A version of this article will appear in the RotoWire Fantasy Baseball Guide 2014 that was recently published. Look for more from Brad throughout the year in his weekly column Mound Musings.
Thirty years. It's hard to imagine, but I have been analyzing pitching for over thirty years. Perhaps even more hard to imagine, I'm not sure I have ever seen the endgame scenario as muddled as it appears to be heading into the 2014 season. There was a time, when virtually all of the closer jobs were set in stone well before spring training. There might have been a couple of injuries to sort through, and maybe a free agent or two would shuffle the roles in a couple of cities, but most teams had the picture well in focus. Not today.
Yes, barring injury, and that seems to be an increasingly critical concern, a guy like Craig Kimbrel will be the guy in Atlanta, and Jonathan Papelbon, despite a sharp decline in velocity will almost assuredly handle the ninth in Philadelphia. Add a couple of others who have seemingly solidified their holds on the gig – for example, Kenley Jansen in Los Angeles, and Koji Uehara in Boston – but if you start scanning rosters, you'll find that guaranteed saves are not very plentiful. Many teams list an unproven reliever as their projected closer to begin the season, others appear to be leaning toward an arm that is better suited to handle another role, undoubtedly hoping someone else will emerge to close. There are also some former closers with health issues looking for another chance.
What is a fantasy owner to do? Saves remain a fairly important category in most leagues, and a short list of locked-in producers will no doubt push price tags higher on the most predictable options. I'd like to start by suggesting a few strategic drafting techniques to hopefully help you compete, without breaking your draft day bank account.
- Only pay a premium price for a maximum of one closer, and even that guy should offer more than saves to justify the expense. He needs to be healthy, he needs to provide a very high strikeout rate so you can realistically expect 100-plus strikeouts for the year, and he needs to have displayed proven, reliable command that should make him a positive influence in WHIP, and hopefully ERA.
- Master the art of handcuffing – that is, focus on a few major league rosters, and try to accumulate both the most likely closer, and his most likely successor should he flop or end up with an extended stay on the disabled list. Be sure to avoid paying premium prices for a guy that is no sure thing. If the price goes too high, move on to your next team, see if you can roster your top candidate first, and then backfill with alternatives.
- Try to avoid mid-level closers on bad teams. These are the guys who might command fairly high prices, but they are most likely to swap uniforms during the season, and many will end up in setup roles. I don't have any reservations about pursuing more speculative relievers on bad teams – they can come pretty cheap – but more established pitchers with some closing experience are often targeted by contenders looking for depth.
That's the plan. If you play in a league with very short rosters, the handcuffing could be very hard to do, and if that's your situation, plan on paying very close attention to developing opportunities. The key is identifying an upcoming change in closers before it's apparent to everyone, identifying the most likely replacement (it won't always be the well-publicized setup guy), and then jumping in before your opponents even know a change is coming.
Based on the plan, let's take a look at some intriguing situations for 2014:
– Joe Nathan
is gone, and the endgame duties are available in Texas. Names like Neftali Feliz
and even Tanner Scheppers
come up, but I would put my faith in the closer they signed long before he was ready to return after missing all of 2012 following Tommy John surgery. Joakim Soria
returned late in 2013, and logged 23.2 innings, but he should be back to full strength heading into 2014. Keep in mind, Soria saved 115 games between 2008 and 2010 so he certainly has the pedigree. Hopefully the elbow problems are a thing of the past, and with that team, a lot of saves could be in his (and your) future.
– Kevin Gregg
is a fading memory, and Jose Veras
or Pedro Strop
– he of the very live arm – are the most likely candidates to open the season closing games for the Cubs. However, they may need to firmly establish themselves before May or June. The Cubs signed Kyuji Fujikawa
prior to last season, and the veteran, who was one of the most successful closers in Japan, was just about to take over the role on the north side when he went down with a season-ending injury. He'll miss the first couple of months of 2014, but Veras is probably going to end up being a trade chip. After a few innings to shake off the rust, Fujikawa could step in. He's a very good handcuff.
– Sometimes dark horses suddenly appear on the scene, and when it comes to claiming a job at the back of a bullpen, opportunity is everything. Tom Wilhelmsen
struggled, the Mariners tried the recently dealt Carter Capps
, and he had his problems with the long ball, while other candidates like Stephen Pryor
were either ineffective or injured. As a result, Danny Farquhar
had an opportunity to secure the job. Farquhar is probably not the long term solution. He was reasonably effective, but the Mariners may not see him as their man, and their closer may not even be in their system – look for them to go outside, possibly before the season gets underway.
– They let Jim Johnson
go, and it looked like Grant Balfour
was the guy they had in mind to replace him, but the Orioles backed out of a contract agreement with him in December. Right now, they are probably considering internal options – Tommy Hunter
being the most likely – but they still could go outside, and if you are looking for a super-sleeper, give some thought to their top pitching prospect, Kevin Gausman
. He's a great one to own, because if they let him close for a season, you benefit from the saves, and if they decide against that path, he is one of the better starting pitching prospects in the game.
– Jason Grilli
was exceptional early on in 2013, After a spectacular 2012 (in a setup role), the Pirates entrusted him with closing duties, and it looked like a very good decision, Unfortunately, when closing it can be very hard to regulate workload, and now 37 years old, Grilli may not be durable enough to hold up. Enter Mark Melancon
. He is more than capable, and having him close while Grilli returns to a less demanding setup role could be the answer. There's little doubt Grilli will lobby to remain the team's ninth-inning option, but if you own him, it would be a very good idea to have Melancon stashed away as a possible replacement.
– The Astros have one of the most intriguing organizations in the game when it comes to musical closers. Jose Veras
started out closing in 2013, he did reasonably well, and he was promptly dealt (the Cubs could potentially do the same in 2014). The Astros tried several internal options, and no one really stood out - at least not in a good way - but Josh Fields
probably did enough to be labeled the favorite for saves entering 2014. They have added Jesse Crain
and Chad Qualls
in free agency, however, the guy I believe they would like to see in the role is still there. Chia-Jen Lo
claimed the job briefly last year, struggled with his control, and gave way to Fields. Be prepared to speculate accordingly if Fields struggles, and if Crain isn't healthy enough to close.
Plenty can change between now and the beginning of the season. Future Hall of Famer Joe Nathan
is already off the market and will close for the Tigers. Brian Wilson
is a proven closer who is supposed to be healthy now, but he re-signed with the Dodgers and will presumably set up Jansen.
The Rockies have indicated that LaTroy Hawkins
will close, but Rex Brothers
is probably a better bet, and it may be sooner rather than later. Jason Motte
won't be closing in St. Louis (Trevor Rosenthal
is their man), but is he a trade chip once he convinces teams he is ready? And, as scary as it might seem, last year's version of Rodney circa 2012, Kevin Gregg
, will probably tempt someone (not me).
Be vigilant, be alert, read between the lines, and don't be afraid to pounce on an opportunity. Good luck in 2014!