Checking in on the Bullpens
As a so-called fantasy expert, I'm often asked for "sleepers" for the upcoming fantasy season. It's a term that had far more relevance pre-Internet, a time when we didn't have easy access to the types of advanced metrics and pitch f/x data we do now. These days it doesn't take a genius (thankfully, or I wouldn't be writing these articles) to take a look at a pitcher's ERA versus his component numbers and identify ones who likely will improve or decline. That said, you pay us to help you win your leagues, so that's what we'll try to do.
This week we'll take a look at a handful of relievers who aren't being drafted in the upper tiers of the reliever ranks. Which relievers are most likely to replace current closers, and are there closers being drafted late who shouldn't be?
Let's separate things out by division and look at all 30 bullpens:
Dodgers: In LA, Jonathan Broxton has had just one poor outing this spring, so don't crucify him quite yet. Broxton was Daniel Cabrera-like over the second half of last season (7.13 ERA, 18:21 K:BB in 24 innings), so he may come at a discount in leagues this year. He's a lock to open as the Dodgers closer, though keeping Hong-Chih Kuo on your radar is advised.
Padres: It makes zero sense that the Padres would extend Heath Bell's contract after dealing Adrian Gonzalez. I fully expect the rebuilding to continue and for Bell to be in another uniform come July, if not sooner. Target Luke Gregerson in NL-only leagues.
Dbacks: No controversy here where J.J. Putz should have a solid season.
Giants: Brian Wilson (strained oblique) should be ready for Opening Day.
Rockies: Huston Street has looked fine in camp, but Matt Belisle has been better (7 IP, 9:2 K:BB, 2.57 ERA). Belisle is a strong candidate to close should Street get hurt again (a distinct possibility).
Cardinals: Interesting note: The Cardinals' top two projected starters have been their worst two starters this spring (Chris Carpenter: 5.56 ERA, Jaime Garcia: 8.31). The others (Kyle Lohse, Jake Westbrook, and Kyle McClellen) have combined for a 1.96 ERA. Anyway Ryan Franklin is going to have to retire one of these years, but for now, his 0.90 ERA has him locked in as St. Louis' closer. Jason Motte has been brutal in camp, so if you're looking for a sleeper, dig into Fernando Salas a bit.
Reds: While wondering whether Drew Stubbs is being overhyped (42 at-bats, 20 strikeouts, two walks this spring), I will note that Francisco Cordero has had a great spring seven innings, one run, 9:3 K:BB. Aroldis Chapman? Well, he's been interesting with a nice 1.64 ERA but an unimpressive 14:10 K:BB in 11 innings. Maybe he needs some time in Triple-A to refine that command, but regardless, Cordero's job is secure.
Brewers: John Axford has an 8.44 ERA in 5.1 innings with six walks this spring, but what are the Brewers going to do? I suppose Takashi Saito would be option No. 2, but Axford had a 2.48 ERA and 11.8 K/9 last year, so he can miss bats. Don't panic, Axford likely will be fine.
Astros: Keep an eye on Wilton Lopez would a Brandon Lyon meltdown be all that surprising? Lopez has allowed just one hit and no walks in his seven innings this spring.
Cubs: You know what you're getting with Carlos Marmol (saves and strikeouts), but he's showing no signs of becoming less wild any time soon with six walks in seven innings this spring. Take the good with the bad.
Pirates: Joel Hanrahan has already won the battle with Evan Meek, but we could see more than one closer change in Pittsburgh this year. Neither has pitched great this spring, but Hanrahan struck out 100 batters last year (12.9 K/9), so he certainly has the stuff to be an elite closer. Now it's just a matter of consistency.
Mets: They likely will do what they can to prevent Francisco Rodriguez from finishing 55 games and triggering his $14 million option, but at least for the majority of the season, Rodriguez should be the guy in the ninth. Bobby Parnell had a strong 2010 and looks to be a potential 2011 closer should the Mets need to go cheap.
Phillies: Brad Lidge is supposed to pitch in Thursday's game as he continues to show progress in returning from a biceps injury. He could be a bit undervalued this year, but he hasn't been both healthy and effective for a full season since 2008. Ryan Madson is probably the better pitcher at this point, but Lidge is the one with the closer salary.
Nationals: Both Drew Storen (10.38 ERA) and Tyler Clippard (12.79 ERA) have struggled while Sean Burnett has yet to allow a run this spring. By all accounts, we're looking at a committee situation here until one of Storen or Clippard separates himself. Storen made a minor mechanical adjustment that resulted in a 1-2-3 outing last time out, so with a strong finish, he could very well get the majority of the saves come Opening Day. It also doesn't hurt that he was a top-10 draft pick.
Braves: According to manager Freddie Gonzalez, the Braves will go with both Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel as co-closers to start the season. Venters has yet to allow a run this spring, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Braves slot him in the seventh and eighth innings to mix and match against tough lefties. Kimbrel allowed four runs in his first 2.1 innings but is now working on a seven innings scoreless streak. Kimbrel is the more attractive fantasy option of the two considering the whopping 40 batters he struck out in 20.2 big league innings last year and the 13.5 Triple-A K/9. Look for Kimbrel to lead the team in saves this year.
Marlins: Leo Nunez isn't an elite closer by any means, but he does have 56 saves over the past two seasons, and we've seen closers on non-contenders rack up 35-plus saves in the past, so he might be a solid value. That said, Nunez should be a trade candidate due to his escalating salary, so keep a close watch on who works the eighth. It's expected to be Clay Hensley, but the possibility that last year's 2.16 ERA was a fluke is rather high considering his age (31) and lack of prior success. Ryan Webb is an up-and-coming young reliever who doesn't strike out a ton of batters (6.7 K/9), but his command is improving and he generates a lot of ground balls.
Angels: Fernando Rodney should be on any fantasy owner's short list as the first closer to lose his job because while he's had a solid spring, Rodney's career BB/9 rate sits at an ugly 4.6, and he hasn't had a sub-4.00 ERA since 2006. Next in line are Kevin Jepsen and Jordan Walden, both young impressive relievers. Walden (six innings, no runs) has had a solid spring and was very impressive in his cup of coffee last year with his upper-90s (sometimes 100s) heat. He's less experienced than Jensen, but long term he's the pitcher I'd rather have. Short term it could be Jensen depending on how both are throwing at the time. Of course, Scott Downs could factor in as well once he's healthy.
A's: Andrew Bailey is dealing with a forearm issue, but he's expected to resume throwing any day. That might not give him enough time to be ready by Opening Day, so look for Brian Fuentes (and perhaps occasionally, Grant Balfour) to fill in temporarily. After dealing with elbow troubles last year, Bailey could have it pop at any point, so keep Fuentes on speed-dial.
Mariners: Another unsettled situation has incumbent David Aardsma dealing with his recovery from hip surgery that could have him out until May. That leaves Brandon League as the closer to start the season, but League's career 3.90 ERA and 6.7 K/9 aren't exactly elite closer material. Josh Lueke and David Pauley have been the team's best relievers this spring, but it's hard to see either being a ninth-inning option any time soon.
Rangers: Neftali Feliz is set to make one more start Thursday, so we should know by this weekend what his 2011 role will be. In breaking down the Texas pitching staff, the only locks appear to be as follows:
Rotation: C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis, Derek Holland (3.21 ERA, 12:3 K:BB in 14 innings), Tommy Hunter (8.31 ERA, but a 10:1 K:BB) and, in the five-hole, a pitcher TBD. It won't be Brandon Webb (shoulder) after Webb's setback on Wednesday, leaving Matt Harrison (3.79 ERA but an 11:9 K:BB in 19 innings) as the uninspiring default.
Bullpen: If you think there are questions in the rotation, look at what the bullpen has done this spring:
Darren O'Day: 10.29 ERA and a whopping 16 hits in seven innings
Alexi Ogando: 5.59 ERA
Mark Lowe: 14.14 ERA
Arthur Rhodes: 12.60 ERA
To me the choice is obvious. I'm not saying I'd rather have 70 innings of Feliz than 180, but the needs are far greater in the bullpen, so unless the Rangers want to trade for a closer (tough to do in late March), Feliz appears headed to the bullpen.
Tigers: Jose Valverde, Joaquin Benoit and Ryan Perry should be a solid trio at the back of the Detroit bullpen. Valverde is clearly the man to own here, while Benoit and Perry will jockey to replace him should he leave when his two-year deal expires at year's end. Benoit's impressive 2010 was probably somewhat flukish based on his .201 BABIP, but he's looked very good this spring. Perry meanwhile is a former No. 1 pick being groomed as a potential closer of the future.
Twins: An 8.53 ERA in 7.1 innings has Tommy John survivor Joe Nathan not assured of closing come Opening Day, and regardless, it's unclear when he'll be ready to pitch in consecutive games. Matt Capps thus should be one of the top setup men off the board, particularly for Nathan owners.
White Sox: Matt Thornton has been named the team's closer, beating out fellow impressive young lefty Chris Sale for the job. Let other guys draft Mariano Rivera and company and grab this guy a couple rounds later.
Royals: Joakim Soria and pray for rain. I suppose Soria could be traded this year to further the rebuilding plan, but that seems unlikely. In case I'm wrong, the uninspiring Robinson Tejeda is probably next in line, though longer term, Jeremy Jeffress is the name to know here.
Indians: There are fewer cut-and-dry situations than the one in Cleveland where Chris Perez is a strong second-tier closer with little internal competition for his job. That is, unless you're a big Tony Sipp fan.
Yankees: Mariano Rivera, Rafael Soriano and Joba Chamberlain. That's the pecking order; nuff said.
Red Sox: Guess we'll have to adopt the "spring stats are meaningless" mantra when it comes to Jonathan Papelbon (12.6 ERA, 3:5 K:BB in five innings). His decline the last couple years is well documented, but when it "counts," we have to assume Papelbon will answer the bell. If not, or if he's traded as has been speculated, the options are plentiful Dan Bard, Bobby Jenks, Dan Wheeler. The first two are clearly the top two candidates, and with Jenks outpitching Bard this spring, he's the (very) early favorite.
Blue Jays: Frank Francisco doesn't appear to be an Opening Day option due to a pectoral injury, and we like Jon Rauch (six innings, no runs) to inherit the role. Rauch has closing experience of course, so he could even be a favorite to keep the job once Francisco returns. Jason Frasor and Octavio Dotel could be options down the road.
Rays: Sure the Rays have lost a large portion of their 2010 bullpen, but Jacob McGee, Kyle Farnsworth, and Joel Peralta could be a strong 1-2-3 this year. Clearly McGee's long-term future is more appealing than that of Farnsworth, but for now, the Rays will employ a closer-by-committee approach.
Orioles: We've yet to see an official announcement, but we have to assume for now that Kevin Gregg is the closer despite the 10.13 ERA. Mike Gonzalez has 11 strikeouts to go with his 6.00 ERA in six innings while Koji Uehara is dealing with a sore elbow that has his availability classified as TBD. Gregg has a shot to hold this job for the year, but he'll likely have some rough patches.
Regan is a four-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner was named the 2010 Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year.