Fantasy Baseball Closer Hot Seat - AL

by Nicholas Minnix on February 24, 2011 @ 03:10:18 PDT

 


In fantasy baseball, the closer position remains volatile. Rarely does every closer hang on to the job for an entire season - injuries, poor performance and managerial decisions cloud a team's bullpen picture.

Should you be concerned about a struggling stopper? Which relievers are climbing the depth chart? Have any injuries popped up? KFFL.com's Fantasy Baseball Closer Hot Seat keeps you informed when you're looking for saves.

Key

Job security (JS) score 1 (unstable) to 5 (untouchable)
Health (H) score 1 (injury-prone) to 5 (durable)

 

Baltimore Orioles

Closer: TBD

Understudy: Koji Uehara, Kevin Gregg

Lurkers: Mike Gonzalez

Gregg's two-year, $10 million contract didn't make him Buck Showalter's favorite to close when the O's arrived in Florida. Uehara holds that distinction, no doubt thanks to his pristine 1.02 BB/9 and successful conversions in 13 of 15 opportunities in 2010. Initially, this competition is too close to call. Each righty is predestined to give up the long ball, especially in that bandbox.

Many view Gregg as the eventual winner because of his experience (122 saves, 28 blown chances lifetime; 16 of 17 in save chances versus AL East teams last year). But his 2010 ERA (3.51) is due for some correction, especially since he issues plenty of bases on balls. On the other hand, Showalter's loyalty and the Japanese import's better numbers make him the darling for many. The skipper can't have forgotten that the New York Yankees slaughtered Uehara last season, however.

Chicago White Sox RP Matt Thornton
Fire Sale on Thornton

Gregg's maddening ninth-inning rides may end up being too much for Showalter, who doesn't have much patience. There's some precedence for a committee. And if Buck's closer isn't shutting down the opposition, he's not long for the job. Byung-Hyun Kim, a feather-baller, received his first save opps under Showalter's 2000 Arizona Diamondbacks. Soft tosser Akinori Otsuka closed effectively in Buck's final year with the Texas Rangers. The O's soon-to-be 36-year-old Asian bullpen resident isn't devoid of experience, either; he saved 32 contests, with a 1.74 ERA, for the Yomiuri Giants in 2007. Even with some correction - assuming he stays off the DL - Uehara should outperform Gregg in ERA and WHIP, making him a better roto buy. Or maybe Buck correlates his use of Far East relievers in the ninth with exit interviews. Stay tuned.

Gonzalez, perhaps unfortunately considering that he appears to be in good health and was outstanding (2.78 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 11.12 K/9) after he returned from the disabled list in July, isn't a legit horse in this race. One way or another, though - as long as he remains healthy - the only southpaw in this 'pen may see a few chances.

Job security score: TBD

Health score: TBD

Chicago White Sox

Closer: TBD

Understudy: Matt Thornton, Chris Sale

Lurkers: Sergio Santos, Jesse Crain

It's unusual when the two front-runners for a top bullpen job are both southpaws. Let's dismiss the right-handers. Santos is undeniably talented, but he has been a pitcher for only two years and has control rate problems. Crain was effective for the Minnesota Twins last year because he slowed down his delivery, but he's an inconsistent fly-ball pitcher moving to the Cell.

Brave duo, Buc booty, J-Brox, etc.:

NL Hot Seat | Depth charts

Thornton brings a huge experience edge. For three straight seasons, he has been remarkable. Ozzie Guillen called a bullpen with Thornton at the back end "a great scenario." Plenty works in the 34-year-old pitcher's favor. Sale, 22 by opening day, has all of 33 2/3 professional stanzas (21 1/3 in The Show) under his belt. He can fan them with the best and coaxes ground-ball outs, but he gives up first base and hasn't seen the best MLB has to offer yet.

Each of these pitchers wants his role defined, and he wants it to be as closer, Guillen willing. The beautiful roto thing about Thornton is that he always earns money, so you can feel doubly confident in dumping your dollars there. Sale might be worth a deep mixed flier.

Job security score: TBD

Health score: TBD

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Closer: Fernando Rodney

Understudy: Scott Downs, Kevin Jepsen

Lurkers: Jordan Walden, Hisanori Takahashi

Mike Scioscia expects to lean on Rodney late, but he's not the definitive closer. The skipper isn't loyal to Rodney like he was to Troy Percival, Francisco Rodriguez and even Brian Fuentes, as the LA Times noted. He finds his "power arms" - Jepsen, Walden and even Michael Kohn - intriguing, and he seems confident in his imported lefties, Downs and Takahashi.

After the Halos traded Fuentes to the Minnesota Twins last year, Rodney blew four opportunities and sported a 5.65 ERA. Historically, the righty has performed much better in the ninth inning than he has in any other. If that continues, it'd probably be enough to endear him to Scioscia, who notes that Rodney was lights-out in the first half, for the majority of the campaign.

It's no secret that Rodney's hold on the job isn't strong, but he's going to leave Arizona with it. There's no shortage of opinions about who the next best man for the job would be, however. Downs is easily the better southpaw sniper, and Jepsen has the experience edge among the youthful righties.

Job security score: 3

Health score: 4

Minnesota Twins

Closer: TBD

Understudy: Joe Nathan, Matt Capps

Nathan has been a little ahead of schedule in his recovery from TJS nearly one year ago. The Twins are playing this one close to the vest, nonetheless. They'd love to see their former backend staple warrant their confidence, but the club isn't in denial about the command problems pitchers usually experience in this position. Minnesota can afford to be cautious because of their justifiable confidence in Capps.

Problems with location lead to, in addition to walks, more hittable offerings, so it'll be no shock to see Nathan struggle in the season's first month or two, perhaps even longer. If he reclaims his job, he won't pitch on back-to-back days initially; the Twinkies are going to ask Capps to clean up, at least occasionally. The 36-year-old may not in fact leave spring training with the coveted job title. But, he should regain it, if he doesn't, and as long as he doesn't push himself too hard. He could shape up as a bargain by the time 2011 concludes.

Job security score: TBD

Health score: TBD

Seattle Mariners

Closer: TBD

Understudy: Brandon League

Lurkers: Chris Ray, Daniel Cortes, Manny Delcarmen, Josh Lueke

Disabled list: David Aardsma

The M's will go for at least the first few weeks of the season without Aardsma (hip). League appears to be the default fill-in, although the staff will stage a competition. The former Toronto Blue Jays prospect was adequate down the stretch while the club's main man was sidelined and prompts grounders more than 60 percent of the time. He's a more suitable setup man, but Eric Wedge seems to prefer the safe route in the short term.

Ray is a bit of a wild card, considering that he finally considers himself completely recovered from his recent string of injuries, notably the one that required Tommy John surgery. He has recovered his velocity, has added a breaking ball and has closing experience. AL managers in search of a lotto ticket could do worse.

Cortes might be the most intriguing choice. He's unlikely to impress Seattle enough to claim the backend role, but since converting from starting pitcher last year, his moderate heat has evolved into high-90s smoke. He has plenty of work to do on his command, but that didn't stop the M's from placing Aardsma in this role two years ago. Cortes has the makeup and the weapons.

It's Aardsma's job once he returns, but further delays wouldn't be a surprise. And the right-hander is trade bait, once he demonstrates that he's healthy. There's more than one way that the Mariners could have a vacancy in the bullpen's top spot again later this year. League is the odds-on favorite for many bidders, but the smart money is on Ray or the potential closer of the future, Cortes.

Job security score: TBD

Health score: TBD

Tampa Bay Rays

Closer: Committee

Understudy: Kyle Farnsworth

Lurkers: Jake McGee, Joel Peralta

Disabled list: J.P. Howell

Farnsworth is the leader in the clubhouse, but the Rays haven't even teed off, and his resume isn't top-flight. Last season, with the Kansas City Royals, however, he dialed down the intensity and learned to command a developing cut fastball, expanding on his starter's arsenal. And he can still bring the heat. The 34-year-old was outstanding in the first half (2.43 ERA, 1.14 WHIP), but he had trouble stranding runners as 2010 wound down and ended up with so-so post-break marks.

McGee had TJS in 2008 and became a reliever at the end of his comeback trail-slash-path to the majors. He pieced together a nifty 9.00 K/BB in 17 1/3 innings, mostly as a reliever, for Triple-A Durham before his five-frame debut. The left-hander was reeling in a high BB/9 after rehab, but it's not a dead issue. His fastball-slider combo will be deadly in relief, though.

Peralta had a breakthrough with the Washington Nationals last year, but he lacks the track record and would probably participate only if the arrangement became a true committee. Adam Russell and Juan Cruz? The same, at best. The Rays can't rely on Howell (shoulder) until he's on a mound.

Texas Rangers RP Neftali Feliz
Feliz happy to join rotation?

The organization hasn't ruled out McGee's return to the rotation, but given his injury history and promise as a reliever as well as the club's lack of long-term options, he's not going anywhere. Still, the Rays have always eased in their top youths, so closer isn't his likely OD title. Farnsie has contract incentives for games finished (not saves, but still interesting) and a little experience (in 2005 and 2006). Does he have the demeanor? Not really, but he's the best Tampa has to offer. The rest are fliers in AL leagues, save McGee, who's unlikely to pay off any time soon.

Job security score: 1

Health score: 5

Texas Rangers

Closer: Neftali Feliz

Understudy: Alexi Ogando

Lurkers: Tanner Scheppers, Darren O'Day, Mark Lowe

Will Feliz move into the rotation? It seems unlikely, but most folks seem to consider it so unlikely that they don't think twice in rating this prized arm as one of fantasy's best closers. Texas has gone back and forth about the 22-year-old's future for a long time. Would Jon Daniels continue to revisit this question if it's not something his club wanted to see? It'll be hard to put him back in the bullpen if he wows them as a starter in camp. [More on this situation]

Most assume that one of a few candidates to succeed Feliz must prove that he's worthy. Perhaps, but even if the Rangers feel forced to return their stud to relief pitching, other scenarios in which Feliz could make the transition later this year remain in play. Just as much depends on the health of Brandon Webb and the legitimacy that any number of borderline major league talents - plus Derek Holland - has as the fifth starter.

Ogando has limited major league experience but also the most viable combination of goods to step forward immediately, should Feliz graduate. Does he have long-term viability? Scheppers, who's attempting to win a spot on the 25-man but probably won't if Feliz remains closer, is more exciting. The righty has also been shuffled between the rotation and the bullpen and is ticketed to start for Triple-A Oklahoma City if he misses the cut.

Either hopeful deserves deep league consideration because of his proximity to roto value. Long-range thinking: The best arrangement for Texas has Feliz heading the starting five and Scheppers nailing doors shut.

Job security score: 5

Health score: 5

Toronto Blue Jays

Closer: TBD

Understudy: Frank Francisco

Lurkers: Octavio Dotel, Jon Rauch

The Jays signed Dotel and Rauch as free agents and expected them, along with Jason Frasor, to compete for the closer's job. Then a window for Francisco, a player the club had coveted before, opened for the low, low cost (that's a bit of sarcasm) of slugger Mike Napoli.

However you slice it, Frank Frank is the leading candidate in Toronto's competition for saves. New manager John Farrell seems intent on having a go-to guy, but there's not much to go on. He nary encountered such an issue with the Boston Red Sox in recent years, and the club never waned in its support of Jonathan Papelbon, even when waters were a bit choppy.

Roto managers should feel unsafe in pursuit of Francisco, who lost his job right out of the gate with the Texas Rangers last season and has endured some health problems. But Dotel's days of dependability (if you can call them that) are fading, and Rauch isn't capable in the long term. Frasor was quietly quite strong after the break and is back in form, but unfortunately the club's mention of his candidacy is probably just lip service.

If Francisco's stock picks up momentum, there's a chance he'll be overvalued, but he's easily the best bet.

Job security score: TBD

Health score: TBD

Mound meetings

  • Hesitant to take Jonathan Papelbon because you fear a midseason trade or a demotion? The Boston Red Sox signed Bobby Jenks and already house heir apparent Daniel Bard, which doesn't quell the anxiety. Pap's numbers have slipped, too - but he remains a quality reliever.
    The BoSox have restocked this club for a serious run at the postseason, where they should be headed. There's a good chance they won't find offers suitable enough to peddle their most reliable reliever in the middle of a pennant race, especially when they considered the bullpen their greatest area of need this winter. Papelbon will walk, but he's a good 2011 buy.

  • Jim Leyland on Jose Valverde: "He will never get to 60 pitches again, I promise." A July 30 outing of such magnitude is a suspected culprit in Papa Grande's August and September derailment that culminated in elbow tendonitis. He suffered no structural damage and enters 2011 healthy.
    The distant possibility that the Detroit Tigers will put Valverde on the block and a sketchy medical history, not his performance, are reasons to be a little wary. The club signed aging-but-capable Joaquin Benoit and has Ryan Perry and Daniel Schlereth perhaps champing at the bit.

  • Everything appears to be back to normal for Andrew Bailey. He reports no problems with his cleaned-out elbow, he dropped some weight and is the Oakland Athletics' unquestioned closer. The A's brought in experienced lefty killer Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour to aid some solid arms in bridging the gap, too. Bailey should prove to be a modest bargain.

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Fantasy Baseball Closer Hot Seat | AL depth charts | NL depth charts

About Nicholas Minnix

Minnix is baseball editor and a fantasy football analyst at KFFL. He plays in LABR and Tout Wars and won the FSWA Baseball Industry Insiders League in 2010.

The University of Delaware alum is a regular guest on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio and Baltimore's WNST AM 1570.


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