We are not even two days into the regular season and closers are already dropping like flies. On back-to-back days this week both Andrew Bailey and Kyle Farnsworth hit the disabled list with injuries of different severities. Bailey is going to miss at least two months of the season to repair the UCL in his thumb that he landed awkwardly on while colliding with Alex Presley covering first base. Manager Bobby Valentine was quick to name Alfredo Aceves as the primary closer rather than Mark Melancon, who served as the primary closer in Houston last season. Melancon came into yesterday’s game in a tie-situation and handed a mess off to Aceves that he was unable to clean up, thus continuing the chatter that spilled over from Spring Training of Valentine’s true feelings for Melancon; the BoSox manager had some rather back-handed complements of Melancon’s work at one point in camp.
Fantasy players should be happy with Valentine for naming Bailey’s replacement so quickly, but they should not expect the same from the non-linear thinker that is Joe Maddon. After all, this is the same manager that has Jeff Keppinger hitting clean-up today and Elliot Johnson ahead of Carlos Pena and Matt Joyce in today’s lineup. Simply put, you throw away the traditional way of doing things when trying to guess how the Rays will react to replacing Farnsworth for an undetermined amount of time because they are rather unpredictable.
If it helps Farnsworth owners feel any better, so far the news is good. In a story on April 4 by Roger Mooney of the Tampa Tribune, Farnsworth is quoted as saying the elbow soreness prevents him from finishing his pitches, particularly his breaking ball. He said that his velocity is not a problem at all; he was still hitting 95 mph in his last appearance, but finishing the pitches was causing discomfort. The MRI revealed an elbow strain, and since the Rays’ medical staff is one of the more cautious in baseball, it would be prudent to plan on Farnsworth missing all of April and being pleasantly surprised if he returns earlier.
While he is out, the Rays have several options to plug into high leverage situations, but do not look for Maddon to anoint a new closer. After all, he never even officially named Farnsworth the closer last season. For most of the season, it became a joke in post-game press conferences where someone would undoubtedly ask about the title and Maddon would never use it despite the fact Farnsworth got the ball in nearly every save situation before he was shut down in early September (with this same type of elbow soreness, a bit concerningly).
The primary option to replace Farnsworth is Joel Peralta, who was the first option last season when Farnsworth was unavailable. In save situations last season, opponents posted a .170/.210/.350 slash line against Peralta, but that line covers just 105 plate appearances. In the six games he saved last season, he faced 21 batters allowing just two hits, walking none, and striking out seven. Peralta is one of the reverse split types since his split-finger fastball allows him to be extremely effective against lefties. Last season, he had a slash line of just .155/.198/.236 against lefties in 118 plate appearances after holding them to a .212/.278/.318 the season before in Washington. Against righties, Peralta has been a mixed bag since adding the new pitch. In 2010, Peralta was one of the most effective relievers in all of baseball against righties as he held them to a .145/.174/.300 line in 117 plate appearances. Last season, that line jumped to .218/.283/.435 in 138 plate appearances. All in all, Peralta has shown the ability to get both lefties and righties out at a high level over the last two seasons, making a natural platoon situation with either J.P. Howell or Jake McGee unlikely.
McGee has been a name mentioned by many on Twitter and other media formats as someone to watch, but such a move would be a big leap of faith by Maddon; McGee has not shown an ability to get out right-handed batters at the major league level. He has faced just 68 righties in his major league career, but they have a .345/.433/.569 slash line against him, and he has struck out just 12 of them while walking nine. This issue carried over from his days in the minor leagues since McGee has never really had an effective off-speed pitch. That in fact, was one of the primary reasons (even more so than his elbow surgery) he was pushed into a relief role.
Howell has his own issues that stem mainly from his disappointing return from shoulder surgery last season. Before going down with the shoulder issue late in 2009 that cost him all of 2010, Howell was arguably the most effective reliever for Maddon and was used in every role and relief inning possible, making fans of leverage index and Win Probability Added very happy. During that span, Howell showed a propensity for shutting down right-handed batters, holding them to a .180/.271/.305 line in 405 plate appearances. After missing all of 2010, he came back last season with decreased effectiveness, struggling to find his location all season long, and righties crushed him at a .302/.449/.528 clip across 70 plate appearances (though he did manage to hold lefties to a .222/.279/.302 line in 68 plate appearances). So far this spring, Howell’s stuff has looked like the Howell of old, his location crisp with the movement that made him good in 2009.
Then there is the wildcard in Wade Davis, who was recently moved to the ‘pen. Davis saw 20 pitches of late-inning ‘pen action in the ALDS against the Rangers, but it was an improved version of Davis from the one the Rays had seen in-season. In the relief role, Davis averaged 94 mph on his fastball and maxed out at 96; in the rotation, he averaged 91-92 in most of his starts while topping out at 94. Davis is as emotionless a pitcher as you will find in baseball; his body language and facial expressions are the same in the middle of a shutout as they are in a shellacking, giving him the type of temperament necessary to work in the late innings.
Maddon will do what he does and play the matchups and the leverages “using the data at hand” (one of his favorite sayings). The data at hand presents a favorable case for Peralta while utilizing Howell but not forgetting about Davis. McGee, however, is someone you should let your leaguemates gamble on, seeming to be the least likely to see save opportunities in Farnsworth’s absence.