PAINTING THE BLACK: 5 Setup Men to Watch in 2014
It's quite possibly the most unforgiving job in baseball. The one with the least amount of glamour, but the most amount of pressure. Feature articles will never appear in newspapers about these "firemen," but their effectiveness is a clear indicator of a team contending or falling into the rearview mirror. They are the setup men. Plain and simple, they are the most important bridge between middle relief and closer. Many times, their outs recorded represent the difference between a win and a loss each night. Nevertheless, when the featured 9thinning man falters, becomes injured, or simply can't do the job anymore, these setup men are pressed into action, expected to carry over their pristine performance to finish off ballgames.
Setup men are routinely "closers-in-waiting" since they usually appear in the 8th inning, sometimes getting a few 9th inning save opportunities when a closer has pitched multiple days in a row. The 2014 season will feature new closers on many teams, but their setup men, in some cases, may have more experience with the 9th inning duties. Below are five pitchers to watch going into the regular season. They may not break camp with the closing job, but a fine line exists between them watching the 9th inning and trying to get the 27th out.
* - (names in parenthesis are expected closers for Opening Day)
J.J. Putz - Arizona Diamondbacks (Addison Reed)
Rarely do you see an incumbent closer removed from the job via trade, but this is the situation facing J.J. Putz coming into the Diamondbacks' camp in 2014. Newly acquired Addison Reed is the favorite to win the job. However, GM Kevin Towers told both hurlers the duties will be awarded after a competition in camp. Reading in-between the lines here, and knowing Putz's past season's performance, the veteran right-hander needs a couple things to go his way: regain his devastating splitter with more consistency and remain healthy. Finger and elbow issues curtailed his 2013 campaign, thus prompting Towers to find a suitable alternative to in-house options David Hernandez and Brad Ziegler.
Here's why I like Putz - after playing against him during his days in Chicago, and then as a teammate in DBacks camp in 2012, you can't help getting excited about his demeanor and approach to the 9th inning. He relishes the adrenaline, the pressure, and exhibits the confidence needed from any stopper, especially on days he knows he doesn't have his A-stuff. He's experienced in setup roles from the past, while also flourishing when given the closer's role. The silver lining is that Reed is no slam dunk due to his inconsistent save situations this past season on the South Side. I firmly believe that manager Kirk Gibson, knowing the presence a healthy and dominant Putz is in the back end of his bullpen, will have a short leash on Reed should he win the job out of spring training. You don't get 189 saves with a career 1.14 WHIP in Putz's case without knowing how to command your heartbeat and the strike zone in the final frame. The end result will all revolve around Putz's health, but he's worth stashing in any format.
Cody Allen - Cleveland Indians (John Axford)
A big splash on the scene in 2013 had Allen at the front of the line to assume 9th inning duties with the departure of Chris Perez to the Dodgers. Hold everything though - GM Chris Antonetti decided to add a veteran with "closing experience" instead of letting Allen and the likes of Bryan Shaw duke it out for the title. History tells us that when the Tribe did the same thing in 2009 after yours truly closed the last half of 2008, new closer Kerry Wood got off to a rough start, primarily due to a lack of save opportunities. Not saying the same thing will happen in 2014, but it does bring up an argument in retaining Allen on your squad. Axford dealt with inconsistencies, as well as tipping pitches, but seemed to "right the ship" down the stretch with St. Louis in 2013. Reports out of camp thus far are positive, but the fact that Allen was at the forefront of a supposed closer competition before the acquisition of Axford is telling.
I like Allen for a few reasons. Obvious ones are his high-90s fastball and big swing-and-miss breaking ball. The keys for the young right-hander to get save chances going forward greatly depend on the effectiveness of Axford, but also his own ability to change sequencing in his sophomore campaign through the Majors. Routinely you see young kids struggle at some point in their second full season, but I feel Allen's would only last a short time due to his power stuff being an equalizer. Axford is in place, for now. Cody Allen is close on his heels in my mind, and is a high value target for those looking for a steal early in the fantasy season.
Carlos Marmol - Miami Marlins (Steve Cishek)
Everyone in Chicago is probably exhaling with joy as they don't have to deal with Marmol's antics on the North Side of Chicago anymore. I say, don't be so quick to judge. After spending spring training with Carlos in 2013, I can honestly say the change of scenery to the sunny beaches of Miami may be just what the doctor ordered. Confidence wavered for Marmol the past season or two in dealing with all of the "noise" around Chicago. That's gone now, and the early reports out of camp are his mechanics have solidified and he's got some of the electric stuff back that saw him save 92 games from 2010-2012 for the Cubs.
Steve Cishek is entrenched as the Marlins closer at the outset of 2014. I'm curious though to see how the WBC possibly affects him into this season. Any reliever beginning that early, besides the not-human Craig Kimbrel, can experience a "hangover" result either in the same season or next. Even though Cishek was pretty close to automatic last year, the volatility of any reliever can rear its ugly head. I'd be watching closer than many probably would in this situation. Marmol has the experience, and now the confidence to get back into those late-inning situations with a strong performance in camp.
Matt Thornton - New York Yankees (David Robertson)
The great Mariano Rivera will no longer take the hill for the 9th inning at Yankee Stadium any longer. The job falls to heir-apparent David Robertson and his malicious 93-95 mph cut fastball. Some things change, but some things remain the same right? A guy featuring a power-cutter finishing off games in the Bronx? Sounds about right. There is some cause for concern, however. Robertson has admitted he's ready to take on the responsibility, but his few chances in the 9th inning haven't gone extremely smooth. The stuff is certainly there, but is the mentality firmly entrenched in his mind yet? It's something to consider from a fantasy perspective and here's why: Matt Thornton.
Arguably one of the top setup men in his time with the Chicago White Sox, Thornton has lost some of his high-90s velocity, but remains a force to be reckoned with. Dealing with the lineups in the American League East, Thornton will somewhat be "new" and that helps him going once through the order. He does possess 23 career saves along with a career 1.29 WHIP; the separator in my mind comes down to execution. His breaking ball from his tall frame still produces extreme downward movement late in the zone, causing weak contact or none at all. He can elevate late in the count and hasn't walked more than 20 batters in a season since 2008. Manager Joe Girardi had the luxury of consistency in Mo for many seasons. If Robertson can't handle the role early, look for Thornton to ascend to 9th inning duties quickly.
Joaquin Benoit - San Diego Padres (Huston Street)
The health of Huston Street remains priority #1 in him reclaiming his closing role for the Padres. GM Josh Byrnes made a great move in signing Joaquin Benoit to cover any shortcomings in Street's return journey to the 9th inning. While Street is highly effective when healthy, fantasy owners are always looking for a low-cost/high-reward option in the bullpen. Benoit is exactly that and more.
During his tenure in Detroit, setting up for then-stopper Jose Valverde before assuming the closing role full time in 2013, Benoit's deadly changeup fooled hitters night in and night out. He's struck out more batters than innings pitched each season since 2010 and had no less than 25 holds any year as a team's priority setup man. Street is fragile, to the tune of missing 60 games in 2012 and 1 DL stint in 2013. If his body holds up, he's one of the best in the game. If the injury bug bites again, be ready with Benoit on your roster to collect those save chances.