There are a number of closer jobs up for grabs in Spring Training and even more situations where a player has earned the right to start the season with 9th inning duties but could find himself deposed at some point during the campaign. I’m never one to chase saves on draft day, settling for later options. Further, in acknowledgement that there are always enough saves on the waiver wire at the start of the season I’ll try to tackle the category as opportunity arises throughout the season.
This doesn’t make me a position punter, really, as I know the importance of keeping all five pitching categories in play, I’m just acknowledging that it is a stat you can find late in drafts and in the free agent pool.
[This post appears as part of our free, comprehensive 2014 Fantasy Baseball Draft Guide]
With that in mind, here are ten situations that I’m keeping my eye on in camp and throughout the year. These second chair or sleeper closers could represent significant draft day value.
Analysis: Hunter finds himself in a bit of a unique situation as he has very little career experience as a closer, and as such would be a prime candidate to falter and lose his job. With that said, there aren’t a lot of proven options behind him either and I don’t see Darren O’Day, despite back to back seasons with a WHIP at 1.00 or better and a stronger K/9 rate than Hunter as a valid option. I’m guessing the Orioles don’t either and will therefore give Hunter a long leash. That makes this scenario different than the others below in that I see Hunter as a great draft day target not because he is likely to find his way into the job, but because he’ll have it, hold it, and come cheap.
A pitcher who throws hard out of the bullpen and who posted a strong 2.81 ERA and .98 WHIP across 86 innings last season Hunter seems to fit the profile of a successful closer. The 27 year old Hunter is taking over in the role for a team that has supported a 50 save closer for two straight seasons and while I’m not ready to call him the next Jim Johnson, Baltimore is and that fact shouldn’t be discounted. It is fully believable that Hunter could approach 40 saves without even posting overwhelmingly strong numbers. After all, Johnson has averaged a 2.72 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and just 6.3 K/9 while compiling 101 saves over the last two seasons so Hunter may need just good, not elite, numbers to rack up saves.
Analysis: There was a period this offseason, following their trade for Addison Reed, that the Diamondbacks were coy about their closer situation. As April approaches, it is now fairly clear that the job is Reed’s to start the year. That said, Reed had an imperfect season for the White Sox on the road to an impressive 40 saves. He was second to Jim Johnson with eight blown saves and posted a 3.79 ERA – a number he has never had below 3.68 at the Major League level. As a team, Arizona blew a ton of saves last year, suggesting that Manager Kirk Gibson and company may have a short trigger finger should Reed falter. With a proven closer in Putz and Ziegler who had 11 holds and 13 saves for the team last year available as alternative options Reed may not hold the job all season, meaning that both Putz and Ziegler are players of interest.
Analysis: We have a unique situation unfolding in Texas where two once elite closers coming back from arm issues find themselves contending for the gig. The early assumption would be that Feliz has first crack after a failed bid to turn him into a starter. After all, he saved 40 games for the Rangers in 2010 and followed with 32 the next year, and was clocked at 98 MPH in winter ball. That said, early Spring reports haven’t been glowing on Feliz and the door has been left open for Soria. Like Feliz, he has a 40 save season to his credit (two in fact) and boasts 160 of them on his career.
It is conceivable that Soria – whose numbers didn’t wow in brief action last year after missing all of 2012 – takes the job to start the season, making Feliz a high risk, potentially high reward play on draft day and the former Royals stopper a player of interest at the back end of your draft or on the waiver wire.
Analysis: Jones’ presence on this list is not a reaction to an early Spring injury, as he should be back in action soon, but simply to the fact that he hasn’t been given the job yet and any set backs at this time of year may limit his opportunities to do so. That situation presents an interesting scenario within which both Jones and Lindstrom could have draft day value. The longer it is before a closer is named, the more adversely affected the eventual winner of the job’s draft stock is affected.
Lindstrom has his own injury concerns, and hasn’t picked up a save since 2010 but assuming Jones claims the job and falters (he had a 4.15 ERA and lost five games in 2013), the 34 year old does have 40 career saves worth of experience and could step into the job.
Analysis: The 9th inning is always a pressure packed situation for a closer, and some outstanding pitchers simply don’t have the mental makeup for the role. I’m not suggesting that is the case for Robertson who had an outstanding 2013 (2.04 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 77 Ks in 66 innings) but I will say that in addition to the regular pressure faced at the position Robertson has the added weight of taking over for the all time best at the position. Not an easy task. Again, with strong K/9 numbers and the chance to close out games for New York there is a reasonable case to be made for Robertson as an RP value play but Thornton is worth keeping an eye on should Robertson falter.
Analysis: I’ve covered my concerns with Uehara in a number of different posts (1 | 2) this offseason, so I’ll spare you the detail here but Mujica is a proven closer (saving 37 games last year) and while Uehara is coming off an amazing season, I’m not entirely convinced that he’ll keep it rolling this year. Further, at 39 there is an injury risk so Mujica is on the radar as one of the top relief pitchers just one step away from big time fantasy value. Remember that Uehara himself gained his value from a mid-season promotion following Andrew Bailey‘s injury in 2013.
Analysis: Speaking of older pitchers who could regress, get injured or otherwise not be able to fulfill their 9th inning duties, LaTroy Hawkins has yet to be named the team’s closer. Hawkins has been working exclusively as a reliever since 1999 and is coming off an impressive season with the Mets, in which he collected 13 saves – his most since 2004. At this stage of his career he’s still throwing hard enough (92.6 MPH average fastball last year) and his low FB% should play well in Coors Field, but that number has risen every season over the last three and a few ticks higher might lead to a few more balls leaving the park.
In steps Rex Brothers who saved 19 games for the Rockies last season while posting a 1.74 ERA. He was nothing short of excellent in the role last season and yet seems to be sitting in second chair at the moment. If pressed at the end of my draft, I’ll go with Brothers and assume that Hawkins falters sooner or later, leaving the job open for a pitcher 15 years his junior.
Analysis: Remember Jose Veras? He saved 19 games for Houston last year before departing for Detroit as a pitcher who had just five career saves coming into the year with a 2.93 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP (Houston numbers). Those numbers were fine enough, but not world ending and he still picked up those 19 saves in 42 games given the number of close contests that Houston found themselves in.
This year, with Jesse Crain injured to start the season one of Chad Qualls and Matt Albers will start the season as Houston’s closer and despite playing for a struggling team, he’ll find himself with plenty of save opportunities. Qualls is the presumptive closer at this point and is absolutely worth a pick but be attentive to Crain as he prepares to come off the disabled list, particularly if Qualls struggles in the role.
Analysis: With 43 saves and a 1.23 WHIP last season Soriano joins Addison Reed as a 40 game closer who did so without dominating opponents. That was great news for Soriano owners last year but it leaves the Nationals with other options to consider this year. For his part, the 34 year old came to camp in better shape with the goal of improving an underwhelming 2013 K/9 rate and the disappointing WHIP.
Behind him, Clippard did a nice job with 33 holds in 72 games but is likely 3rd in line for saves. This is where the situation gets convoluted though. Drew Storen, who struggled to start 2013 but put together a strong close to the season is 2nd in line – unless and until the team trades him. At that point, he will very likely be anointed closer of his new team on the spot. Meaning that a) Storen is a closer and b) Clippard is worth a look as the new next in line in Washington.
Again, with 40 saves under his belt from 2013 Soriano gets the benefit of the doubt and his ability to strand base runners (more than 80% in each of the last two seasons) is a strong sign as closers have to be able to pitch their way out of jams but he has to be as he hasn’t posted a WHIP under 1.17 since 2010.
Analysis: Janssen and Santos find themselves on this list simply because while the former has put together consecutive strong seasons including 56 saves over the two years, he has also dealt with minor injuries in each of those campaigns and the latter was brought in two years ago to be the stopper. Santos is fully healthy (aside from some significant weight loss this offseason) for the first time since arriving in Toronto and could step into the role if Janssen, who is dealing with shoulder inflammation issues, falters or winds up missing significant time at any point this season.