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There are a number of factors that many people consider when drafting a closer. You first need to set yourself up with a sound draft strategy and decide how much you want to spend in your auction or how high you’re willing to go in a snake draft. In most cases this season, it’s a “you get what you pay for” type scenario. Sure, you can find bargain closers late in your draft, but the chances of landing a guy for a low bid (under-$7) or 20th round or later who you’ll be able to use/trust all year long is pretty rare. I’m not saying they’re not out there, but unless you’re glomming all the save vultures and just hoping for an early-season change, the cheap closers can be tough to come by.
Not to beat a dead horse, but I will reiterate my belief that closers are vital to your success and paying a premium price to lock down two guys for your roster is the way to go. If you’re in a snake draft you can load up on offense early, grab two closers in the early-to-middle rounds and then wait on your starting pitching. Some of the top high-upside young hurlers, as well as a number of mid-to-high strikeout starters will be available to you between rounds 10 and 20. You just have to do the research to find which ones you like the most.
In auctions, once you’ve set your money split between offense and pitching, you then have to split your pitching budget up between starters and relievers. There’s really no set percentage because every league values pitchers differently, but I usually like to invest in one of the higher-priced guys ($18-22) and then a mid-priced one ($12-15) who I believe I can trust for the entire season. Usually that takes up about 30 to 40-percent of my pitching budget, but it, at least, allows me to go with one or two “big bids” on upper-tiered starters and then bargain hunt for the rest. Because it’s an auction though, you have to give yourself a little wiggle-room as one guy could cost a few bucks extra or one could even go for a few bucks less. But most of all, you want to get two guys who are going to sit in your lineup all year long with a potential injury as your only reason to replace.
Once you’ve got your plan, you now have to set your targets. When I say you want guys whom you can just leave in your lineup without much concern, you’ve got a few factors to take into account when choosing. You have to consider strikeout rates, ratios and, of course, job security. Some people also add in opportunity, but that’s just too difficult to predict and it also tends to ignore closers on bad teams. While you may think fewer wins afford fewer opportunities for saves, that’s just not the case. Just ask the guy who owned Joakim Soria between 2008 and 2010.
As for the other three things that I like to look for in a closer, strikeout rate and ratios are easy to evaluate. Just hit the stats page of your league’s web site and you can sort through. Once you’ve established whose numbers you like the most, you have to evaluate what his situation looks like on the team. Is he on shaky ground? Is there a saves- vulture circling above just waiting for a potential slip-up? Should he incur a few bad outings, how likely is it that the manager will replace him? Job security is huge, especially considering just how volatile this position tends to be. You could have a guy with low-level strikeouts and mid-level ratios but with phenomenal job security who proves to be more valuable than a high-strikeout guy with mid-level ratios but a manager with a quick hook. Properly evaluating the team’s situation is paramount to deciding which closers are more worth the investment needed to land them.
So with that, let’s take a look at each closer and I’ll share some thoughts I have on each for the 2014 season…
Craig Kimbrel, ATL – He’s rated as the No. closer out there, but I let others grab him first. He’s the most high-priced in auctions and tends to go in the fourth round of most snake drafts and while he’s been well-worth it over the last three seasons, I can’t ignore the drop in strikeout rate, the rise in walks and home runs and a slightly diminished ground ball rate. Could we be looking at an injury soon?
Addison Reed, ARI – While the Diamondbacks have yet to officially announce Reed as their closer, the fact that they dealt away third base prospect Matt Davidson to get him speaks volumes. He’s also outpitched J.J. Putz this spring. He’s got decent job security given the investment made in him so if he has a couple of rough outings early, don’t worry too much.
Jose Veras, CHC – His job security is about as weak as you’re going to get so do not invest much. He’s more like the third closer you pick up to boost your saves in a roto league and either sell-high or just drop altogether. Similarly to last year, he is most-likely to be traded in the second half and land somewhere as a set-up man. If your league counts saves plus holds, he’s got a little bit of added value. There’s also Pedro Strop lingering in a set-up role and should Veras stumble, he’ll likely get a chance to close out some games.
Aroldis Chapman, CIN – So this was what I had written before Wednesday’s incident: Rock solid job security, rock solid strikeouts and rock solid ratios. Can’t get much better than this and no one is supplanting him unless he’s injured. Now we’re all waiting on the edge of our seats to see if he’s doing ok. For those who didn’t hear, Chapman took a line drive to the face that came off the bat of Salvador Perez. Word is that it’s a laceration above the eye and likely a concussion. That’s probably the minimum. X-rays and tests will reveal whether there’s a fractured or any other broken bones. He apparently never lost consciousness and was seen moving. We’re hearing positive reports, thankfully, but we’ve got more news to come, for sure. It’s a very upsetting event and we wish nothing but the best for Chapman and his recovery, but we do have business here and we must report that it is likely J.J. Hoover who will be next in line for saves, if necessary. He’s got a solid strikeout rate, but is still a fly ball pitcher at Great American Ballpark. His 3.47 FIP seems to be a much better indicator of what you can expect from him than his 2.86 ERA is.
LaTroy Hawkins, COL – The 41-year old is similar to Veras in that he is the team’s closer to open the year but is a major trade candidate and will likely end up a set-up man. Once that happens, Rex Brothers will return to the ninth inning and take over, but until that time, or obviously, an injury or complete and utter meltdown, the job belongs to Hawkins.
Kenley Jansen, LAD – There’s simply nothing you can say to criticize the numbers as he posted totals in 2013 that were slightly improved from the year before. He did have the heart condition issue in 2012 and then actually started out as a set-up man behind Brandon League last year. While he walks in as the closer this season, there has to be at least some concern with the fact that the Dodgers brought in experienced closers Brian Wilson and Chris Perez during the offseason. I’m not saying that he’s losing his job just yet, but there seems to be something lurking to which we outsiders are not privy.
Steve Cishek, MIA – Funny enough, he’s actually got pretty good job security with the Marlins just not having many strong options in the bullpen. Sure, Carter Capps has potential to develop into a strong ninth-inning option, but the Marlins have no reason to push him into the role. His time will come soon enough as Cishek will probably too expensive after another round at the arbitration table. But for now, stick with him as he’ll churn out some solid numbers even if the Marlins don’t.
Jim Henderson, MIL – You can love his 11.25 K/9, but he can be a little risky being a fly ball pitcher with a 3.60 BBB/9 and 3.48 FIP in a hitter’s park. Real risky, in fact. But the job is his and Ron Roenicke doesn’t have a quick hook, so consider the job security decent. Not great, but decent. Francisco Rodriguez will happily work set-up and wait for his chance.
Bobby Parnell, NYM – The five-month recovery from neck surgery has come and gone and Parnell is back on the mound finally this spring. He’ll make a few Grapefruit League appearances to get himself ready for the season and should be good to go come Opening Day. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that his injury still concerns me which is why I’m holding tight to Vic Black. The club will be careful with Parnell if he starts hurting again or showing signs of struggle because of the surgery, so that leaves the job security at average. He could hold it down all year, but I’d be prepared if he can’t.
Jonathan Papelbon, PHI – Diminished velocity and a drop in his swinging-strike percentage are both red flags that need to be monitored and the fact that he is also a hot topic in trade talks always makes his job security a little tenuous. Still, with Antonio Bastardo the only other real option, the leash will remain long with Papelbon. You just can’t treat him like an elite closer anymore.
Jason Grilli, PIT – With strong ratios and an even stronger strikeout rate, Grilli had an excellent 2013 campaign, his first as the Pirates closer. However forearm tightness and diminished velocity hindered the end of his season and owners are a bit on the hesitant side at the moment. But Grilli has recently returned to action and has thrown a pair of scoreless innings this spring with three strikeouts so while it’s just a small sample size, it’s a start. The leash is probably longer than most would think given Mark Melancon’s abilities, but until Grilli gives a reason to doubt him, assume that he’s the guy for the long haul.
Huston Street, SD – Par for the course here in San Diego as Street remains the closer and will continue to do so all year unless he gets hurt. If/when an injury arises, Joaquin Benoit will take over. Same ol’ same.
Sergio Romo, SF – While I’m not a huge fan of him as a closer (for admittedly no real legitimate reason), Romo has the job locked down fairly tight for the Giants. He posted strong ratios, good strikeouts and notched 38 saves last year and has a nasty slider that works as a fantastic out-pitch. He’s got excellent job security and should be treated as one of the better closers out there.
Trevor Rosenthal, STL – Though you won’t find him at a similar draft bargain, Rosenthal has the potential to be this year’s Greg Holland. We should see great numbers all the way around and even if he struggles hits a bad streak, the team won’t be quick to give him the hook even though they could actually have Jason Motte throwing out of the pen in May.
Rafael Soriano, WAS – While he had another 40-save season, Soriano saw a huge drop in strikeouts, a drop in ground ball rate and posted a 3.65 FIP which indicated that his 3.11 ERA was not representative of his true level. He also saw a drop in velocity and that’s never good. Some people might be high on him, but you don’t have to be and I wouldn’t recommend him right now. I’d say the security is mediocre at best and perhaps it’s the struggling peripherals which kept the Nationals from trading Drew Storen just yet.
Tommy Hunter, BAL – There have been several question marks surrounding Buck Showalter’s choice to stay internal and go with Hunter as his closer. The biggest issue is the lefty-righty splits as Hunter has a career 5.06 ERA with just a 159:89 K:BB over 288 innings against southpaws. Darren O’Day and Ryan Webb have their splits issues against lefties as well so they’re kind of lumped together in that sense. The job security for Hunter is mid-level at best, but there aren’t many other options in-house. Brad Brach is a dark horse should he master his control issues.
Koji Uehara, BOS – His numbers and job security appear to be pretty solid right now, however, I did hear an ex-reliever mention that there should be concerns with his increased workload last year after being hurt the year before. I asked him to elaborate but it all seemed to be steeped in speculation rather than fact, so I’ll just say that I like him and that he’s worth a solid investment, but I would keep Junichi Tazawa and/or Edward Mujica on speed dial just in case this guy is doing more than just talking out his ass.
Nate Jones, CHW – So by now you know that he’s a favorite of mine. His ADP is rising, but he’s still considered a low-cost option as he has not technically been named the closer. But Matt Lindstrom is hurt, Jones has outperformed Daniel Webb and manager Robin Ventura has treated him as his closer this spring. He’s a ground ball pitcher with a strong strikeout rate. He’ll have the job entering the season and I don’t see anyone taking it away from him. Draft with confidence.
John Axford, CLE -- He and all his command issues make their way to the Tribe this season and while he was immediately handed the closer’s job, there should always be a certain amount of trepidation that comes with drafting him. Last year there was supposedly a mechanical issue that caused him to tip his pitches, so hopefully he ’s taken care of that. If not, then look for Cody Allen to receive an opportunity sooner than later.
Joe Nathan, DET – He’s still being treated like a high-end closer, but there are a couple of red flags to which you should be paying attention. His strikeout rate took only a slight dip, but his walk rate jumped from 1.82 BB/9 to 3.06 BB/9. That’s a significant and unflattering increase. His ground ball rate also dropped from 45.4-percent to 32-percent and while that’s also something to be concerned with, his move to Comerica should help lessen the impact. And lest we forget the near 2 mph drop in his fastball velocity? He’s considered more of a second-tier guy these days (lower second-tier, in my opinion) so bid accordingly but make sure you think about handcuffing him to Bruce Rondon and/or Al Alburquerque.
Chad Qualls, HOU – He’s considered the favorite to walk in with the job but a 5.40 spring ERA isn’t helping him win any beauty contests. Josh Fields and Jesse Crain are just waiting for the opportunity to step in which, in reality, could come sooner than later. Consider this pretty low job security and a bullpen with a ton of question marks.
Greg Holland, KC – He had a rocky first two weeks last season and was virtually lights-out the rest of the way. He’s got a killer strikeout rate, phenomenal ratios and rock solid job security. He’s an incredibly safe bet and a guy I continue to target in each and every draft I do.
Ernesto Frieri, LAA – He had his struggles last year as evidenced by his 3.80 ERA, but most of his peripherals tended to hover right around where they were in 2012. That’s not to say that those numbers were good as he posted a 3.93 BB/9 and saw an uptick in his HR/9 as well. He’s a fly ball pitcher but gets the benefit of a pitcher’s park to help him out. While the competition in the pen is light – Joe Smith, Dane De La Rosa, Sean Burnett, Kevin Jepsen – I am still wary of Mike Scioscia running the show. Remember back in 2011 when he yanked Fernando Rodney from the role just two weeks into the season?
Glen Perkins, MIN – The southpaw is coming back from a knee injury, but remains entrenched as the Twins closer. Even though he’s a lefty, he’s actually slightly better against right-handed batters which is why he can be used in this way and not stuck as a lefty specialist. His job security is strong and while there might be someone who would fill in if he were still hurt, none of the guys in the Twins pen right now are going to supplant him.
David Robertson, NYY – While he’s struggled in previous attempts at the job, the Yankees know that from a stuff-standpoint, he’s the guy for the job and just needs to get his head right. Perhaps now that Mariano Rivera isn’t there anymore waiting to reclaim the job, Robertson can make it his own. He’s got a solid strikeout rate and a ground ball rate over 50-percent which is always tasty given the home ballpark dimensions. Job security is rock solid, so feel confident even if he does have a stumble or two along the way.
Jim Johnson, OAK – The A’s dealt second base prospect Jemile Weeks to land a new closer in Johnson and his job is safe and secure. Some people are a bit wary of him and his ratios, but I think getting out of Baltimore is going to be a great way to push that HR/FB back down. But let’s face it, he’s got almost a 60-percent ground ball rate, saw an uptick in strikeouts last year, his velocity, though a hair down, is still strong and the team paid a decent price for his services. Though guys like Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle and even Luke Gregerson could be in line if something happens, the hook will not be quick and Johnson should do just fine.
Fernando Rodney, SEA – A late free agent signing for the Mariners, Rodney pushes Danny Farquhar back into a set-up role and should be a fixture in the ninth. His amazing 2012 won’t be duplicated, but after a slow start to 2013 he turned things around in the second half and proved both his worth and his mettle. Figure the leash should be fairly long, so even a bump or two in the road shouldn’t cause panic. If he gets hurt though, then expect to see Farquhar again.
Grant Balfour, TB – After being told he didn’t pass his physical from the Orioles doctors, Balfour took his hurt feelings back to Tampa where the organization gave him a clean bill of health and the closer’s role. He did have a battle with some “dead arm” so that’s something to note, but he still seems to have a pretty long leash. Unless the injury recurs or simply get s worse, Balfour should have a lock on the job, so draft with a bit of hesitation but mostly confidence.
Neftali Feliz/Joakim Soria, TEX – The battle continues to wage on between these two and it’s coming down to the wire. They’re both having solid springs, so it’s anyone’s ballgame. Personally, I’d rather Soria win the job than as he has the greater experience and he seems to be coming off from surgery much better. Most suspect Feliz though so if you’re drafting, that’s how the masses are leaning. I’m going against the grain. When we get final word, you’ll be the first to know.
Casey Janssen, TOR – He’s been dealing with shoulder issue all spring and only just the other day, began to throw. The Jays still believe that he’ll be ready for Opening Day and they’re preparing as such. So long as he’s doing his job and closing out games properly, he’ll hold the job. While we’re not exactly sure just how long the leash it (they don’t want to cut it too short just because of the injury), keep in mind that Sergio Santos, who has closed before, is waiting in the wings.
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