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Mound Musings: Closers in Waiting

David Regan

David Regan

David Regan is a five-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner, and was named the 2010 Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year.

Mining for saves isn't always an exact science. Sure it helps to know who the top couple set-up men are should the incumbent struggle, but every year pitchers come out of nowhere to shoot to fantasy relevance. This year, John Axford (5.2 BB/9 in Triple-A a year ago), Alfredo Simon (7.45 big league ERA prior to 2010) and now Aaron Heilman have been among the most-added fantasy players as owners continue to chase saves. So who are some others to watch? Here are 30 some obvious and some relatively obscure.

NL WEST

Carlos Rosa, ARI
There really isn't an obvious option on the Arizona roster for next year's closer, much less this year's, with the bullpen sporting a historically bad 7.25 ERA. Aaron Heilman and his 2.83 ERA will get the next crack at the role, but there's really not a lot to suggest he's the long-term answer. Rosa could be that guy. Kansas City apparently wasn't enamored with a 24-year-old who hits the mid-90s with his fastball and who just posted a 10.1 K/9 in Triple-A, so they dealt him to the D-backs in May. The big issue with Rosa is his command, as he's posted a 5.2 BB/9 at both Triple-A and Arizona this year, but if things click and he finds a consistent release point, his stuff is closer-worthy. With Arizona going nowhere this year, it's easy to see him getting a chance to close games later this year.

Matt Belisle, COL
Huston Street (shoulder) could be back this weekend, thus pushing Manny Corpas to a setup role. Street is signed through 2012, so he'll close barring an injury or meltdown. If that happens, though, Belisle could get a shot. Belisle has stumbled a bit lately but still has an impressive 44:10 K:BB in 39 innings.

Ronald Belisario, LAD
Perhaps the Dodgers' next owner will keep Jonathan Broxton around after his contract expires next year, but he's looking at a big payday come 2012. The Dodgers don't have an obvious in-house replacement, but for this year it would probably be a Hong-Chih Kuo/Belisario jobshare. Longer term, who knows ...

Luke Gregerson, SD
Heath Bell looks likely to stick around this year with the Padres being surprisingly competitive, but next year might be a different story given Bell's escalating salary. Gregerson and Mike Adams are the obvious two options. Gregerson's numbers are mind-boggling: 1.57 ERA and even better, a 41:2 K:BB and 10.8 K/9. Adams 2.37 ERA, 35:10 K:BB in 30.1 innings. Gregerson is nearly six years younger than Adams, so he's probably the better bet going forward.

Dan Runzler, SF
Not that Brian Wilson is going anywhere, but Runzler did have a 0.76 ERA and 12.7 K/9 in 59 innings in the minors last year. This year hasn't gone so well in San Francisco (6.5 BB/9), but Runzler has already showed his potential. Sergio Romo is next in line to close this year, but Runzler has the stuff to push for eighth-inning duties in 2011.

NL CENTRAL

Andrew Cashner, CHC
Carlos Marmol has been both lights out (1.86 ERA, 16.8 K/9) and incredibly stressful to watch (5.6 BB/9). Should Lou Piniella tire of all the walks, maybe Cashner gets a shot. It's unlikely, and the Cubs may still prefer him as a starter long term, but Cashner is a former No. 1 pick and has yet to allow a run in six innings this year for the Cubs. Still, my sense is Marmol holds onto the job for awhile. Another long shot would be 2010 surprise first-round pick Hayden Simpson. Some scouts think the 6-foot fireballer profiles better as a reliever, though it's likely the Cubs will slot him as a starter to begin his pro career. Still, he's a college draftee, so the Cubs could move him very quickly should they decide the bullpen is his future home.

Nick Masset, CIN
He's struggling again, but don't completely ignore his 11.9 K/9. Regardless, Francisco Cordero is locked in and is signed through 2011.

Brandon Lyon, HOU
Lyon has a 1.27 ERA in his last 23 appearances and could be a threat to Matt Lindstrom at some point. Lindstrom has 14 saves, but also a 1.60 WHIP and a less-than-stellar track record, so he's not untouchable by any means. Sammy Gervacio is a potential longer-term project, but he struggled early this year and was demoted to Triple-A. Now he's missed a month with a shoulder injury.

Zach Braddock, MIL
I like the work John Axford has done this year, but there's not much of a track record to hang your hat on. Braddock, meanwhile, has struggled in his brief MLB stint, but he also has 11 strikeouts in eight innings after 28 in 16 Triple-A innings (15.8 K/9) and a 13.7 K/9 in the minors a year ago. Those are closer numbers, but will he get the opportunity?

Evan Meek, PIT
Meek and Joel Hanrahan are competing to succeed Octavio Dotel, who has a 5.84 ERA and is far from a long-term solution for a rebuilding franchise. Meek has an impressive 0.74 ERA and 34:8 K:BB in 36.2 innings. Hanrahan has a 14.0 K/9 despite a 4.88 ERA but a 3.04 mark in his last 24 appearances. Meek looks to be the better option long term, but don't rule out Hanrahan.

Kyle McClellan, STL
Jason Motte has been on fire lately and has his ERA down to 2.33, but McClellan hasn't been so bad either with a 2.32 ERA and 28:9 K:BB in 31 innings. Motte is the favorite to close should Ryan Franklin go down, but Tony La Russa would probably use whoever is pitching best at that time.

NL EAST

Craig Kimbrel and Chris Resop, ATL
The Braves have two old guys in the back of the pen in the soon-to-be-retiring Billy Wagner and the injured Takashi Saito. It's easy to see the Braves pursuing a veteran free agent closer this winter, but saving money by using Kimbrel or Resop is another possibility. Kimbrel may have a slight edge over Resop, but he's also walked eight batters in just 7.1 innings while compiling a K/9 that speaks to his massive upside 16.0. Resop, on the other hand, posted a 1.84 ERA in 13 Triple-A starts with a 10.0 K/9 and 3.3 BB/9. Of course he then made his 2010 big league debut and gave up five runs in two innings, so he's not an option in the near term, but the Braves obviously like his arm enough to promote him rather than lose him due to his June 15 opt-out clause.

Brian Sanches, FLA -
Leo Nunez blew the save Tuesday, but he's been solid overall this year. Nunez, though, will start to get pricey after this year, so monitor Sanches and Clay Hensley. Hensley has allowed five runs in five appearances this month, and Sanches may be close to moving ahead of him in the bullpen hierarchy. His K:BB is just 11:10 in 17 innings, but it's not as if the Marlins have Goose Gossage and Lee Smith as options.

Pedro Feliciano, NYM
The Mets would be in deep trouble if they lost an improved Francisco Rodriguez, but Feliciano is next in line. Long term, the Mets would probably sign a top free agent if they needed a new closer.

Scott Mathieson, PHI
There isn't a real obvious long-term option beyond Brad Lidge, so we'll slot Mathieson here for now. Lidge has been very good since returning from the DL (1.13 ERA, 10:2 K:BB in eight innings) and Jose Contreras has been excellent all year. Mathieson meanwhile has made a smooth transition to the bullpen after Tommy John surgery back in 2006. In 29.2 innings at Triple-A this year, Mathieson has 12 saves, a 2.43 ERA and a 34:12 K:BB. He's not high on the closer depth chart now, but that could change at some point next year.

Drew Storen, WAS
OK, this one was obvious. Clippard is the guy this year should Matt Capps falter or get dealt, but Storen wasn't the 10th overall pick last year to rot in middle relief forever.

AL WEST

Kevin Jepsen, LAA
Jepsen has some faults, mainly a walk rate that sits at 4.8 BB/9, but there's also a lot to like here. He's 25, consistently runs his fastball up in the mid 90s and his cutter and curve have been slightly above average. Jepsen also is seemingly a victim of a .384 BABIP, but maybe he has a different baseline there given last year's .365 mark. Regardless, he's shown flashes (1.64 ERA through May 1) that speak to his ability to close games somewhere down the line, and with the erratic duo of Brian Fuentes/Fernando Rodney ahead of him, perhaps we see Jepsen in there at some point. If not this year, then perhaps 2011.

Chad Cordero, SEA
Remember this guy? After a 22:4 K:BB in 19.2 innings in Triple-A, Cordero has allowed just one run in four innings in Seattle. Cordero hasn't been fantasy relevant since 2007, but the Mariners bullpen has a collective 4.90 ERA, so there opportunity is there for Cordero to move into high-leverage roles, and quickly.

Chris Ray, TEX
Neftali Feliz hasn't been nearly as dominant this year as last, but he's still far and away the best in-house option to pitch the ninth. In the unlikely event Feliz is moved back to the rotation or to a set-up role, the Rangers could look to Ray over Frank Francisco. Ray has recovered nicely from an awful 2009 and is finding himself in higher-leverage situations lately. Darren O'Day is another option, but Ray's experience probably means something to Ron Washington.

Joey Devine, OAK
Devine could return from Tommy John surgery by month's end, but realistically it's unlikely he'll be closing games anytime this year. Next year? Who knows? Billy Beane goes through closers like Al Davis does head coaches, and Devine did have this in 2008: 0.59 ERA. He's not worth a roster spot now, but sometime in 2011 he could be fantasy relevant.

AL CENTRAL

Matt Thornton, CHW
J.J. Putz would likely close initially should Bobby Jenks get traded, but Thornton is the most likely of the three to still be around in 2011. He could be the guy next year if the White Sox don't bring in a veteran closer.

Chris Perez and Alex White, CLE
Kerry Wood's struggles are continuing, and he and his 1.94 WHIP won't be back in 2011, leaving the door wide open for Chris Perez. Perez has been inconsistent this year, but he's also yet to allow a run this month. I could see the Indians eating a substantial portion of his salary to get Wood off the roster, so Perez should be a target if he's not already owned in your league - 12-team mixed leaguers probably don't have room for him, but be ready to pounce. Another guy to monitor for the long term is 2009 first-round pick Alex White. White has a 1.41 ERA in 32 Double-A innings this year, though his 20:13 K:BB is underwhelming. He's being developed as a starter, but some scouts preferred him as a late-inning reliever coming out of college.

Ryan Perry, DET
Joel Zumaya is next in line should Jose Valverde (signed through 2011) need to be replaced, but Perry could come into play somewhere down the line. Perry's career 78:50 K:BB is underwhelming, but he's a former No. 1 pick who's still just 23.

Joakim Soria, KC
Soria isn't going anywhere unless he's traded, but that seems unlikely as he's affordable through 2014. It's hard to pinpoint a closer-in-waiting (no, Robinson Tejeda can't be the guy, right?), but for this year it would be either Tejeda or Kyle Farnsworth (gulp).

Alex Burnett, MIN
This is probably a stretch as Burnett would have to leapfrog a couple guys, but the results so far are solid 2.30 ERA, 26:11 K:BB in 31.1 innings. Burnett was converted to the bullpen in the minors last year and the results were very good 1.85 ERA, 78:26 K:BB in 78 innings. The Twins are in first place, so Jon Rauch isn't going anywhere, but keep this under-the-radar guy in mind.

AL EAST

David Hernandez, BAL
The Orioles are clearly grooming Hernandez for the closer role, and despite Alfredo Simon's return from the DL, there's a chance Hernandez keeps the job for the balance of the season. Mike Gonzalez (shoulder) could be ready in a couple weeks and who knows, maybe they give him his old job back to boost his trade value. Problem there is Gonzalez is signed through 2011 at a $6 million price tag, so maybe the Orioles wait until winter to float his name out there. Bottom line, though: Hernandez is the one to own in keeper leagues, not Simon or Kameron Mickolio.

Dan Bard, BOS
The Red Sox won't non-tender Jonathan Papelbon this winter, but at the same time, I don't see him back given his escalating salary and declining performance. BB/9 last three years: 1.0, 3.2, 4.2. K/9: 10.0, 10.1, 7.6.

Joba Chamberlain, NYY
Realistically, if Mariano Rivera were to get hurt, Joba would be the temporary closer. If it's a long-term injury, the Yankees would trade for another option.

Shawn Camp, TOR
When Kevin Gregg went through a rough patch recently, both Jason Frasor and Scott Downs had an opportunity to knock Gregg over the closer perch. Each failed. Being 34, Camp doesn't give us much to be excited about long term and neither does his pre-2010 4.74 career ERA, but he is pitching fairly well this year (2.70 ERA, 5.4 K/9, 1.9 BB/9), so who knows? Longer term Josh Roenicke is interesting given his 0.55 ERA and 18:3 K:BB in 16.1 Triple-A innings, but solid minor league command hasn't yet translated to the big league level for Roenicke.

Grant Balfour, TB
Chances are high that Rafael Soriano won't be brought back next year, particularly if the Rays make a strong push to re-sign Carl Crawford. They'd save some money by going with Balfour at the closer slot. He's rebounded from a poor 2009 with a 1.91 ERA and impressive 29:4 K:BB in 28.1 innings this year. You don't often see pitchers take their walk rate from 4.4 BB/9 to 1.3 year over year. Another option could be using Wade Davis as a closer with Jeremy Hellickson clearly ready to slot in the rotation, but that's probably not happening.