Looking for closers to pad your save total in a fantasy baseball league can sometimes make you feel a little like Odysseus. He spent 10 years finding his way back home after the Trojan War, and his trials and tribulations during that journey became legendary. A wrong turn here, a bad decision there, and the task became more difficult. Does that sound familiar? Just remember, he did persevere, and he did reach his objective. Like Odysseus, you just have to stay on course, and follow the signs.
There are several factors you need to consider when scouting a potential end gamer. A few closers will be locked in – and that equates to a hefty price tag on draft day. It’s nice to have one of those “automatic” closers, but winning the save category, and your league, usually requires the shrewd owner to uncover at least one hidden gem. I’ll focus on two distinct factors that are most predictive of an imminent opportunity to take that next step towards reaching your objective. First, which closer situations are most likely to provide someone with the mandatory open door, and then, which pitcher is most prepared to seize that chance based on his make-up, both physical and mental.
Opportunity is always first on the list. Front office personnel don’t like to admit mistakes, so ineffective closers can sometimes have a fairly long leash. And, it often correlates closely with money – the bigger the contract, the longer the leash. However, after some epic implosions, the brain trust is forced to make a change. You have to be ahead of that change, ready to seize the moment. Sometimes the imminent change is so clearly predictable, you can anticipate it on draft day. In other cases, you have to be prepared to make that critical pick-up off the waiver wire. So now that you have the timing down, another challenge pops up. The new closer isn’t always the seemingly obvious option. The very reliable eighth-inning set up guy doesn’t get the call. Oh, the frustration.
The most successful closers have a relatively consistent set of attributes. There are exceptions, but most have better than average stuff (and velocity), they rely on one or two dominating pitches, often because they will really need a strikeout now and then, they thrive on adrenaline – the more critical the scenario, the better they perform, and finally, they have short memories so the occasional bad outing is soon forgotten. The physical skills are generally pretty easy to spot, but the necessary mental make-up is something you need to watch for based on how a pitcher reacts in certain situations, and how his demeanor changes on the mound when it’s all on the line.
Let’s take a look at some potential endgame opportunities for 2012:
Kenley Jansen (LAD) – While he probably won’t be a huge surprise, he is at the top of my list for closers-in-waiting for 2012. The Dodgers had seven different pitchers with at least one save last season – including Jansen. Javy Guerra settled in as the most frequent choice to close, and he did a very respectable job, but Jansen was the eye-opener. Striking out 16 per nine innings is something that will get your manager’s attention, and consistently closing the door, regardless of the situation, will convince that manager to give you the ball anytime he wants to avoid headaches and heartburn. Jansen should be closing in Los Angeles for a long time, beginning early in 2012.
Addison Reed (CWS) – In spring 2011, Matt Thornton, an exceptional set-up guy, was the favorite to close games on Chicago’s South Side. He opened the season as the closer, but it quickly became apparent he wasn’t going to be the answer. A mad scramble resulted in Sergio Santos – armed with an ideal attitude and excellent, if somewhat limited, stuff – emerging as the most consistent option. Now Santos is in Toronto and the White Sox bullpen is again unsettled. Thornton could again be the favorite to close but perhaps the best option, Chris Sale, is slated for a starting role. That leads us to young Addison Reed. A couple of years ago he was closing at San Diego State for a guy named Strasburg, and he proved to be very effective. He has a potent fastball and a plus-plus slider so the tools are there. Keep a close eye on him.
Chance Ruffin (SEA) – Brandon League stepped up and did an excellent job as the Seattle closer after David Aardsma went down with an injury, but almost since the day he became a fulltime closer, League has been involved in countless trade rumors. It’s only a matter of time before a rumor comes true. When that happens, look for Chance Ruffin to assume the closer’s role. Acquired from the Tigers in 2011, he has all the tools including an explosive low-mid-90s fastball and a devastating slider. He closed successfully in college, and he has the mental approach to succeed in the majors.
Aroldis Chapman (CIN) – A lot of people in the Reds’ organization would like to see him in the rotation, and he will probably get the chance to try that. However, his iffy command of his secondary pitches, and the need to back down that 105 mph fastball if he is required to pitch deep into games, could instead be a ticket to the closer’s gig. Because he has such a reputation (and arm), he is not likely to come cheap on draft day, but he is likely to succeed as either a starter or closer so there is less risk in adding him to your staff. In either scenario, he will pile up strikeouts and should be the first choice to close if they decide he needs to stay in the bullpen.
Grant Balfour (OAK) – A's closer Andrew Bailey was traded to Boston, which has the Oakland bullpen in flux this spring. Balfour will complete for the closer role along with Brian Fuentes, though Fautino De Los Santos and Joey Devine could enter the mix as well. I would give an edge to Grant Balfour as the “bridge” closer while they develop or shop for someone to assume the role long term. Internally, that guy might be De los Santos. He has a high-90s fastball and a nice, albeit erratic, slider, but he may not possess the consistency to be a successful closer – at least not yet. Keep an eye on both Balfour and De los Santos.
Henry Sosa (HOU) – Mark Melancon was the top name on this list heading into 2011. Brandon Lyon was a train wreck in the making and Melancon was the best alternative on the Astros roster. Lyon imploded and Melancon had a solid season. Now Melancon is in Boston (where he could be in line for an even more impressive year if given the chance to close there), and there is talk of Lyon again closing in Houston. That possibility should send you scrambling through their roster to find options. Former catcher David Carpenter would probably be a slight favorite to seize the moment, but Henry Sosa or even Rule 5 pick Rhiner Cruz could be a dark horse. Sosa has a very live arm, but may only need a bit mound presence, and Cruz needs significantly better command.
Those are a few of the most likely 2012 end game scrambles, but there could certainly be others. For example, the Rays would like to see Jacob McGee step up which would allow them to deal Kyle Farnsworth. Can the Mets’ Bobby Parnell fulfill his promise and step in for stopgap closer Frank Francisco? (Maybe). Has Jason Motte finally locked down the job in St. Louis? (Probably). Matt Capps is not a longterm solution in Minnesota, so maybe Brian Duensing should be monitored as a long shot consideration? Finally, I am not really sold on Rafael Betancourt in Colorado, so you might want to keep an eye on Rex Brothers.
Sneaking saves past your fantasy league opponents doesn’t always require a Trojan horse, you just have to read the signs and be ready to jump. Good luck in 2012!