The Long Game: The Closer Carrousel
"Run, runner!" - unnamed player in the opposition dugout during Jim Johnson's latest blown save
In the far-flung future of 2014, baseball has become a statistical paradise for the elite closer of which the likes of Sandy Lyle and Rawley Eastwick could never have dreamed. We may not all be wearing fancy colored jumpsuits, sadly, but our lives are ruled by a small candy-crushing device in the palms of our hands, while saves and strikeouts cascade down by the bushel for the chosen few. Ah, but paradise has a cost. All too soon closers are summoned to Carrousel, a dizzying, terrifying spectacle from which many fail to return to glory. Already this season, the list of closers called to Carrousel is a long one: Aroldis Chapman. Casey Janssen. Jim Henderson. Nate Jones. Bobby Parnell. David Robertson. It's a list that will grow longer over the next six months.
The reaction of most fantasy owners to that roll call of declining value and wasted auction dollars is to shrug your shoulders and throw some FAAB money at whoever steps up on those teams to get ninth inning work. What difference does it make who's getting the saves, anyway? Closers are volatile, and one owner's bad luck is another's good fortune. It all balances out in the end.
In re-draft leagues, that's the only philosophy you can have and stay sane. In keeper leagues though, the early season closer carnage just reinforces one of the few hard rules I try to run all my teams by.
RENEWAL IS A LIE!
No, wait, that's not it, sorry. I got carried away with the Logan's Run references. The rule is actually
NEVER pay full retail for a closer.
Paying top dollar for a closer is simply a mug's game. Sure, every player has some chance of getting hurt or losing their job, but by virtue of having arguably the highest stress, most scrutinized role on a team, closers see their life crystals start blinking red far more often and more quickly than any other kind of player. As a consequence, if you pay full sticker price at auction, you are putting your fantasy season at severe risk if the particular closer you bought breaks down.
So how should you acquire closers, then, Erik-5? Well, to answer that question, let's take a look at last year's save leaders and how they ended up in that closer role.
28 players racked up 20 or more saves last season. Of those 28, an incredible 20 of them were working in set-up or middle relief roles prior to ascending to closer status within the last three seasons. Only five (Mariano Rivera, Joe Nathan, Huston Street, Jonathan Papelbon and Chris Perez) were veteran closers who'd held the job, for some team or other, longer than three seasons, while just two (Craig Kimbrel and Addison Reed) were high profile relief prospects who landed closer jobs almost as soon as they got to the majors. Aroldis Chapman, the 28th closer on the list, is something of a special case due to the early confusion over what his role would be with the Reds and his high-profile prospect status as a Cuban defector.
That three season qualifier for the former middle relievers is a crucial one, as in normal fantasy terms what it means is that a savvy owner could have bought most of those guys for a couple of bucks at auction or as a free agent, and still had them on their initial A-B-C contract schedule while they started collecting saves. Greg Holland? Grant Balfour? Sergio Romo? In most competitive keeper leagues, you've never had a chance to buy them at auction as a closer because they've been protected at a ridiculously low salary from before they even had the job.
Of course, in some of those 2013 cases (Kevin Gregg, for instance) it's ludicrous to suggest that someone would have even had them on their roster the previous season, much less on their keeper list, and in most leagues they went for big bucks in FAAB. But the principle is still the same. Why would you ever pay $20 for a source of saves when you could pay $2?
The takeaway from this should be clear. Whenever you have a chance to churn a spot on your pitching staff or your bench, look for relievers who might inherit closer roles. Guys with big fastballs or lethal sliders who fate hasn't yet anointed with the mystic closing oil. Not all of them will pan out, but you only need to hit on one or two to set your roster up nicely for the next couple of seasons.
The corollary to that, of course, is that once you hit on a couple of cheap closers, you also shouldn't sign them to long contracts that drive their salary up. In most cases, you probably shouldn't extend them at all, but an occasional two-year deal on a guy who seems really awesome won't hurt too much if he does get called to Carrousel earlier than you'd hoped. (For the record I broke my own rule with Kimbrel, who's in year two of a three-year deal for me in one league, but if anybody deserves an exception it's him. I've totally just jinxed him now, haven't I?)
To get you started, here's some deep roster relievers I'm keeping an eye on and looking for excuses to pick up, before they become the next big thing:
Stephen Pryor: He's currently on the DL for an injury to a body part that's not his pitching arm, averages 96 mph on his fastball and will be part of a Mariners bullpen relying on Fernando Rodney to keep it together as the closer. That's a lottery ticket I'm happy to play.
Dellin Betances: Failed starting prospect who's been more effective in relief? Check. Popping 99 on the radar gun to start the season? Check. A bullpen situation that has yet to really decide on an heir apparent to Mariano Rivera? Check. I know everyone thinks Robertson is the guy, but in 2012 it was Rafael Soriano, and not Robertson, who took over ninth inning duties when Rivera got hurt. And if it's not Robertson, who else will it be? Shawn Kelley? Puh-leez.
Aroldys Vizcaino: Pedro Strop is assumed to be the next guy up for the Cubs, but he hasn't actually been all that good since 2012. If anyone is going to take the Kimbrel/Reed minor league route to closing it'll be Vizcaino, who's on the home stretch of a long, slow recovery from Tommy John surgery and had his electric fastball back in spring training.
A.J. Ramos: Steve Cishek has lasted a season and a half now as the closer in Miami, which is an eternity in fish years. He's way overdue to be dealt for a prospect, especially now that he's in his arbitration years, and once he's out of the picture Ramos is waiting with a wipeout slider and a K/9 rate north of 10 for his major league career to date. Sign me up.