As I was putting together the yearly fantasy closer rankings recently, it occurred to me that there were a few pitchers on the list who we've heard relatively little about this offseason. Sure, we've all heard more than we can stand about Neftali Feliz, Jonathan Broxton, and whatever's going to happen on the South Side of Chicago, but how much have we really heard about lower-level guys like Drew Storen, Jose Valverde, and Leo Nunez? Not nearly enough in my opinion, and now seems like a great time to rectify that oversight.
Valverde is more than just an underappreciated island dictatorship, it's also the Detroit closer who had two diametrically opposed halves last year, very similar to Broxton. Through July 25, he'd converted 20 of 21 save opportunities, holding opponents to a 430 OPS and allowing just one home run. But on July 25, Jim Leyland inserted Valverde into both ends of a doubleheader against Toronto, where he gave up a long ball in each game. A few days later, Valverde entered a game in Boston, allowing nine baserunners on five walks and four hits while throwing 60 pitches (though, it should be said, somehow not losing the game). The high workload had an impact: from July 25 through the end of the year, his OPS against was 864, and he allowed 15 earned runs in 20 1/3 innings. Even more frightening, he pitched just three times after September 6 due to elbow soreness. For his part, Leyland admitted that the 60-pitch outing was extreme and that he won't be allowing any such shenanigans this year.
Despite missing time early in camp with the flu, Valverde has been proclaimed healthy and should be the regular Detroit closer in 2011. His first half performance and previous history makes him valuable, but don't ignore the warning signs here. The Tigers made their desire for bullpen depth clear when they went out and gave Joaquin Benoit a market-busting three year, $16.5 million deal. Beyond that, Valverde's peripherals aren't exactly headed in the right direction. After seeing his K/9 rate peak at 12.6 in 2006, that number has trended downward to 10.9, 10.4, 9.3, and 9.0 in the seasons since. Conversely, his BB/9 rate has risen from 2.9 to 3.5 to 4.6 since 2008, and for a reliever who will soon be 33, that's not promising.
Still, I don't want to totally undersell Valverde, because he was very effective for much of last year. Just remember that you're looking at a talented closer coming off a mostly productive season, but has some injury concerns, new competition, and troubling peripheral trends. That's exactly how you end up in the middle of the two-star range of the rankings.
Here's the thing in Washington: I expect Drew Storen to be the closer. You expect Drew Storen to be the closer. So why has there been very little actual news about Drew Storen being the closer? As recently as last week, manager Jim Riggleman claimed he'd be open to a closer-by-committee to start the season, and that uncertainty contributed to Storen's place at the bottom of the two-star tier in our rankings.
Despite Riggleman's refusal to outright name Storen his man, last year's usage seems to indicate that it's more likely than not that he's going to get the nod over Sean Burnett or Tyler Clippard. After finishing just two of 24 games in the first half, Storen finished 20 of 30 in the second half, as the ninth inning was vacated upon Matt Capps' trade to Minnesota. The hope here is that the old-school Riggleman doesn’t want to either hand the young player the job or put undue pressure upon him, preferring to make Storen earn it in camp.
If he is the closer, PECOTA expects more of the same, with an 8.45 K/9 rate and a 3.42 ERA that match closely with his 8.46 and 3.58 marks from 2010. That's probably fair, and such work would make him a usable-but-hardly-elite closer. However, I wonder if there might be more there to hope on. Don't forget, he played most of last season as a 22-year-old rookie, and his K/BB ratio improved in every month of the year, from 1.25 in May to 3.75 in September. That's real progress, though it must of course be noted that he allowed his only three homers of the year over those final two months as well. Assuming Storen does end up with the job, he’s got real upside as a low-cost choice who could bring solid results
I have to admit, when I first started identifying relievers to write about, I thought of Leo Nunez, and the first thing that crossed my mind was, "the guy who lost his job to Clay Hensley? Gross." I realize now that this may have been slightly unfair, since, compared to 2009, he struck out more, walked fewer, allowed fewer home runs, and had more saves. That's improvement, and what's wrong with that?
The bad taste in our mouths regarding Nunez' 2010 can really be traced to August alone, because through the end of July he was cruising along with a 2.64 ERA, a 49/11 K/BB, and a 595 OPS against, which is all well and good. But August was a complete nightmare: in ten games, he allowed runs in seven, including four homers. Put another way, in just 9 2/3 innings over the month, he allowed 24 baserunners, which equates to a WHIP of approximately a billion. His final game of the month, a two-homer disaster in Atlanta on August 29, finally got him removed from the ninth in favor of Hensley.
As soon as the calendar turned to September, the cloud over Nunez lifted: pitching mostly in the eighth inning, he had 10 scoreless outings out of 12 chances. Of course, Hensley shined in his new role, putting up 17 consecutive scoreless outings to end the season, including collecting seven saves over the final month.
Still, this isn't a competition if only because the Marlins have made it clear that the job is Nunez' to lose headed into 2011. His grasp on the job has to be seen as tenuous at best, however, and other than Broxton he's probably the closer who is most desperately in need of a good start. Should he falter, Hensley is the first man up, though it wouldn't be a total surprise to see someone like newcomer Ryan Webb get a crack at the gig as well.