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End Game Odyssey: Closer Carousel in Chicago?

Brad Johnson

For more than 25 years, pitching guru Brad "Bogfella" Johnson has provided insightful evaluation and analysis of pitchers to a wide variety of fantasy baseball websites, webcasts and radio broadcasts. He joined RotoWire in 2011 with his popular Bogfella's Notebook.

Prior to last season I wrote about Odysseus and his long and wandering trip back to Greece after the Trojan War. I warned of pitfalls, misdirection, and potential confusion – the same things that can happen to a fantasy baseball owner in search of saves. And, that prophesy came true.

Here is a list of the more successful closers from 2012:

Jim Johnson Baltimore
Fernando Rodney Tampa Bay
Jason Motte St. Louis
Craig Kimbrel Atlanta
Rafael Soriano New York (AL)
Chris Perez Cleveland
Jonathan Papelbon Philadelphia
Aroldis Chapman Cincinnati
Joe Nathan Texas
Joel Hanrahan Pittsburgh

Ten guys; they were the 2012 leaders in the saves category. So what is the most disconcerting thing about this list? They averaged a little over 41 saves, roughly the same as the top 10 in 2011. Half were from the National League and half from the American League. Some had exceptional peripherals, while others were at least somewhat unkind to an owner’s WHIP and/or ERA. The problem, from a fantasy standpoint, is that only two of the 10 (Kimbrel and Hanrahan) appeared on the same list following the 2011 season. Eight new names suddenly appeared, which of course means, eight names from 2011, many of them key acquisitions prior to the 2012 draft, disappeared somewhere on the journey. It certainly reinforces that sage advice: don’t pay a lot for saves on draft day.

To be honest, at this writing, the saves category looks even more muddled heading into 2013. About half of the teams are uncommitted – or offering no more than a token commitment – regarding their closer for the upcoming season. Add in the injuries that are almost sure to happen to a few of the “locked in” closers, and the map to competitiveness in the saves category becomes more daunting than ever.

As always, a few closers will likely be locked in, but that leads to a hefty price tag on draft day, and last season certainly proved there is no guarantee it will pay off. It is nice to have one of those “automatic” closers, but winning the saves category, and your league, usually requires the shrewd owner to uncover at least one hidden gem. With the extremely high casualty rate among closers in 2012, it might be a good idea to focus some of your preparation on handcuffing – the art of predicting, and acquiring, the most likely successor to a current closer’s role.

Opportunity is always first on the list of factors when looking for an heir to your closer’s job. Front office personnel do not like to admit mistakes, so ineffective closers can sometimes have a fairly long leash. It often correlates closely with money – the bigger the contract, the longer the leash. However, after some epic implosions, or long-term injuries, the brain trust is forced to make a change. You have to be ahead of that change. In many cases, you have to be prepared to make a critical pickup off the waiver wire, but it could be worthwhile to anticipate change and make a move on draft day; a move to cover any forthcoming change in roles. So now that you have the timing down, another challenge pops up. The new closer is not always the seemingly obvious option. The very reliable eighth-inning setup guy does not always get the call.

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. Those are the guys to look for.

Let’s take a look at some of the more intriguing endgame possibilities for 2013:

Cubs – The Cubs signed Japanese import Kyuji Fujikawa during the offseason, and the 12-year veteran, who is one of the most successful closers in Japan, is slated to open the season setting up Carlos Marmol. That assumes Marmol is still with the Cubs on Opening Day which is questionable, and that if he is, he can find the strike zone often enough to be effective which is doubtful. If you are looking for saves from this franchise, Fujikawa is the longer-term answer, and if you own Marmol, you need to add Fujikawa to your roster as soon as possible.

DodgersKenley Jansen was the lead endgamer in this column last season. He took over the closer’s gig early on, and until he suffered a recurring heart problem, he did the job with a flare. He underwent surgery to alleviate the heart condition, and should be 100 percent this year, but the Dodgers also inked Brandon League to a three-year contract. That signing has to make the closing scenario a bit cloudy, but Jansen has the stuff and demeanor to be a dominant closer for a long time, and League really profiles better as a setup man. This is an ideal handcuff situation, but look for Jansen (if healthy) to emerge as the main guy even if League begins the season as the closer.

TigersJose Valverde was one of the closers who disappeared from the top-10 list in 2012 after leading baseball in saves in 2011. He is gone now, and the Tigers may be holding open auditions for the role in 2013. The favorite could be Bruce Rondon, who has the pedigree, if not the experience to step in. Joaquin Benoit is a top setup man, but clearly fits better in that role, and there is always the possibility the Tigers will go outside the organization. Watch this one closely as the season approaches. Rondon has the tools, and the Tigers would love to see him succeed, but they may not be comfortable handing him the reins right now.

Mets – The oft-injured Frank Francisco will probably open the year closing for the Mets, but in all likelihood, he is just a placeholder for fireballer Bobby Parnell. He has the stuff to be sure, but has not yet developed a consistent approach that will allow him to be the reliable endgamer the Mets think he will become. They know what they have, and listed Parnell as virtually untouchable during the offseason as many team asked about his availability. Francisco is unlikely to stay healthy for long stretches, and even if he does, it is only a matter of time before Parnell steps into the role.

Rangers – This is a real head-scratcher. Joe Nathan performed very well last year after missing 2011 following arm surgery, but the Rangers added premier closer Joakim Soria who is expected back after missing all of 2012. Nathan is a future Hall-of-Famer, but he is advancing a bit in years, so maybe Soria is a rather expensive insurance policy. Soria should be back early in the season (estimates say May), and will probably fill a setup role initially, but it is hard to believe he won’t be finishing games at some point in 2013, and well beyond.

Blue Jays – The Jays acquired Sergio Santos to serve as their closer prior to the 2012 season, but he lasted just a few innings before heading to the disabled list following shoulder surgery. He has excellent stuff when healthy, but shoulder woes are never a good sign, and setbacks in recovery are common. Casey Janssen emerged as a very capable closer during the second half of last year, and has given the Jays no reason to make a change. Santos is expected back before the season begins, but Janssen probably has the inside track to the job to begin the season.

Astros – Every offseason closer analysis includes spinning the wheel of fortune in Houston. Now in the American League, the Astros will again have decisions to make in their bullpen. Wesley Wright and Xavier Cedeno are the more experienced candidates to close, but neither is a strong option, so look for a couple of kids to step up. Both Jarred Cosart (acquired in the Hunter Pence deal) and Rhiner Cruz (a Rule 5 pick the Astros carried on their roster all last season) have exceptionally live arms, but poor command. Still, with nothing to lose, look for one of them to get a crack. Give the edge to Cruz, assuming the Astros would still like to see Cosart develop as a starter, but if that plan changes, Cosart could step right in.

Those are some of the better battles to watch, but there are plenty of others. Aroldis Chapman is likely headed to the rotation in Cincinnati, but can Jonathan Broxton stay healthy? Ernesto Frieri gave the Angels a huge boost, but they signed Ryan Madson in the offseason after he missed all of 2012. It looks like the Angels want Frieri to handle setup duties and serve as insurance should Madson have any problems coming back.

As I stated last season, sneaking saves past your fantasy league opponents does not always require a Trojan horse, you just have to read the signs, and be ready to jump. Good luck in 2013!