The Hot Stove is just firing up and yet we've already seen a lot of turnover in the closer market. Hell, I even wrote that first sentence beforeFrancisco Rodriguez was dealt to the Tigers (though I did see him being dealt at some point as the first run of this list had a Brewer on it even w/K-Rod in place, too). We've seen one of the very best dealt in Craig Kimbrel and that was after his obvious backfill – Joaquin Benoit – was traded to Seattle which totally opens up San Diego's situation.
We all know how volatile the closer market is for fantasy baseball so none of this is surprising. Just looking back at our top 20 RPs from the Rotowire Magazine, we see four in the top 15 who didn't even log double digit saves. The 18th-ranked closer, Trevor Rosenthal, had 48 saves. And this isn't to say we did a bad job in the magazine, but rather to underline how difficult it is to project this position because it's so heavily tied to a statistic that only one guy can get in any single game.
Roberto Osuna wasn't even sniffing the radar in Toronto last spring with Brett Cecil, Aaron Sanchez, and even Miguel Castro getting attention ahead of him. He wound up saving 20 games and being one the best second-half closers in the game. Who knew A.J. Ramos would become a stud closer? Hector Rondon even lost the job for a brief spell in-season, but still wound up topping his impressive 2014 with 30 saves and a 1.67 ERA. Who's next? Who will be talking about this time next year as a top closer option?
Here are five guys who could emerge as the next-big-thing in the ninth inning:
CARSON SMITH [SEA]
OK, I'm cheating a little bit with him because he logged 13 saves in 2015 before losing the job in mid-August. Incumbent Tom Wilhelmsen was dealt out, but Benoit was brought in so it's not guaranteed to go to Smith, but it definitely should. Smith had a 32% K rate and it was backed by his stuff (93-95 MPH heat, amazing slider) which included a 13% swinging strike (SwStr) rate.
When batters weren't striking out, they usually hit the ball on the ground with a 65% GB rate in his 70 IP of work. It all yielded a 2.31 ERA and 1.01 WHIP. Ideally, we'd get some clarity on the situation for Seattle in Spring Training, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was set up as a Benoit/Smith battle only to see Benoit getting first crack regardless of how ST plays out, especially with an $8 million dollar salary. That wouldn't be all bad though as Benoit is still excellent. He didn't make this list because I think he'll be the favorite in depth charts all winter.
HUNTER STRICKLAND [SF]
Strickland is probably best known for six-homer postseason and subsequent argument with Nationals after one of them, but he rebounded brilliantly from that in 2015 with a 2.45 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, and just four homers allowed in 51.3 IP. He has a true 80-grade fastball. It averaged 98 MPH and had a 17% SwStr rate, third-best among the 281 pitchers who threw at least 500 fastballs behind Aroldis Chapman (20%) and Yimi Garcia (19%).
Santiago Casilla handled the role well last year with a 2.79 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, and 38 saves, but at 35 years old he's definitely not the long-term option and I wouldn't be surprised if they realized he fit better in the eighth inning or even the seventh behind Strickland and Sergio Romo. In other words, even though he did well, I don't think he is an immovable object in Strickland's way.
I listed Smith first because his 13 SV might disqualify him from the idea behind this list for some, but if I were ranking them 1-5 in terms of how I'd pick them, Strickland would be #1 right now.
CARTER CAPPS [MIA]
Capps would be my top guy if he didn't finish the season with an elbow injury. He only threw 31 innings, but they were absolutely incredible. He had a 49% K rate, 6% BB rate, 1.16 ERA, and 0.81 WHIP. His 25% SwStr rate was easily the best among relievers with at least 30 IP (Chapman, 19%). Twenty-five percent!! It was just 31 innings and these kind of historical numbers are unlikely to hold up over a full season, but he can regress substantially and still have elite numbers.
Even if the elbow is fine, Ramos is real impediment. He will start the season with the job and he definitely should. He was great for 70 innings including 32 saves and 87 strikeouts. If there's a flaw in Ramos' game, it's the walk rate. He entered 2015 with a 13% BB rate so his 9% mark was actually a career-best and his first time under 4.0 walks per nine. If Ramos falters, Capps would get a chance and I'm not sure he'd relinquish the role.
JEREMY JEFFRESS [MIL]
The aforementioned K-Rod news opens up the Milwaukee spot now. Early depth charts (specifically, Roster Resource) have Corey Knebel in there, though he's also a worthy candidate for a list like this since we don't know exactly where they will go in the ninth. Jeffress was always seen as someone who would likely wind up in the backend of a bullpen. He was a big-time prospect as a starter, but it always looked like the bullpen is where he belonged.
He has now spent the last year and a half with the Brewers (they drafted him in the first round back in 2006, but then included him in the Greinke deal) and been an impressive arm out of the pen. He throws smoke (96-97 MPH) and his walk rate has improved tremendously. In 96.7 IP, he has a 7% walk rate (2.7 per nine). He had a 13% rate in 496 IP as a minor leaguer. He also has a 59% groundball rate these last two years with the Brewers which helps keeps the ball in the yard, a must for closers.
Jeffress' inclusion could be rendered moot by draft season as I wouldn't be surprised to see him named to the role out of camp. But with Knebel topping early depth charts, Jeffress can likely still be had for a relative discount in off-season trading leagues.
NATE JONES [CWS]
This is the biggest longshot of the bunch. David Robertson did nothing to loosen his grip on the closer's role with an excellent debut season in Chicago. But things happen at this position so it's always wise to be aware of potential fill-ins. Jones made some noise back in 2012 when Addison Reed was struggling, but never got a shot. He sputtered a bit in 2013 and then missed 2014 to Tommy John Surgery.
He only threw 19 innings last year so we can't get too crazy about his results (38% K, 8% BB, 3.25 ERA, 0.95 WHIP). But the velocity was all the way back and while his 8% BB rate wasn't special, it was actually a couple ticks better than his 10% mark through 2014. His power slider was absolutely insane and drove his 2015 success. The pitch allowed a .031/.061/.125 line in 33 PA with a 67% K rate and 29% SwStr rate.
The strikeout rate was second-best among pitchers who threw at least 100 sliders (330 pitchers). The OPS and SwStr were third among the same group. By the way, Capps was first in strikeout (76%) and SwStr (43%, lol) rates, though only 7th in OPS because two of the four hits off the pitch went for extra bases.
The 30-year old righty will need some help to get a closer's role, but if he can command his heater, he can be a ninth-inning beast.