Fantasy Baseball: Closer Hot Seat - AL

by Tim Heaney on March 14, 2008 @ 11:17:44 PDT

 


Welcome to the second season of Closer Hot Seat, KFFL's continued venture into the pressurized cortex that makes up the ninth-inning relief pitcher. This 2008 opening installment focuses on each major league situation, but the in-season versions will detail only the jobs that appear to be in jeopardy.

For each team, KFFL provides the important relievers for every bullpen situation: The current closer, the "Next in Line" and "Other Possibilities" to steal the job. This report also grades the health and the job security each closer holds. The durability meter is based on time spent on the disabled list over the last three seasons. The job security grade details how strong the current closer has a hold on keeping the job as the season starts.

Grading Key

Durability Grade: 1 (very injury-prone) to 10 (extremely durable)

Job Security Grade: 1 (very shaky) to 10 (firm grasp)

American League East

Baltimore Orioles

Closer: George Sherrill

Year
IP
W
SV
ERA
WHIP
K
2007
45.2
2
3
2.36
0.99
56
2008
51
3
26
3.35
1.19
61

Next in Line: Greg Aquino, Jamie Walker

Other Possibilities: Dennis Sarfate

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Analysis: Sherrill was a vital piece of the trade that sent starter Erik Bedard out west, and manager Dave Trembley has indicated the southpaw reliever has the inside track for the job. Sherrill presents the best strikeout option in a bullpen that will be without Chris Ray (elbow), who is expected to miss at least the majority of the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Recent reports have had Ray working his way back to the mound in August. Until then, Sherrill makes for the best option; he slashed his walk total from 27 to 17 over the last two seasons, and his strikeout count jumped from 42 to 56. The 37-year-old Walker was part of the fray to replace both Ray and fellow reliever Danys Baez (elbow), who is expected to miss the coming season. It appears as though Walker will be nothing more than a mentor for the younger players on the team, however. Aquino and Sarfate are expected to duke it out with a host of others to fill out the remaining relief roles. The Orioles have reportedly expressed concerns that they overused Walker last year, and the elder southpaw certainly has less upside.

Fantasy Tip: Sherrill seems to be the best choice for the job until Ray is ready to go, and a healthy return of Ray doesn't guarantee Sherrill would lose the job, but the former Mariner should only be considered as a No. 3 option on draft day.

Durability Grade: 7

Job Security Grade: 4

Boston Red Sox

Closer: Jonathan Papelbon

Year
IP
W
SV
ERA
WHIP
K
2007
58.1
1
37
1.85
0.77
84
2008
57
4
36
1.33
0.77
72

Next in Line: Manny Delcarmen

Other Possibilities: Hideki Okajima, Mike Timlin

Analysis: At this time last year, the Sox were scrambling to replace Papelbon in preparation for his anticipated move to the rotation. Now, they're glad he forced them to move him back to the closer spot, and the Red Sox now have arguably the best closer in the majors. His miniscule WHIP and impressive 1.85 ERA in 2007 indicate his level of talent. However, reports out of the Boston media have said that Delcarmen could get some chances to close games as the team looks to save Papelbon's arm. Delcarmen has a powerful fastball and a much improved curveball; the 26-year-old finally lived up to the billing with a strong season (2.05 ERA and 41 K's in 44 innings pitched). Okajima is working to avoid a sophomore slump. There are certainly fantasy fears that hitters will eventually catch up to the deceptive Japanese southpaw, but he has reportedly added a two-seam fastball to his repertoire.

Fantasy Tip: You shouldn't worry too much about Delcarmen swiping a few saves from the top dog. Papelbon is still arguably the best stopper out there, and his slightly lighter schedule shouldn't prevent you from making him your No. 1 closer.

Durability Grade: 8

Job Security Grade: 10

New York Yankees

Closer: Mariano Rivera

Year
IP
W
SV
ERA
WHIP
K
2007
71.1
3
30
3.15
1.12
74
2008
73
5
29
3.30
1.16
66

Next in Line: Joba Chamberlain

Other Possibilities: LaTroy Hawkins, Kyle Farnsworth

Analysis: Rivera's down year raised some red flags. However, the Yanks hardly gave him his standard amount of save opportunities, and the organization expressed its loyalty in bringing him back with a three-year, $45 million deal. When given the opportunity to close, he wasn't exactly useless. He recorded 74 strikeouts compared to 12 walks, so there's still a hint of his dominance there. However, Yankees brass is planning to start Chamberlain in the bullpen this season in order to keep him under a 140-inning limit until he eventually enters the rotation. Chamberlain captivated fantasy owners last year with a stunning 0.38 ERA and 34 strikeouts in 24 innings; it's hard to argue that Chamberlain isn't the best option in the Yanks bullpen outside of Rivera. It would be a surprise if Chamberlain didn't inherit a few save opportunities to give the aging Rivera some time off.

Fantasy Tip: Only the direst circumstances would prompt the Yanks to remove Rivera from the permanent closer spot, but Chamberlain's presence certainly gives the Yankees a fallback plan. Rivera should still be considered a low-end No. 1 and a fantastic No. 2 option.

Durability Grade: 7

Job Security Grade: 10

Tampa Bay Rays

Closer: Troy Percival

Year
IP
W
SV
ERA
WHIP
K
2007
40
3
0
1.80
0.85
36
2008
66
3
29
3.05
1.34
37

Next in Line: Al Reyes

Other Possibilities: Dan Wheeler

Analysis: Percival returned from the fantasy depths last year to post respectable numbers for the St. Louis Cardinals. The Rays decided to cash in on his success and slide Reyes over to a setup role. His resurgence doesn't hide the fact that he will turn 39 years old during the season and that he didn't pitch in 2006. This is a high-tension situation for fantasy owners because of the uncertainty of how long his effectiveness will last. Reyes also presents another issue for Percival's stock; despite his high 4.90 ERA, he was able to save 26 games and strike out 70 batters in 60 2/3 innings.

Fantasy Tip: This should be a situation fantasy owners avoid until the very last chance to pick a closer. Percival, at best, should be a No. 3 closer, and Reyes could actually be taken in the last few rounds of a draft as a backup plan.

Durability Grade: 5

Job Security Grade: 5

Toronto Blue Jays

Closer: B.J. Ryan

Year
IP
W
SV
ERA
WHIP
K
2007
4.1
0
3
12.46
2.54
3
2008
61
3
31
3.09
1.17
63

Next in Line: Jeremy Accardo

Other Possibilities: Casey Janssen, Scott Downs

Analysis: Ryan (elbow) is expected to be ready for the start of the regular season despite missing most of last year after undergoing Tommy John surgery. He was only able to notch three saves in five appearances last year, and he was dreadful in doing so. Ryan was one of the better strikeout closers in his two full seasons in the position, and in his last three full seasons he has averaged 102.67 strikeouts per campaign. Accardo became a waiver wire darling when he slid into the role and recorded 30 saves in 35 opportunities in '07. The right-hander was even more dominant after the All-Star break, recording a 1.41 ERA and a .200 batting average against in 32 innings pitched. The team may open the year with Accardo at the back of the bullpen to allow Ryan to work his way back into things. They have also indicated Ryan will not pitch in back-to-back games early in the season.

Fantasy Tip: Having Ryan as your top closer is certainly a risky move. Normal recovery from Tommy John surgery usually lasts 12-16 months, but he will be coming back in less than a completed calendar. He's a middle-tier No. 2, at best. Accardo should also be snatched up as insurance if you have room in the later rounds.

Durability Grade: 5

Job Security Grade: 6

American League Central

Chicago White Sox

Closer: Bobby Jenks

Year
IP
W
SV
ERA
WHIP
K
2007
65
3
40
2.77
0.89
56
2008
70
3
41
3.26
1.19
79

Next in Line: Octavio Dotel

Other Possibilities: Scott Linebrink

Analysis: Jenks was able to close the door with at least 40 saves for the second straight season despite the Sox's down year. His control drastically improved in '07; he walked only 13 batters in 65 innings, compared to 31 in 69 2/3 innings the prior campaign, but his strikeouts suffered a similar decline - from 80 in '06 to 56 last year. He has quickly and quietly emerged as one of the most stable closers in the league, and this is becoming one of the safest jobs around. Dotel, however, could pick up the slack if Jenks falters; he had 11 saves in June and July with the Kansas City Royals before a deadline deal to the Atlanta Braves moved him into a setup role. The Sox locked him up to a two-year, $11 million contract, so they'll plan to use him in some key situations, though the fact that he hasn't pitched a full season since 2003 makes him a shaky secondary option. Linebrink is merely on the outside here; his mediocre stuff makes him best suited for seventh-inning work.

Fantasy Tip: Jenks can now be safely labeled as a top-10 closer in mixed leagues.

Durability Grade: 8

Job Security Grade: 10

Cleveland Indians

Closer: Joe Borowski

Year
IP
W
SV
ERA
WHIP
K
2007
65.2
4
45
5.07
1.43
58
2008
60
2
39
4.00
1.21
44

Next in Line: Rafael Betancourt

Other Possibilities: Masahide Kobayashi

Analysis: Borowski survived an ugly statistical year to grab 45 saves on a superb Indians squad. The team exercised its option on Borowski for this season, so they're expecting him to carry the load again. One huge caution to Borowski's stock rests in that opponents hit .289 against him - he's a contact pitcher who escaped many jams in order to log those saves. Borowski is on another one-year option in Cleveland, so the 36-year-old could be the lame duck in this situation. Betancourt has been the fantasy version of Tantalus: He's a dominant reliever in the most unflattering situation. The soon-to-be 33-year-old is widely considered one of the elite non-closer relievers, and his dominance has fantasy owners snatching him up in the later rounds for his powerful strikeout capabilities. Kobayashi could be a great back-end option if hitters are as dumbfounded by the newcomer as they were with Boston's Okajima last season. The 33-year-old saved at least 20 games in each of his last six years in Japan.

Fantasy Tip: Although Betancourt is certainly one of the bigger closer sleepers, Borowski isn't necessarily in overt danger of losing his job. There's always the possibility of a mid-season trade or a cry for Betancourt's dominance to move to the last inning. Borowski is a low-end No. 1 option but remains more suitable as a No. 2, and you should keep Betancourt on your draft radar because a switch at the back end would make him a steal.

Durability Grade: 7

Job Security Grade: 7

Detroit Tigers

Closer: Todd Jones

Year
IP
W
SV
ERA
WHIP
K
2007
61.1
1
38
4.26
1.42
33
2008
53
4
37
4.46
1.33
43

Next in Line: Fernando Rodney

Other Possibilities: Zach Miner

Analysis: Like Borowski, Jones continued his reputation as a contact pitcher by striking out just 61 batters in more than 125 innings over the last two seasons combined. Jones makes fantasy owners nervous while often trying to work out of ninth-inning jams. Rodney (shoulder) has been struggling with shoulder problems and is unlikely to start the season on time. When he does come back, he will be elevated once again to the setup role as reliever and Guitar Hero enthusiast Joel Zumaya (shoulder) once again incurred a freak injury in the offseason. Zumaya can't be relied on for 2008, so Rodney should have a chance to step up into the setup spot once again. His ERA has steadily climbed over the last three seasons from 2.86 to 3.52 to 4.26, which is a concern, but he does bring the heat. Miner has reportedly improved his sinkerball in camp and has attracted attention from manager Jim Leyland.

Fantasy Tip: Jones should be looked at as nothing more than a low-end No. 2 closer option. Rodney has the raw talent but needs to harness his control to have a better shot at unseating Jones.

Durability Grade: 7

Job Security Grade: 6

Kansas City Royals

Closer: Joakim Soria

Year
IP
W
SV
ERA
WHIP
K
2007
69
2
17
2.48
0.94
75
2008
46
3
28
2.42
0.98
59

Next in Line: Yasuhiko Yabuta

Other Possibilities: Ron Mahay

Analysis: The Rule 5 draftee finished on a high note after suffering three blown saves in May alone while subbing for the injured Dotel. The Royals trusted Soria to take the job after trading Dotel at the deadline, and he converted seven of eight save opportunities in the final two months. Soria matured throughout the season in commanding the strike zone, evidenced by his 1.59 ERA in September. The right-handed Yabuta crosses the Pacific Ocean after posting WHIPs of 0.99, 1.25 and 1.18 over 173 1/3 innings in the last three seasons. Yabuta might not have the overpowering stuff to challenge Soria since his strikeouts per nine innings ratio has dropped from 8.73 to 7.85 to 6.46 in those three seasons. The veteran Mahay saved one game last season with the Texas Rangers and has seen his batting average against drop in each of the last two seasons, though he is more of a left-handed specialist at this point.

Fantasy Tip: Soria's above-average stuff makes him an upside pick, but he should only be considered as a No. 2 closer. Yabuta presents intrigue with his major league debut, but the Royals will likely go with Soria all year barring injury or a complete meltdown.

Durability Grade: 7

Job Security Grade: 8

Minnesota Twins

Closer: Joe Nathan

Year
IP
W
SV
ERA
WHIP
K
2007
71.2
4
37
1.88
1.02
77
2008
68
4
39
2.57
1.00
85

Next in Line: Pat Neshek

Other Possibilities: Matt Guerrier

Analysis: Still one of the automatic closers, Nathan had a bit of a down year by his standards in 2007, and that had some fantasy owners a little worried this offseason. His strikeout totals fell from 95 in 2007 to 77 last year despite pitching in three more innings, though he still fanned more than one per inning. The 33-year-old also allowed 54 hits, the highest total during his years as a closer, but it only translated into a .209 average by opposing hitters. Nathan looked more like his usual self in the second half, posting a 1.57 ERA and earning 21 saves to quell any concerns for the coming year. Neshek is still one of the better picks among setup men, but he was feeling shoulder weakness in September and was shut down with a week left in the season. Neshek could slide into the role if the Twins deal Nathan during the season, which would make him a potential steal.

Fantasy Tip: Don't let some minor slippage dissuade you from investing an early pick on Nathan to anchor your fantasy bullpen. He's posted sub-2.00 ERAs in three of the last four years and saved at least 36 saves. He's elite. As for Neshek, he stands to gain a lot if Nathan is traded, so he might be a nice grab and stash option late in drafts.

Durability Grade: 10

Job Security Grade: 10

American League West

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Closer: Francisco Rodriguez

Year
IP
W
SV
ERA
WHIP
K
2007
67.1
5
40
2.81
1.25
90
2008
71
4
41
3.19
1.42
81

Next in Line: Scot Shields

Other Possibilities: Justin Speier

Analysis: Concerns about K-Rod's spike in walks and slight dropoff in strikeouts this past season have led to some speculation that he could be tiring at age 26. His awkward delivery certainly justifies these concerns to some degree, and opposing batters had their highest average against him in '07 (.204). The doubters need to remember that his 28 walks in 2007 were a career low, and he has walked at least 32 batters in his other three full seasons as a closer. He is still young enough that he can execute his violent throwing motion in short spurts and still potentially hit 40 saves for the fourth consecutive season. For those that care, Shields had his role challenged by Speier last season after a stretch in which he allowed 13 earned runs in 7 1/3 innings. Of course, earlier in the season he had a scoreless streak of 24 2/3 innings.

Fantasy Tip: Rodriguez should still be one of the top five closers taken despite the concerns, and he has the added incentive of being a free agent after the season. With owners doubting his health and effectiveness, you might even be able to snatch him up a bit later on in drafts this year.

Durability Grade: 8

Job Security Grade: 10

Oakland Athletics

Closer: Huston Street

Year
IP
W
SV
ERA
WHIP
K
2007
50
5
16
2.88
0.94
63
2008
64
4
26
2.83
1.05
66

Next in Line: Alan Embree

Other Possibilities: Kiko Calero, Joey Devine

Analysis: After missing six weeks last season due to inflammation in his right ulnar nerve, Street came back in late July to put in a mildly productive season. Rumors were floating that the A's would trade Street this past offseason, but they put those aside by re-signing him in January. Embree filled in well for Street last year, compiling 17 saves throughout the season and even earning split duties with Street near the end of the season. With Justin Duchscherer moving to the rotation this year, Calero and Devine could see some more time, but neither presents an overly attractive fantasy eighth-inning option at the moment. Plus, Calero is coming back from a rotator cuff injury and might not be ready for opening day.

Fantasy Tip: Street should be viewed as a low-end No. 1 option given last season's injury. Embree proved he could at least fill in during emergencies last season, so keep him on your free-agent watch list.

Durability Grade: 8

Job Security Grade: 9

Seattle Mariners

Closer: J.J. Putz

Year
IP
W
SV
ERA
WHIP
K
2007
71.2
6
40
1.38
0.70
82
2008
72
5
37
1.90
0.82
91

Next in Line: Brandon Morrow

Other Possibilities: Sean Green

Analysis: Putz's microscopic ratios over the past two seasons have made him arguably the most outstanding fantasy closer. With the arrival of starter Erik Bedard, Putz has another reliable hurler to give him save opportunities. Putz allowed just 4.65 hits per nine innings and a .153 batting average against. Not even the loss of southpaw George Sherrill, the team's 2007 leader with 22 holds, should derail his fantasy stock. Morrow made tweaks in his delivery last season to combat his abnormal walk rate; he reportedly threw more strikes in Venezuelan winter ball. He is the leading candidate for the main setup spot after being a candidate for the No. 5 starter.

Fantasy Tip: Putz is in one of the most stable spots in the majors. He's not going anywhere, and he shouldn't go any lower than the top three or four closers in fantasy drafts.

Durability Grade: 10

Job Security Grade: 10

Texas Rangers

Closer: C.J. Wilson

Year
IP
W
SV
ERA
WHIP
K
2007
68.1
2
12
3.03
1.21
63
2008
64
3
25
2.83
1.06
54

Next in Line: Joaquin Benoit

Other Possibilities: Eddie Guardado, Kazuo Fukumori

Analysis: After the departure of Eric Gagne last year, Wilson took the reins as the top closing option in Arlington. He didn't lose grip on the role, allowing just 50 hits in 68 1/3 innings pitched for the season. He blew just one save after taking over the job. The loss of pitcher Akinori Otsuka (forearm), whom the team did not tender a contract to because of his injury, made Wilson the go-to guy for the coming season. He has been sidelined with tendonitis in his right bicep this spring, but it is not believed to be serious. He remains the likely closer to open the season. Guardado was brought in mainly to be in Wilson's shadow as he develops into the spot. Benoit could provide some minor competition for the southpaw, though he too has been during spring training with weakness in his arm. He received a chance to close in September and saved just four of seven opportunities.

Fantasy Tip: Wilson is far from a lock to hold this position, so he shouldn't be taken as anything more than a No. 3 fantasy option. Were his injury to linger on into the season, Benoit or Guardado could be in line for some save chances, which could give them some short-term value.

Durability Grade: 6

Job Security Grade: 5

 

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About Tim Heaney

Tim's work has been featured by USA Today/Sports Weekly, among numerous outlets, and recognized as a finalist in the Fantasy Sports Writers Association awards. The Boston University alum, who competes in LABR and Tout Wars, has won numerous industry leagues in both baseball and football.

During baseball and football season, he appears on Sirius XM Fantasy Sports Radio on Thursdays and Sundays, and every Wednesday on 1570 AM WNST in Baltimore.


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