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January 18, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Tampa Bay's Closer Options

by Jason Collette

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It is no secret that I wear my Rays fandom on my sleeve. In Tout Wars, myself and David Gonos are the only Rays fans while the rest of the room is dominated by Yankees or Mets lovers. I am often chided for having too many Tampa Bay players on my roster when the draft day is all said and done. That said, I had the last laugh this past season when I rostered David Price at just $9.

The Rays have had an off-season exodus that resembles the time a buddy of mine dropped a liquid fart capsule in the high school cafeteria so he could clear out the line for pizza day. Gone are Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, and Jason Bartlett as well as nearly every member of the 2010 bullpen. Only Andy Sonnanstine, Mike Ekstrom, and Jake McGee are returning—General Manager Andrew Friedman has been quite busy rebuilding that group. The new names include Adam Russell, Joel Peralta, Kyle Farnsworth, Cesar Cabral, Cesar Ramos, Brandon Gomes, and J.P. Howell, who is returning from shoulder surgery and a lost 2010.  The obvious fantasy question here: which of these guys is going to get the closer’s role in 2011?

The Rays’ closer role has long been a source of frustration for fantasy players. Ever since Danys Baez saved 41 games for the Devil Rays in 2005, Tampa Bay has seen a different reliever lead the club in saves each season. Rafael Soriano took his 45 saves to the Yankees to be the most expensive set-up man/insurance policy in the history of baseball and with that, also took another closer off the fantasy market. Now, the Rays are left with just one of their 51 saves from last season on the roster, and that belongs to Sonnanstine, whose stuff is a horrible fit for the closers role, as he is better suited for long relief and spot starting.

Monday, while I was driving I-94 from the Twin Cities to Bismarck, Jon Rauch signed with the Blue Jays. He was the last remaining pitcher with decent closing experience on the market, meaning that whoever is going to close for the Rays in 2011 is already on the roster. There is the assumption that Howell returns no later than Memorial Day, throwing another wrench into projecting saves, but this is the data that presents itself to the numbers-driven Joe Maddon at this time.

Closing out games is a high-leverage situation and luckily, it is not hard to harvest the data for pitchers and how they perform in these types of situations. Unfortunately for the Rays, the high-leverage data for their relievers is both small in sample size and unattractive in its results. Pitchers such as McGee, Gomes, Cabral, Ramos, Russell, and Ekstrom lack sufficient data to even represent their ability in said situations, so the chart below shows what Farnsworth and Peralta have done over the past three seasons:

Pitcher IP H/9 HR/9 K/BB BABIP FIP
Peralta 21 1/3 8.4 1.7 2.0 .275 5.35
Farnsworth 42 12.9 1.5 2.2 .394 4.33

Peralta’s home run rate is completely unacceptable for closing on a full-time basis, and, outside of his K/BB, nothing Farnsworth has done deserves any preference over Peralta or any other pitcher. That said, Farnsworth becomes more interesting when you dive down further into his stats. Take a look at those same metrics for Farnsworth against teams with at least a .500 record over the past three seasons (regardless of leverage):

 

Pitcher IP H/9 HR/9 K/BB BABIP FIP
Farnsworth 100 8.3 1.2 4.0 .297 3.75

Now we are getting somewhere! Those numbers look like a pretty decent risk for saves, outside of the home run rate. The home run rate is a bit misleading because most of that comes from his time in 2008 with the Yankees (11 home runs in just 44.1 innings pitched). Since leaving the Yankees, he has given up exactly eleven home runs in his last 118 innings.

Peralta has his own argument after a very strong season of middle relief for the Nationals and the oft-overlooked fact that he was the closer for the Triple-A team in Syracuse last season. He had 20 saves last year in just 33.1 innings, giving up one home run, walking seven, and striking out 38. While those are impressive numbers, they are not terribly different from Winston Abreu, who has been the closer with the Durham Bulls the past two seasons and was let go by the Rays despite a terrible need for relief pitching. 

Many a closer has developed in Triple-A only to do nothing in the major leagues, with Abreu being the latest. Jonathan Albaladejo saved 43 games for the Yankees’ Triple-A club and yet the Bombers went out and spent nearly $12m to acquire Soriano. Scott Mathieson saved 26 games for the Phillies’  Triple-A squad, and still has to fight for a job in the Philadelphia bullpen. On the other hand, Craig Kimbrel saved 23 games and struck out 83 batters in just 55 innings for the Braves, but he is going to be given the opportunity to close for the Braves in 2011; I think the Rays should do the same with one of the more talented young arms in their farm system.

Jake McGee was drafted out of a Nevada high school in the fifth round of the 2004 draft. McGee made his first appearance in the Baseball America Prospect Handbook in the 23rd spot in the 2005 publication. His write-up stated that, “The Rays believe the projectable lefty may be one of the biggest steals from the first ten rounds.”At that time, McGee was throwing 89-91 miles an hour as a seventeen year old lefty in the Appalachian League. McGee was aggressively pushed ahead in the organization and dominated at every stop. In 2005, he struck out 89 batters in just under 77 innings, and in his first full season of work in 2006 he struck out 171 batters in 134 frames. That bumped McGee up to the fifth spot on the top prospect list in the 2007 Prospect Handbook, and he followed that up with another 175 punch outs in 140 innings between Single- and Double-A ball. 

2008 was to be a big season for McGee. Evaluators thought so highly of him that he was ranked third on the Top 30 prospect list behind only Longoria and Price. That put McGee ahead of Wade Davis, Reid Brignac, Desmond Jennings, Jeff Niemann, Jeremy Hellickson, and John Jaso. To put that in perspective, both Hellickson and Jennings were ranked in the top five spots for the overall 2010 list, and the rest of that group helped the Rays win a division title in 2010. That offseason, Baseball America said, “McGee’s heater sits at 93-95 and touches 98 with impressive movement and his fastball was ranked the best in the Florida State League.” McGee was assigned to Double-A Montgomery where he struggled, as his strikeout rate fell and his ERA was nearly 4.00. The disappointing season culminated with a pitch that McGee threw on June 22, 2008 in which he felt a pop in his elbow; two weeks later he was on the surgeon’s table undergoing Tommy John surgery. 

The standard rule of thumb for pitchers recovering from Tommy John surgery is that the pitcher will miss at least nine months of live baseball as they work through a very diligent rehabilitation process to rebuild their arm strength. In McGee’s case, he took nearly an entire year to come back, as he did not step on the mound in a game until late June of 2009. McGee was asked to start back at square one down in the Gulf Coast League and then jump up to the Florida State League where the task was to build up the arm strength and not worry so much about the numbers. In 30 innings of work last season, McGee struck out 30 batters while walking just 12. 

The organization sent McGee back to the Double-A Southern League to start the 2010 season and work as a starting pitcher, while the Rays kept a watchful eye on his progress. While he went just 3-7 in 19 starts, he struck out 100 batters, walked 33, and gave up just three home runs in 88 innings. The organization then bumped him up to Triple-A Durham later in the season to both limit his workload and to prep him for a relief role later in the season for the Rays. McGee threw just 17 1/3 innings for Durham, but allowed only nine hits, one earned run, walked three, and struck out 27 batters while holding the opposition to a .148 batting average. On the season, McGee struck out 127 batters while walking just 36 in 106 innings between Double-A and Triple-A.

The starting rotation is filled with five talented arms in Price, James Shields, Davis, Niemann, and Hellickson, a group that should not be going anywhere for at least a full season. The Rays are also blessed with pitching depth at the higher levels with the recently acquired Chris Archer, Alex Torres, and Alex Cobb all close to the major league level. Given the fact the starting rotation already has a significant wait list, it makes the most sense for the Rays to use McGee in a relief role to get his talents to the major league using the path of least resistance. His fastball is back to where he was pre-surgery and it shows in his whiff rates. McGee struck out 27 percent of the batters he faced in Double-A, 41 percent of the batters in Triple-A, and 30 percent in the majors.

The only knock on McGee’s work is that most of it has been done with his fastball. Minor leaguers had a swinging strike rate of 23 percent against McGee last season, but our own Mike Fast says that of the 81 pitches McGee threw with the Rays last year, 73 of them were fastballs. If a closer is going to get by on just one pitch, they need to have exceptional command of that pitch. That being said, McGee had a 39 percent whiff rate on his fastball at the major league level despite the fact most batters knew a fastball was coming.

Throughout his minor league career, McGee’s ability to change speeds has been the last hump he needed cross to become a starter, as his breaking ball is considered a good pitch. Since the rotation is crowded and his change-up is lagging behind his other offerings, McGee seems like a logical fit for the bullpen. There is no other reliever on the open market that I would consider to be the Rays’ type of pitcher. Peralta and Farnsworth may be considered trash by some, but there are statistical reasons why both have value these days; the same cannot be said for what is left on the open market.

These three pitchers are the best choices for the closer role until J.P. Howell comes back. Howell has put on 25 pounds of muscle since we last saw him, but nobody knows if his stuff will still be the same; it was his movement and deception that made him successful rather than his fringy velocity.  The Rays tend to go against the grain, and nothing would be more upstream than giving the closer’s role to a pitcher with just five innings of major league experience. McGee’s delivery has often been described as a set of clock hands in motion, and it very well could be his time to shut games down and become the seventh different reliever in seven seasons to lead the Tampa Bay Rays in saves. 

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

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