I can't think of a season in recent history with so many questions among closers in general. Can you really trust Fernando Rodney or Kevin Gregg to get more than 15 saves? Will guys like Jonathan Papelbon and Jonathan Broxton bounce back? Can the young arms in Atlanta and Washington live up to their promise? Who ends the season with the most saves in Texas and Tampa Bay? Can David Aardsma and Joe Nathan return to form after suffering injuries? In addition to those questions, we now have the injury bug striking. As a result, you'll find a "closers" theme to this week's column.
Matt Thornton, P, CHI - I know this was an obvious call after Ozzie Guillen stopped playing games and named him the closer but I thought I'd add some thoughts. He's got a three-year average of a 2.70 ERA and 1.018 WHIP and has had at least a 10 K/9 rate in each of the last three seasons. Given the aforementioned uncertainty with closers, is there any reason to not treat him as a top-10 closer? Despite being a lefty, he doesn't have a drastic left/right split (.500/.584 OPS last year) and will have plenty of opportunity for saves on a very good White Sox team. The announcement relegates Chris Sale to a setup role, which gives him good value if your league counts holds. Sale should also post solid peripheral numbers if he can carry over his strong debut from last year. While it was only 23.1 innings, the 21-year-old had a 1.93 ERA and posted a 12.34 K/9 rate. Also a southpaw, Sale actually pitched better against righties (.494 OPS) than lefties (.694 OPS).
Will Venable, OF, SD - I've been wary of upgrading Venable this preseason, as I'm never too high on guys who strike out at a 32.7 % clip. That being said it looks like Venable has been some adjustments at the plate this spring, striking out only four times in 33 plate appearances (12.1%). He's also walked six times and will be a cheap source of steals this year (29 last year) to go along with a little pop (13 home runs a season ago). Those numbers are even more impressive when you consider he only played in 131 games. With regular playing time and an improved approach at the plate, he could be ready to break out this season.
Bud Norris, P, HOU - Norris is quickly becoming a trendy sleeper pick as he enters his third season with the Astros. It's easy to like a pitcher who strikes out over a batter per inning, although the 4.51 BB/9 is worrisome. Norris looked outstanding Saturday, striking out five over five innings and most importantly didn't issue any free passes. If he can cut down the walks by improving his control he'll reward you as a late round pick.
Edwin Encarnacion, 3B, TOR - Encarnacion has gotten off to a hot start, hitting four home runs while driving in 10 this spring. He appears to be over any injury concerns from last season (wrist/shoulder) and could be in for a nice season in the power categories. If you prorate the 21 home runs in 332 at-bats into a full season (500 at-bats), you're looking at 32 home runs. While he remains an injury risk, he'll be off the hot corner and most nights be hitting in the DH spot.
John Mayberry, OF, PHI - Charlie Manuel hasn't handed the right field job to Ben Francisco yet and he may end up in a platoon with Mayberry. Last year at Triple-A Mayberry put together a 15/20 season and has played well this spring with five homers and four steals in 47 at-bats. My darkhorse of the week, he's worth a look in NL-only and deep mixed league formats.
Brian Wilson, P, SF - Wilson will be re-evaluated Monday to try and determine the severity of his oblique injury. Reports are there's a possibility that he won't be ready to pitch by Opening Day, which Wilson is downplaying. Even if the injury lingers, he could down a Red Bull and be ready for the bottom of the ninth when the defending champs take on the Dodgers. If Wilson does miss any amount of time, look for Sergio Ramos to be first in line for save opportunities.
Drew Storen, P, WAS - Storen has been lit up this spring, giving up two home runs en route to a 12.79 ERA in only 6.1 innings. There are even reports that say he won't start the season with the Nationals and be sent down to Triple-A Syracuse. However, Storen has struck out eight batters and claims his struggles are a result of him working on the command of his fastball. It remains to be seen how the closing situation will be worked out; it would seem that Storen should be in line for a handful of save opportunities and could emerge as the sole closer at some point. Keep an eye on his production and any commentary Jim Riggleman offers us about his bullpen as it gets closer to the start of the season.
Frank Francisco, P, TOR -I was all set to upgrade Francisco after John Farrell officially named him the closer, then news broke that a pectoral injury could sideline him to start the season. There's a lot to like if Francisco gets back to being 100 percent healthy. He's had over a 10 K/9 rate each of the last two seasons and improved his GB rate by 10 percent last year. The .321 BABIP (a career-worst) was the only stat out of whack looking at all of his peripherals yet he still ended up with a respectable 3.76 ERA and 1.272 WHIP. Yes, he'll be pitching in the AL East (something that can get overblown in my opinion) but he could rack up 30-plus saves if he's healthy. Jon Rauch would assume ninth inning duties if Frankie isn't ready to go.
J.J. Putz, P, ARI - Wisely the Diamondbacks addressed the glaring need for a closer during the offseason and signed Putz to a $10 million deal back in December. After staying healthy last season, Putz turned in a campaign that yielded a 2.83 ERA and 1.037 WHIP. Unfortunately, Putz has been bothered by a stiff back and will take a few days off to recover. He's never had an issue with his back in the past and probably out of all of the closer injuries, I'd grade this as the one I'm least concerned with. Now that I've jinxed Putz, it would be a choice between Sam Demel, Juan Gutierrez or David Hernandez to take his place if he's out.
Johnny Cueto, P, CIN - Cueto left his latest start after only one inning, this coming off the heels of leaving his previous start after two innings. He'll be further evaluated in Cincinnati to see if this is anything more than a case of tendinitis in his biceps. While I'm not a doctor, I can't see how Cueto will be ready to start the season. He's not building up his arm strength and probably will need some sort of rest no matter what the diagnosis is. If it is anything more than tendinitis, he could miss a significant portion of the season. For now, knock him down a few spots on your draft board.
Kendrys Morales, 1B, LAA - In addition to learning we've been butchering his name for years (and no, it's not "Ken dries"), we've also learned Morales won't be ready to start the year for the Halos. He hasn't come close to running the bases as he can't even run full speed in a straight line. Being 10 months removed from the injury, I'm really starting to wonder if more is going on here that we aren't being told. In his place, look for Mark Trumbo and his team-high five spring home runs to fill in. Trumbo isn't an elite prospect who will have his fair share of strikeouts but his power is legit. His time with the Angels could be longer than most think, especially if Morales ends up as the DH when he returns.