Roster Doctor: The Unpredictability of Closers, AL Edition

Last week, we ran down the National League’s closer situations, and some of the best potential opportunities to exploit. This time, we tackle the American League.

BALTIMORE ORIOLES

Closer: Jim Johnson
Lying in wait: Pedro Strop

Stating the obvious, strikeouts are a wonderful thing for a pitcher. Retire a batter by your own hand and you don’t have to sweat the vagaries of luck, defense, park effects, and all the factors that can conspire to ruin a pitcher’s day, through no fault of his own. More broadly, strikeouts are a great predictor of success: Other than the occasional Carlos Marmol, the top strikeout pitchers in baseball often double as the top pitchers in baseball, period.

But that doesn’t mean pitchers can’t find success in other ways. In 2011, Jim Johnson shook off a career full of mostly unimpressive results to become one of the league’s top setup men; few noticed because he lacked the glory that comes with getting the last out of games. Given his first extended shot at closing last year, Johnson flourished, marking just the 12th time in history that a pitcher had racked up 50 or more saves. The Orioles played a ton of close games last year and famously posted the best record ever for one-run games, which played a big part in Johnson’s gaudy save totals. But Johnson himself was responsible for much of that success, and not because of his strikeouts. The right-hander’s 15.2 percent K rate ranked just 219th among 270 pitchers with 60 or more innings pitched last year. His 62.3 percent ground ball rate, on the other hand, ranked 6th among those same 270 pitchers, his tidy 5.6 percent walk rate ranking 45th. If you walk very few batters and induce a ton of grounders, you’re simply not going to put many men on base, nor allow many extra-base hits. Sure, you’ll be susceptible to a few five-hoppers sneaking through the infield. But if that’s the worst of a closer’s problems, he’s probably going to put up a bunch of big seasons.

He might not fit the profile of the fire-breathing ninth-inning man. But Johnson is one of the game’s best, his hold on the closing job is rock-solid, and there’s no regression monster lurking around the corner.

BOSTON RED SOX

Closer: Andrew Bailey
Lying in wait: Koji Uehara, Junichi Tazawa
Injured: Joel Hanrahan

Seems crazy to say this after last year’s meltdown, but the 2013 Red Sox bullpen looks pretty damn strong. Examine Boston’s pen piece by piece and you can start to understand its early success, small sample and all. Last year’s disaster started once Bailey hit the disabled list to start the season, paving the way for Mark Melancon and then Alfredo Aceves to get strafed in their auditions at closer. Bailey has always been effective when healthy, striking out more than a batter an inning for his career, with a strikeout-to-walk rate of better than 3-to-1, and few long balls on his ledger. Offseason pickup Joel Hanrahan had started to struggle before landing on the DL this week, and Bailey was supposed to be the team’s closer before last year’s injury after coming over in the Josh Reddick trade. As long as Bailey stays healthy, he may well keep the closer’s job even after Hanrahan returns. Which means he’d be a good trade target now, before it becomes obvious that he’s entrenched in the job.

Bailey’s excellent setup men should hold lots of leads and help him garner plenty of save chances. Uehara’s strikeout-to-walk rate of 7.9-to-1 is the best for any pitcher in baseball history. Tazawa throws mid-90s heat and is coming off an excellent 2012 season that got ignored amid Boston’s 93-loss embarrassment last year. In standard leagues that count holds, or even deeper leagues that don’t, Uehara and Tazawa would do wonders for your ratios, and throw in plenty of strikeouts for good measure.

CHICAGO WHITE SOX

Closer: Addison Reed
Lying in wait: Matt Thornton, Matt Lindstrom

Reed had his share of struggles in his debut as the White Sox closer last year, much of them because of an inflated .323 batting average on balls in play (league average is in the low .290s). But as he showed in his very good (and brief) minor league career, Reed’s got the stuff to dominate hitters. No one else on the roster poses a serious threat to his job security either, making Reed one of the safer closer choices in the AL.

CLEVELAND INDIANS

Closer: Chris Perez
Lying in wait: Vinnie Pestano

Vinnie Pestano is a better pitcher than Chris Perez. He strikes out more batters, walks fewer, and allows fewer home runs. If being the closer were truly the best way for a dominant reliever to help his team win, it would be Pestano, not Perez, manning the ninth-inning job in Cleveland.

It isn’t. Even after making some allowance for the pressure that many in baseball claim is very real and very different in the ninth, the eighth inning tends to yield tougher matchups and more true game-saving opportunities. The analytically inclined Indians front office is no doubt aware of all this. Throw in the discontent that a role change could engender — particularly for someone as volatile as Perez — and Cleveland has no good reason to swap the two right-handers’ roles. So go ahead and roster Pestano for his holds (if your league counts them) and strikeouts. Just don’t bank on a bunch of saves based on the concept of meritocracy. Pestano is already filling the role you’d want your best reliever to have.

DETROIT TIGERS

Closer: Joaquin Benoit
Lying in wait: Phil Coke, Octavio Dotel, Al Alburquerque, Bruce Rondon, Jose Valverde, Willie Hernandez, Mike Ilitch, the entire roster of the 1988 Pistons

The pitcher who will lead the Tigers in saves by year’s end probably isn’t on the major league roster right now. Benoit’s slider-changeup combo can be deadly when he’s on, but he’s been shaky in the ninth in the early going this year, and the Tigers grew comfortable with him in the setup role when Valverde was saving games. We’ve covered Coke’s bad fit for the closer role before: Amazing story, terrible splits. Valverde is a long shot to reclaim the job, given the Tigers didn’t even see fit to keep him in the organization until very recently. Rondon, on the other hand, carries massive strikeout potential and isn’t far removed from being the expected closer this spring. He could see a bunch of saves before too long. Perhaps even more likely would be a trade for a stopper, once the Tigers reach the deadline, realize they’re going to cruise to the AL Central title, and do a bit of last-minute shopping to round out their roster.

HOUSTON ASTROS

Closer: Jose Veras
Lying in wait: Rhiner Cruz
Injured: Josh Fields

Even 60-win teams will get their share of save chances, so you can’t completely dismiss this bullpen, especially if you’re in something deeper than a 12-team mixed league. In a situation like Houston’s, where the team’s collecting high draft picks and doing things on the cheap and no firebreathing young relievers lie in wait, possession of the closer job might be nine-tenths of the law. If Jose Veras pitches like he has the past two seasons, fanning more than a batter an inning with maybe a few too many walks, that could be enough to net him 25 saves. If you’re looking for a super-sleeper in the Astros’ pen (i.e., you’re in a 72-team AL-only league), Josh Fields was the best college closer in the country five years ago and can still fire his fastball in the mid-90s.

KANSAS CITY ROYALS

Closer: Greg Holland
Lying in wait: Kelvin Herrera

Forgetting fantasy for a second, you have to admire the job the Royals have done in developing and trading for dynamic, young relief pitchers — Kansas City’s pen produced more value than anyone else’s last year. As deep as the relief corps is, Holland and Herrera are the only relevant combatants for saves, with Aaron Crow, Tim Collins, and the rest condemned to work earlier in the game (and do an excellent job of it). After a slow start and a DL stint last year, Holland flourished in the closer’s role, racking up 16 saves and striking out 91 batters in 67 innings while firing a fastball that averaged 96 mph. He’s off to a shaky start this year, and with the Royals fancying themselves as potential contenders (and one of the game’s best relievers in Herrera lying in wait) we could see manager Ned Yost yank Holland from the role before too long. As is, Yost seems unwilling to use Holland more than a couple of days in a row, which should create some save chances for Herrera. His four-run strafing at the hands of the Braves this week notwithstanding, Herrera’s lights-out stuff, sparkling numbers, and Holland’s already slightly tenuous hold on the job demand that you grab Herrera now; his value could skyrocket at any moment.

LOS ANGELES ANGELS

Closer: Ernesto Frieri
Injured: Ryan Madson

That whole Jose Veras possession thing applies here with Frieri. He’s only supposed to keep the closer’s job until Ryan Madson returns from Tommy John surgery. But pitchers rarely pitch at full strength immediately upon coming back from TJ. Moreover, Frieri’s an excellent pitcher in his own right, with a strikeout rate right near the top of baseball (non-Kimbrel/Chapman division). If you’re a Madson owner, you might want to make alternate arrangements for saves. And if there’s an antsy Frieri owner in your league thinking he should pawn him off before Madson takes his job and erases his value, see if you can make a low-ball offer. Worst-case scenario: You’ve got a truly elite pitcher who will tidy up your ratios and might approach 100 strikeouts, a rarity for any reliever in today’s game.

MINNESOTA TWINS

Closer: Glen Perkins
Lying in wait: Jared Burton

Perkins doesn’t have a long track record as a closer, having just claimed the full-time job from Matt Capps last year. He’s also a lefty, and lefties rarely get the ninth-inning role and seem to elicit bias from managers who would rather have someone else hold onto it. But Perkins struck out more than a batter an inning last year, and quickly ended a would-be timeshare with Burton (a right-hander), cementing his status as the only saves guy worth owning in this pen. The Twins might flirt with 100 losses, but Perkins should still be a solid stealth closer to own.

NEW YORK YANKEES

Closer: Mariano Rivera
Lying in wait: Really?

Even at age 43, even coming off major knee surgery, Rivera is about as rock-solid as ever in the Yankees closer role, as his legendary cutter remains close to unhittable even now. The reverence he inspires affords him huge job security even if he were to falter for a while (all right fine, David Robertson would be the guy in the very unlikely event something went seriously wrong for a second straight year). In a hypothetical world, it would be fun to see how long Rivera could remain an effective closer if he put no timetable on his retirement. Rivera’s ability to neutralize hitters for this long using only one pitch makes that pitch seem almost like a parlor trick, something he could trot out at age 65 and still carve through the heart of most lineups. Since we only get him until season’s end, best to enjoy the great trickster while we can.

OAKLAND A’s

Closer: Grant Balfour
Lying in wait: Ryan Cook

Balfour returned sooner than expected from arthroscopic knee surgery (seriously, he got scoped on February 14 and was back to full strength just five or six weeks later — technology is amazing) and has been solid since, replicating the form that earned him 24 saves in his first regular crack at closing last year. Balfour does have a bit of a history with injuries, though the major ones all happened several years ago. Pick up Cook as a handcuff if you’re a Balfour owner. But if you’re just trying to spec for saves, there’s not much here unless you own the main guy.

SEATTLE MARINERS

Closer: Tom Wilhelmsen
Lying in wait: Carter Capps
Injured: Stephen Pryor

Another case where the closer has pretty strong job security, despite only claiming the job a year ago. Wilhelmsen’s 96 mph fastball and plus curve combined with his pitcher-friendly home park (even after the M’s moved in Safeco’s fences) make him a reliable source of strong ratios and ample strikeouts and saves. Pryor was tabbed as the team’s closer of the future as recently as last season, but Wilhelmsen’s ascent and Pryor’s command issues made for an easy choice. Even if Wilhelmsen got hurt, Capps may well be higher than Pryor in the pecking order right now. Unless you’re in a very deep league, these aren’t issues worth contemplating, nor are the Mariners’ setup men players worth rostering.

TAMPA BAY RAYS

Closer: Fernando Rodney
Lying in wait: Jake McGee, Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta

It’s weird to think of the pitcher who walked near seven batters per nine innings one year in Detroit and struggled with both health and control in Anaheim as one of baseball’s best and most entrenched closers. But that’s what you get after a ludicrous season in which Rodney allowed only five earned runs all season. He’s already allowed three this year, but he’s got the job to himself barring a true implosion. There’s one other scenario that could open the door for someone else to nab some saves. If the Rays’ offense continues to stink and the team can’t contend, Rodney would make better sense as trade bait than just about anyone else on the roster. At that point, the 97 mph fastball chucker McGee, the 2011 closer Farnsworth, or the reliable setup man Peralta could all stake a claim to the job. We’re talking multiple levels of hypotheticals for any of the three to win the gig, so no need to get too cute here.

TEXAS RANGERS

Closer: Joe Nathan
Lying in wait: Tanner Scheppers, Robbie Ross
Injured: Joakim Soria, Neftali Feliz

That’s a lot of names to list as backups, given the no. 21 saves man of all time is still going strong. If Nathan got hurt tomorrow, the Rangers would probably go to a closer-by-committee, or at least by matchup, until he returned. If it happens in, say, mid-June or later, Soria could be the best bet. Feliz just had Tommy John on August 1 of last year so he’s a lousy bet to save games in the regular season, even if multiple injuries happen in front of him. But the many quality pitchers working their way back from injury (add Colby Lewis and Matt Harrison to the list), along with potential promotions for the likes of Jurickson Profar and Mike Olt, bode well for a the Rangers to play better in the second half than the first this year.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS

Closer: Casey Janssen
Lying in wait: Steve Delabar
Injured: Sergio Santos

Janssen didn’t go high in anyone’s draft this year. The Jays figured to get Santos back after an injury absence for most of last season, thus returning the player they acquired at the 2011 Winter Meetings to be their closer. Janssen had been so successful in a prior role as a setup man that Toronto management might’ve wanted more of that. And Delabar offered tons of strikeout ability and overall pitching ability as the other guy on the cusp. But Janssen was probably underestimated, in retrospect. In bagging 22 saves last year, Janssen flashed an off-the-charts 6-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate and emerged as one of 2012′s more reliable closer options. Sure, you might’ve been a little nervous about a pitcher who didn’t break out until after his 30th birthday, especially after a season in which he allowed a regression-tastic .240 batting average on balls in play. But if you’re shopping for a reliable second-tier closer who won’t cost what Kimbrel, Chapman, or Rivera will, Janssen is a fine choice.

Filed Under: Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, Fantasy Baseball, Houston Astros, Kansas City Royals, Los Angeles Angels, Minnesota Twins, New York Yankees, Seattle Mariners, Tampa Bay Rays, Texas Rangers, Toronto Blue Jays

jonah_keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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