even seeing his FIP rise from 2.19 in ‘12 to 3.92 in ‘13. Why the change? He’s seen a precipitous drop in his groundball rate, dropping from 63% to 43%. While 2012 only saw him throw 13 innings, his 57% rate in 2011 was still plenty high. Despite that drop, his fly=ball percentage hasn’t increased as much as you might think, moving only four percentage points up to 30 percent. He’s striking out batters at above 30 percent for the third straight season. He’s walking batters at above 15 percent (disturbing) for the third straight season. Again, why the dramatic change? It’s not like it’s pure regression, as his FIPs were in the low twos in both 2011 and 2012. The difference, and it’s a big one, is in the HR/FB rate. Where previously, over 57 innings, Alburquerque had never allowed a home run, he’s surrendered five in just 43 innings in 2013. He’s seen his HR:FB go from zero percent to 16 percent. Which is the real Albuquerque? Hard to say. 57 innings shouldn’t be thrown out, and they were extremely impressive. This year can’t be ignored either though, as he’s been a different pitcher at least in part. I would count on a performance somewhere in between the two, and if that’s what happens it’s enough to close.

Darkhorse: Drew Smyly
It’s my firm belief that Smyly deserves to be in the Tigers’ rotation, or at least a rotation. Realistically though, it’s hard to think that the Tigers will move on from Rick Porcello, largely because they don’t need to move on from Porcello. He’s been fine and after their top four starters they could probably start Jose Valverde for a full season and still be good. So under the assumption that Smyly will indeed be in the bullpen next year, I’m going to go ahead and say that he’s likely to be the best reliever in that bullpen. He’s currently sporting a 2.44 ERA and a 2.36 FIP in 74 innings out of the ‘pen this year, with 77 strikeouts against only 16 (!) walks. He’s also limiting home runs to about half the rate he did in a 2012 season that saw him start 18 games. As with other relievers mentioned on this list, Smyly has the disadvantage of being left-handed, so would have to overcome that bias. On top of that, the Tigers have taken advantage of Smyly’s former starter status, throwing him more than one inning 21 times in 2013 and they might be reluctant to give up the ability to do that going forward. If they do pull the trigger though, Smyly could end up as an upper-tier closer.

Chicago Cubs

Option 1: Pedro Strop
It was announced yesterday (9/19) that Strop would be the Cubs closer for the remainder of the season, which obviously lets us know where the Cubs think he should be going into next season. It’s been a tale of two seasons for Strop, which is what happens when you take a limited sample size and cut it in half, but hey. In 22 innings for Baltimore, Strop composed a 7.25 ERA and 5.53 FIP. He was still missing bats, with 24 strikeouts but as you might expect, walks were an issue. After being acquired by the Cubs though, Strop has been a different pitcher and not just on the surface. In more innings Strop has walked fewer batters and allowed fewer home runs than he did with the Orioles. He has also upped his strikeout rate and more than cut his FIP in half, from 5.53 to 2.56. If this is even close to the pitcher Strop can be in 2014, he should be able to hold onto the closer’s gig for the whole year. Of course, Strop has always been streaky so only time will tell.

Option 2: Kyuji Fujikawa
Considering that they signed him to a two-year, $9.5 million deal (with an option for 2015), the Cubs had seemingly planned to install Fujikawa in the closer spot before he succumbed to injury and underwent Tommy John surgery. He wasn’t particularly good in his short time in the majors, but then again, he could have been pitching injured. He might not be back ‘til midseason even if all goes according to plan, but he’s a definite option considering that they signed him with this role in mind.

Darkhorse: Blake Parker
When he’s not commanding the United States crew for the America’s Cup (double duty this time of year), Parker has been lights out for the Cubs this year. They’ve sorely lacked a bright spot in this bullpen after James Russell has been secretly pretty-darn-bad. Russell owns a 2.76 ERA with an equally righteous 2.81 FIP. His strikeout rate is at 28 perent (10.63 per nine) and he walks just a bit more than the league average at 8.4 percent (3.19 per nine). Parker has been the most consistent member of the Chicago ‘pen and if (more likely when) Strop blows up, there’s a good chance he’s next in line for the job.

St. Louis Cardinals

Option 1: Jason Motte
This is about as clear-cut as it gets. Motte was an upper-tier closer when healthy, and assuming he returns to full health, it’s likely he inherits his former position with Edward Mujica heading toward free agency.

Option 1A: Trevor Rosenthal
Of course if Motte isn’t healthy or effective there’s a solid backup plan (as there is at almost every position in St. Louis) in Rosenthal. It remains possible that Rosenthal could be transitioned back into a starting pitcher, but given the depth that the Cardinals have in the rotation, and the dominance that Rosenthal has shown as a reliever, it might be difficult for St. Louis take him out of that bullpen, especially with Mujica departing. With a 34 percent strikeout rate and an 8% walk rate, Rosenthal is an elite bat misser and exactly league average in terms of walks. Even in a year where he’s experienced a .337 BABIP, Rosenthal has posted a sub-3.00 ERA, and his FIP is an incredibly low 2.08. I couldn’t even list him as option no. 2in St. Louis because he’s a top-tier option from the moment he gets the gig.

Darkhorse: Carlos Martinez
Though the major leagues have been something of a struggle for Martinez, he’s dominated the minor leagues the last two season and sports the type of stuff that would make for a top five closer in the league. He’s got an elite fastball and a hammer curve, and has the type of frame that might lend itself well to relief instead of starting, though he’s largely been healthy as a starter. The reality is that Motte and Rosenthal are phenomenal options and the likelihood of Martinez closing in 2014 is slim. If he somehow does end up in the role though, he’s likely to be quite, quite good at it.

Tampa Bay Rays

Option 1: Joel Peralta
Peralta has seen his walk rate skyrocket this year while also seeing his strikeout rate drop, relative to 2012, but it’s hardly hurt him in his surface stats thanks to an artificially low BABIP. Despite the peripherals heading in the wrong direction, Peralta is posting a lower ERA than he did in 2012. He does benefit from Tropicana Fields’ home run suppressing ways, given his 54 percent fly-ball rate, though we should note that Peralta is benefiting from a HR/FB rate two percentage points below his career rate, which is not small deal given the number of fly balls he generates. It’s worth monitoring whether this is just a one year dip in performance, or the beginning of a trend for the 37-year-old Peralta.

Option 2: Jake McGee
If it is the beginning of a trend for Peralta, that could benefit Jake McGee’s fantasy value. While McGee hasn’t quite replicated the remarkable success he had in 2012 (1.95 ERA, 1.81 FIP), his 3.33 FIP in 2013 is more than acceptable. A left-hander, McGee has the same bias to overcome as those listed before him. In his favor though (as with Doolittle), McGee sports a power arsenal which is generally more appealing to managers as a closer trait. McGee’s ability to induce whiffs would make him one of the more valuable closers, though perhaps implosion prone given his 11 percent career HR:FB.

Darkhorse: Alex Torres
If you haven’t sensed a theme in my darkhorses by now, it’s that they have phenomenal strikeout rates. Torres is no different, whiffing 27 percent though struggling a bit with control (10 percent BB rate) en route to a 1.51 ERA (2.49 FIP) in 54 innings this season. I admit to harboring hope that Torres could have been a high strikeout/high walk starter at the back end of a rotation, but I think that dream has died. With Torres experiencing such success in the bullpen, the next step would be ascending to the closer’s role. Another reason to like Torres as a closing option? He’s very stingy with the long ball, and those guys tend not to suffer the same type of implosion as the home prone. I wouldn’t necessarily classify Torres as a likely closer, but he’s the type who could succeed if they luck into the gig, a la Edward Mujica.

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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