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February 22, 2005

Fantasy Focus

Closer Situations in Flux

by Jeff Erickson

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Starting today, the staff of RotoWire, the leading fantasy-baseball information site, will be contributing two articles a week to Baseball Prospectus Premium and Baseball Prospectus Fantasy.

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At RotoWire, we have always been on good terms with the good folks at Baseball Prospectus, Now, we're thrilled to finally turn that into an official business relationship by contributing to their Fantasy product. During the course of the regular season, this column will cover a number of issues to help you manage your fantasy team. We'll dispense free-agent advice, alert you to players with particularly noteworthy schedules (such as two-start pitchers), provide playing-time projections for recent call-ups, and analyze role changes, with a focus on the closer situations of each team.

It's this last area we'll cover today. Until this year, I've always written the Closers and Closers-in-Waiting article for the annual RotoWire Fantasy Baseball Guide. (Fred Meyer, who manages our Closers Grid on the site, now writes the column with my input.) In most traditional fantasy leagues, finding an effective closer on the cheap can go a long way towards a title, while investing in a closer who loses his job, either through performance or injury, is a quick way to fall behind the pack.

Our goal is to answer three questions about each team's closer situation:

1. Who has the job?

Obviously, the focus here is on the more fluid situations in the league. We're looking at the teams that employ a committee, or at least say that they're doing so, and the teams in the midst of changing closers. Do the manager's actions match his words? What happens after a reliever blows a save? There's plenty here to keep us busy. In 2004, 11 teams changed their closer at least once, and four other teams had temporary changes due to performance or injury issues.

2. How likely is he to keep the job?

How effective has the closer been? What's his save percentage? Does he have an acceptable strikeout rate and a decent strikeout-to-walk ratio? How well does he register on BP's Reliever Run Metrics? Beyond the statistical measures, how patient will his manager be if he hits a rough patch? If the manager in question follows the Jerry Manuel school of thought, he might get yanked no matter how solid his supporting stats are.

3. Who are the potential replacement candidates?

Who's next in line to replace a faltering or injured closer? Which pitchers have the skill sets that would indicate that they are capable of closing? Are they one and the same? Has the team been forthcoming about a succession plan, or are we left to our best guess?

With that in mind, here are three bullpen situations where the closer's job is unsettled. Unless stated otherwise, all stats below are from 2004.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Starting with Matt Mantei's regularly scheduled breakdown (who had May 14th in their Mantei-to-the-DL pool last year?), the closer's role changed hands repeatedly until Greg Aquino claimed it in late July. Aquino finished with 16 saves in 19 opportunities, but his hold on the job is by no means secure, largely because his peripheral stats aren't what we're looking for in a closer. His strikeout rate was actually a little better with the Diamondbacks than it was at Triple-A Tucson, but it was still below an optimal level.

If Jose Valverde can prove he's healthy, he could take the job back from Aquino. The Diamondbacks believe that Valverde's arm troubles are a consequence of his awkward delivery. That they were reportedly peddling him for Eric Byrnes, before they traded for Jose Cruz Jr., is an indication that they don't believe they can correct the problem. Valverde's strikeout rate jumps out, but unfortunately so does his walk rate. With Aquino and Valverde far from sure things, you might even see Jose Jimenez get a crack at some point--not that he has much in the way of recent performance to recommend him. Jason Bulger could be a longshot to take over the job eventually, but it's a better bet that he'll begin the year in Double-A.


Pitcher         SV/OPP   K/9    K/BB
Greg Aquino     16/19   6.62   26/17
Jose Valverde    8/10  11.53   38/17
Jose Jimenez     8/11   5.20   21/14
Chicago Cubs: The Cubs have three viable but flawed closer options. They've been vague about their intentions, but for now we view Ryan Dempster as the slight favorite to get the first chance to win the job, ahead of Joe Borowski. At the end of 2004, Dempster appeared to be fully recovered from Tommy John surgery; he even picked up two saves down the stretch. That said, his walk rate is still too high for our comfort level. Borowski is working his way back from a partial tear in his rotator cuff that ruined his 2004 season. Reports on his progress this spring have been positive, but such news generally has to be discounted at this time of year. Investing much in Borowski in the way of auction dollars or a draft pick will be a leap of faith.

By most statistical measures, LaTroy Hawkins was the Cubs' best reliever last year by a wide margin. Unfortunately, he once again faltered when called upon to close, with a number of gut-wrenching blown saves down the stretch. The Cubs would prefer to keep him in a set-up role. A few names have surfaced in trade rumors this offseason, including the A's Octavio Dotel. Don't be surprised if the Cubs trade for an established closer.


Pitcher         SV/OPP   K/9    K/BB
Ryan Dempster      2/2  7.84   18/13
Joe Borowski      9/11  7.17   17/15
LaTroy Hawkins   25/34  7.57   69/14
Colorado Rockies: Suggesting that the closer's role will change hands in Colorado this year is like suggesting that when I go golfing on Friday (assuming that the course hasn't completely washed away) with Joe Sheehan, BP's answer to Steve Pate, I'll post a better score. It's not exactly going out on a limb. Following last year's disastrous experience with Shawn Chacon, the Rockies will weigh their options carefully.

At the head of the putative committee is Chin-Hui Tsao. Last year, Tsao's coming-out party was stifled due to an early-season shoulder injury, participation in the Olympics and blister problems that plagued him in the second half. The Rockies promoted Tsao to the majors too quickly in 2003, having him skip Triple-A entirely after he had pitched in just 18 games at Double-A Tulsa. Despite some success closing during the final week of the 2004 season, Tsao still has learning to do, so it might be a bit much to expect him to hold the job all season.

Brian Fuentes had a big platoon split last year, but over the course of his career he's been equally effective against righties and lefties. Don't be surprised if he's next in line to pick up save opportunities after Tsao. Scott Dohmann struggles with the gopher ball, but he demonstrated after his call-up in June that he could also get a key strikeout. His stuff isn't as electric as Tsao's, but at the same time, he has a fastball that gets into the mid-90s and a solid slider.

Finally, a deep sleeper might be Eddie Gaillard, who didn't just spend the last five years in Japan. He was a star closer there, at least over his first four seasons, before missing much of last year after having bone chips removed from his elbow. He's the only contender for the Rockies' closing job who has recent closing experience. Gaillard is signed to a minor-league deal, so he'll need a good spring training just to land a spot on the 40-man roster, but don't be surprised if he finds his way into the mix.


Pitcher             SV/OPP    K/9    K/BB
Chin-Hui Tsao          1/1  10.61    11/1
Brian Fuentes          0/1   9.67   48/19
Scott Dohmann          0/4   9.59   49/19
Eddie Gaillard '04*    0/2   3.46     5/5
Eddie Gaillard '03*  22/24   8.41    33/9
*Stats in Japan
Next week: Three closers who could lose their jobs by the All-Star break.

The format of this column is still a work in progress, and I'll always welcome your input on what you'd like to see. Please feel free to drop me a line at jeff@rotowire.com with your feedback. In addition to our partnership with Baseball Prospectus, I'm excited to announce our new deal with XM Radio. As part of their new MLB Channel (XM has satellite-radio broadcast rights for the next 11 years), we will be hosting a daily hour-long fantasy baseball show, every Mon-Fri from 2:00-3:00 EST, titled Fantasy Focus. We had our first live show last week, and already we're thrilled with the audience participation. BP's Will Carroll was one of our first guests on the show, and if he's not upset with my comment on his golf game, Joe Sheehan will join us soon.

What I'd like from you is to hear your ideas for what you want to hear on the show. What would be most helpful for your draft prep? What would be the most interesting topics on a regular basis? This is a 12-month show, so we'll have a lot of programming to fill. Please e-mail me with your ideas. If you want to have a question answered on-air, you can reach us by two different methods. You can dial in at 866-MLB-ONXM, or e-mail us at mlb@xmradio.com.

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Jeff Erickson is one of the founders of Rotowire and a nationally recognized fantasy-sports expert.

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