The 2009 free-agent market for closers thinned out after the New York Mets' signing of right-hander Francisco Rodriguez (Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim) and acquisition of reliever J.J. Putz (Seattle Mariners). The Angels lost their record-setting stopper, but despite their existing stable of promising closer-type setup men the Halos inked lefty Brian Fuentes (Colorado Rockies) to a two-year deal.
Since the Angels went to an external option, relievers Jose Arredondo and Scot Shields - formerly candidates to close - are expected to start 2009 in setup roles. Though Fuentes was in and out of the job with the Rox, Angels general manager Tony Reagins told reporters that considering Fuentes the closer is a "safe assumption."
Will Fuentes be a sure bet to keep the job, or will one of the other qualified applicants be there to pick up any slack?
Fuentes bounces back
Fuentes went into the 2008 season as the setup man to righty Manny Corpas after Corpas took the southpaw's job the previous season. Corpas' tenure didn't even last one month, and Rockies manager Clint Hurdle hooked him en route to naming Fuentes the closer.
The latter didn't give up his hold on the role on his way to 30 saves. In the final 51 2/3 innings of the season after being dubbed the ninth-inning option, the lefty registered a 2.79 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP. He has now saved at least 30 contests in three of the last four seasons, the only aberration being his 20-save, All-Star first half in 2007 before melting down and yielding to Corpas. He was able to bounce back from his midseason meltdown in 2007 and went on to finish with a 1.52 ERA in 23 2/3 second-half innings; his appearances were limited by a strained lat that forced him to the DL.
Table: Brian Fuentes' major league statistics, 2005-2008
A promising development in 2008 was his recovery in the strikeouts column. With 82 K's, he posted an electric average of 11.8 per nine innings. That stat was also his highest in a single season as a closer, and it was the third time in the last four seasons that he had a double-digit average in that department.
Not ironically, those seasons corresponded with his 30-save performances. Much of Fuentes' numbers playing for a far less equipped team nearly matched those of K-Rod's 2008 line in non-save categories (K-Rod in 2008: 2.24 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 10.1 K/9), so the drop-off might not be as drastic as many fantasy owners and Angels fans think.
Fuentes' sidearm delivery has worked in his favor, posting a career opponents' batting average of .215 against left-handed hitters and a .225 clip against righties. He was near spotless with a .184 average against lefties last year.
Southpaw closers are always risky because the majority of major league hitters step in from the right side, giving the batter the presumptive advantage. However, Fuentes has neutralized these odds. Righties hit just .211 against Fuentes last year, .207 in 2007 and .217 in 2006 after a rough .236 in 2005, his first year as a closer.
After allowing 20 home runs over his previous three campaigns, Fuentes surrendered just three dingers throughout 2008 - a promising development for someone whose former team plays half their games at Coors Field. He suffered at home last year with a 3.51 ERA compared to a sparkling 1.84 ERA on the road. Angel Stadium leans toward pitchers on average, so this might be less of a problem.
Rodriguez set the major league record with 62 saves in 2008, earning a free-agency paycheck the Angels refused to offer. On the back of a strong setup crew which featured Shields and Arredondo, the Angels led the majors in save chances last season (89). With K-Rod at the helm, they finished in the top five in save percentage in each of the last four years.
Crack in Shields?
Shields has been one of the biggest reasons for that success. After a down year in 2007 (3.86 ERA included) Shields bounced back with a 2.70 ERA. He started off with 32 scoreless appearances in his first 41 games after battling forearm and ribcage injuries.
With his injuries and Arredondo's presence as a rubber-armed reliever, Shields registered his fewest innings (63 1/3) in his last five seasons in the bullpen. In fact, his appearances and innings have declined in each of the last three seasons, but only once did he register an ERA on the wrong side of 3.00.
The stalwart will turn 34 years old in 2009, but despite the recent statistical downturn, he still has fantasy value even if he doesn't have consistent save opportunities.
A live arm
Much like K-Rod before him, Arredondo was showing signs that he could inherit the ninth-inning job after a productive setup stint. Last year he recorded a stellar 1.62 ERA, a 1.05 ERA and .190 opponents' batting average.
The former starter served as a valuable vulture for wins with a 10-2 record but struggled a bit to curb problems with walks. He allowed 3.2 free passes per nine innings last year, matching his career average in the minor leagues, which includes his time in the rotation and the bullpen.
His background as a starter seems to be helping his endurance. Arredondo, who turns 25 in March, recorded more than three outs in 20 of his 52 games last year while notching two frames on 10 occasions.
This helps lower his ratios and earn more chances for strikeouts. He approached his minor league average of 9.1 K's per nine innings by posting 8.1 in 2008.
Fantasy baseball outlook
With Reagins' assertion in mind, grade Fuentes as a high-end No. 2 closer, but he shouldn't be your top fantasy option despite his favorable setup crew. Don't be surprised if the duo of closers in waiting leeches saves during the season.
Arredondo and Shields should both be drafted in the late rounds of deep mixed leagues due to their aforementioned blood-sucking opportunities and solid strikeout totals. They'll also give you numerous opportunities to accumulate holds if that's a category in your league.
Despite the fact Angels brass has dubbed Fuentes the closer for now, that could change, and having one of these reliable setup artists on your squad would give you a bonus closer if a change were to be made.
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 the prestigious LABR and Tout Wars, has won numerous industry leagues in both baseball and football.
He appears frequently, including every Sunday, on Sirius XM Fantasy Sports Radio, as well as every Wednesday on 1570 AM WNST in Baltimore.
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