Roster Doctor: The Unpredictability of Closers, NL Edition

Last year, Jason Motte was one of the best and most reliable closers in the game, racking up 42 saves, nearly 11 strikeouts per nine innings, and a 2.75 ERA. He signed a two-year, $12 million contract in January, and was widely expected to have another big year banking saves for a playoff-contending Cardinals team.

We’ll let the excellent news and analysis site Rotowire.com take it from here:

MARCH 23: Motte has what the club is describing as a “mild strain” in his right elbow that will keep him off the mound for at least a week as the team explores the severity of the injury and potential treatments, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. General manager John Mozeliak said Motte will “likely” start the season on the disabled list with the flexor strain.

OK, no biggie.

MARCH 25: Motte has been doing some range-of-motion exercises and has felt relief from the pain caused by the slightly torn flexor tendon in his throwing elbow, but still needs to do a series of arm exercises without pain before he can throw again, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports.

That’s progress. Shouldn’t be much longer.

MARCH 29: Motte (elbow) was placed on the 15-day disabled list Friday, retroactive to March 22, MLB.com reports.

All right, not ideal, but teams make these back-dated DL moves all the time to start the season. He’ll be back in a week. Two, tops.

APRIL 2: Motte (elbow) isn’t expected to be re-evaluated until April 11, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports.

Uhhh … that doesn’t sound good. Why are they waiting to evaluate him? And why doesn’t the evaluation read: “That closer I just spent $20 to get in my fantasy auction is A-OK”?

APRIL 9: Motte had an MRI on his elbow as scheduled Tuesday, but Cardinals team physician Dr. George Paletta wasn’t available to read the MRI before the start of Tuesday’s game, the team’s official site reports.

Ruh-roh.

APRIL 9: Motte’s elbow MRI showed a torn ligament, MLB.com’s Jenifer Langosch reports. If he doesn’t show improvement by May 1, he’ll likely need Tommy John surgery.

&%#(@^^&#^(!#$$@

Motte’s descent into potential fantasy irrelevance serves as a stark reminder of the unpredictability of closers. Mariano Rivera, as much of a lock as any relief pitcher in major league history, blew up plenty of fantasy teams last year with his Shag Heard ’Round the World (not going to post a video because Yankees fans have suffered enough, and because the double-entendre potential here is too easy). There are closer bargains to be had in most drafts these days that are worth chasing. But there’s also a reason Matthew Berry’s do not pay for saves edict has caught on: Even the best closers get hurt, or suddenly become ineffective. That makes finding cheap alternatives a great way to gain an edge on the competition.

With that in mind, let’s dive into the closer and closer-in-waiting pool, National League this week, American League next week. Who are the closers who are, if not quite unimpeachable, at least pretty trustworthy? Who should you be targeting for saves later this season? Given how early it is and how much change figures to unfold over the next five and a half months, this is your opportunity to make some shrewd, under-the-radar pickups. Let’s have a look.

ATLANTA BRAVES

Closer: Craig Kimbrel
Lying in wait: Jordan Walden, Eric O’Flaherty
Injured: Jonny Venters

With Rivera retiring, Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman (and maybe Jonathan Papelbon) are probably the most bulletproof closers around, with the first two owning historic strikeout rates to go with their gaudy save totals. The Braves toyed with the idea of a tandem-closer arrangement while Venters was piling up high-90s fastballs and strikeouts from the left side. But Kimbrel quickly claimed the job for himself, and Venters’s command has eroded, to the point where he’s out until at least May and has already seen Dr. James Andrews, which is never a good thing. Unless you’re in a ridiculously deep league or count holds as a category, Kimbrel’s the only pitcher who needs rostering here.

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS

Closer: J.J. Putz
Lying in wait: David Hernandez, Heath Bell

You want to own Hernandez. Putz is 36 years old, has struggled with nagging injuries for a good chunk of the past five years, and has seen his fastball velocity drop sharply from peak levels a few years ago. Arizona GM Kevin Towers has a Heath Bell fixation that dates back to when KT snagged him from the Mets for nothing and watched him develop into a shutdown closer; but Bell can’t get anyone out at this point of his career … except Kyle Lohse. Meanwhile, Hernandez posted career bests in nearly every imaginable statistical category last year, striking out just shy of 13 batters per nine innings, chopping his walk rate to career lows, and keeping the ball in the park. Despite Bell’s more substantial experience closing games, Hernandez is the far better pitcher of the two, has served as Putz’s backup closer for the past two years, and would almost certainly be the guy if something goes wrong with Putz this year. At an absolute minimum, Hernandez is an elite holds guy who’ll help your ratios and rack up nearly as many strikeouts as your basic Joe Saunders–type starter, making him very rosterable in anything deeper than a standard 12-team mixed league.

CHICAGO CUBS

Closer: Kyuji Fujikawa
Lying in wait: James Russell, Shawn Camp, Carlos Marmol

Don’t go nuts investing in any of these guys. Fujikawa is the closer for now, but he turns 33 this year, and if he has any degree of success, it’s not hard to imagine GM Jed Hoyer placing a Proven Closer™ sheen on him, as the Cubs shop for younger players with more upside who could be part of the next winning team on the North Side. Russell or Camp could inherit the job, but Dale Sveum hasn’t tipped his hand one way or another on who might inherit the job. If anything, Marmol could be the supersleeper here, having alienated every fantasy owner in the universe into dropping him and cursing his name until the end of time. At any rate, if you’re in a really deep league like a 12-team NL-only, sure, grab Russell, Camp, or maybe even Marmol, bury ‘em on your bench, and see if you can weasel a few saves. But I wouldn’t trade a quality player for Fujikawa at this point; there are several lightly regarded closers with more job security right now.

CINCINNATI REDS

Closer: Aroldis Chapman
Lying in wait: Jonathan Broxton

The Reds aren’t going to make Chapman a starter, which means the Cuban Missile will remain the biggest wasted asset in baseball, doomed to collect a bunch of cheap, up-three, bases-empty saves rather than being used in the Goose Gossage–style fireman’s role he was born to play. For fantasy players, Chapman being kept at closer also makes Cincy’s bullpen extraordinary dull: Broxton is the nominal backup closer, but Dusty Baker is hell-bent on managing every element of his team in the most traditional, least resource-maximizing way, which means that Chapman will rarely appear any time other than a pure save situation, which means that Broxton’s own save chances, barring injury, will be very rare.

COLORADO ROCKIES

Closer: Rafael Betancourt
Lying in wait: Wilton Lopez

If you’re in some kind of bizarro fantasy league where one of the categories encompasses pitchers’ ability to hold runners, definitely don’t draft Rafael Betancourt. Otherwise, Betancourt remains a reliable closer option despite closing in on his 38th birthday, perennially striking out a batter an inning or better and sporting one of the lowest walk rates in the league. As one of the most extreme fly ball pitchers in baseball plying his trade at Coors Field could conceivably bite him in the ass one day; no evidence of that so far, though. Rex Brothers has occasionally triggered some sleeper closer-in-waiting talk, but most teams will shy away from using a lefty (non-Aroldis division in that role). Lopez, who saved 10 games for the Astros last year and is the polar opposite of Betancourt as an extreme ground ball pitcher, is the heir apparent to own. The only wrinkle could be a flurry of trades at the deadline, wherein contending teams pounce on both Betancourt and Lopez. You could spec on Edgmer Escalona and his mid-90s fastball, but only if you’re in the deepest fantasy league in the history of the known universe.

LOS ANGELES DODGERS

Closer: Brandon League
Lying in wait: Kenley Jansen

Oddly, the bargain here is the guy with the job. In my 18-team mixed league auction, League went for $7 … while Jansen went for $10. I’ve seen similar results in various experts leagues and other drafts too. There are some theoretically logical reasons for this disconnect: Jansen is a huge strikeout pitcher, he saved 25 games for the Dodgers last year, and League has struggled with command issues. But none of those factors change the fact that League is closing games for a team that could win 90-plus games. See if you can buy low on League now, while you can still get a potential 40-save guy cheap. It won’t be long before someone drops Joe Lemire’s great piece on the value of eighth-inning guys in Don Mattingly’s cubby, convincing the Dodgers manager that your best reliever (Jansen) probably shouldn’t be closing anyway.

MIAMI MARLINS

Closer: Steve Cishek
Lying in wait: Jon Rauch, Ryan Webb

Rauch and Webb are next in line by default only, as neither pitcher wields the kind of swing-and-miss stuff you’d look for in a closer (non-Jim Johnson division); Rauch at least has some closer experience, and Webb has a big ground ball rate, though not at Johnson’s level. This is good news for Cishek owners, who’ve seen their cheapie closer give up four and four hits in his first 2⅓ innings of work this year. Still, Cishek’s healthy and his velocity looks fine, so there’s no need to sweat a few balls in play falling in for hits early in the season. If you can buy-low on Cishek given he plays for a lousy team and is off to a superficially ugly start, by all means do it.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS

Closer: Jim Henderson
Lying in wait: John Axford

First things first: “Henderson!” Because honestly, what’s better than two Canadians vying for a major league closer’s job? What’s that you say, Brewers fans? Anything? Sadly, John Axford started started struggling with location last year, giving up too many walks and too many homers … and those problems are still plaguing him. Enter Henderson, a 30-year-old Calgarian who was a 26th-round pick by the Expos in 2003, spent 10 years in the minors, and has finally found a home in the big leagues as fastball-slider chucker with big-time strikeout rates. Brandon Kintzler did save a few games in the minors, and it’s always possible that Axford gets yet another chance to redeem himself. But the best bet is to try and trade for Henderson now, before it sets in that he’s the guy in Milwaukee for the rest of the season.

NEW YORK METS

Closer: Bobby Parnell
Lying in wait: Brandon Lyon
Injured: Frank Francisco

No save opportunities for Parnell yet, but that’s what happens when your team’s blowing everyone out and John Buck is on his way to breaking every offensive record in baseball history. Parnell’s got the skills for the job, posting a three-to-one strikeout-to-walk rate and 61.5 percent ground ball rate last year. Still, he’s not assured of holding the job all year long. Lyon has closer experience, is coming off a solid season of his own, and has settled in as the next healthy reliever in line for the job. Francisco’s coming back from an elbow injury and isn’t particularly good when he’s healthy. But he’s also saved 67 games over the past four years (23 last year for the Mets) and is making $6.5 million; it’s entirely possible that the Mets try to shove Francisco back into the closer’s role, in the hope that some sucker team will equally show interest and pay anything north of magic beans for him. Lyon and especially Francisco could be good sleeper specs in deep, deep leagues.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

Closer: Jonathan Papelbon
Lying in wait: Mike Adams

Papelbon is both one of the best and most durable closers around. Charlie Manuel has no freaking idea how to use him properly, but that’s a real-life issue, not something that will affect his saves total or, by extension, his fantasy value. Adams is so good that I’d try to find a way to roster him even though he’ll see very few saves this year: He’ll be kind to your team’s ratios, get his share of strikeouts, collect the three or four saves that Papelbon can’t when he’s already pitched two or three nights in a row, and in leagues that count holds, he’ll be a beast.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES

Closer: Jason Grilli
Lying in wait: Mark Melancon

The fourth overall pick in the 1997 draft, Grilli and his career could be regarded as disappointments, given the high expectations the Giants had for him way back when. Instead, he’s bounced around for more than a decade, serving as a moderately effective middle reliever and sometime setup man for six teams. Things started to change around 2009. Moved from more of a multi-inning role to a one-inning-at-a-time job, Grilli saw his strikeout rate begin to climb. Last year, he fanned a jaw-dropping 13.8 batters per nine innings, while also throwing his fastball harder than ever before … just shy of his 36th birthday. The Pirates rewarded Grilli with the first multi-year contract of his career, providing job stability to a pitcher who waited his whole career to get it. He’s throwing even harder in the early going this year, and has also racked up three saves, making him a surprisingly safe commodity who’s worth pursuing if his owner doubts his bona fides (in shallower leagues, he could be particularly attainable). If you own Grilli, Melancon’s a good handcuff. Strip out a nightmarish start to last season in which he allowed 11 runs in two innings in a very, very brief audition as closer, and Melancon’s been a fairly reliable pitcher for the past couple of years. Also, there are no other likely saves candidates, should Grilli falter.

SAN DIEGO PADRES

Closer: Huston Street
Lying in wait: Dale Thayer, Luke Gregerson, Andrew Cashner

Street’s been a hugely effective closer as long as he’s been healthy, fanning more than a batter an inning and being stingy with base runners while saving games for three different teams. Problem is, he’s a near lock to hit the DL at least once a year. The Padres liked him enough to give him a two-year contract, so Street should keep the gig for the foreseeable future. If and when he does go down, though, you’ll want those five, seven, or 10 available saves. Gregerson figured to be Street’s replacement when Street went down last year, but Dale Thayer seized the job instead, presumably because Thayer’s terrific facial hair trumped Gregerson’s nasty slider.

Cashner’s the sleeper here, given he can reach triple digits with his fastball and at age 26 with plenty of service time left before free agency, could be a strong long-term answer for the ninth. But that would be a colossal waste of his talent, given Cashner’s background as a starter, the Padres’ desperate need for rotation help, and the greatly superior value a talented pitcher can provide starting rather than in short relief. Cashner’s struggled with injuries, though, so it’s not out of the question they could decide he can’t withstand a starter’s workload and banish him to the pen. Either way, go get Cashner now, while he’s dirt cheap.

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS

Closer: Sergio Romo
Lying in wait: Santiago Casilla, Jeremy Affeldt, Javier Lopez

Romo’s job security isn’t in jeopardy. But Bruce Bochy runs as close to a closer-by-committee as you’ll see in today’s game, occasionally swapping in a lefty for tough, end-of-game matchups, and using Casilla when Romo needs a break. Romo’s clearly the pitcher most worth owning, but you could make a case for all three of the other guys in deeper leagues, too: Casilla saved 25 games last year following Brian Wilson’s injury, before eventually giving way to Romo; Bochy uses Lopez very judiciously, and he’s such a terror against lefties that he’ll always give you solid ratios to go with a couple of saves; and Affeldt’s the best pitcher of the bunch, able to get both lefties and righties out, go multiple innings per outing, and on the rare occasion he gets the call, close the door in the ninth.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

Closer: Mitch Boggs
Lying in wait: Trevor Rosenthal, Fernando Salas, Edward Mujica
Injured: Jason Motte

The situation that Motte has wrought is a muddled one, to say the least. Boggs is the closer for now after serving as Motte’s top setup man last year, but the Cardinals surely tightened the leash after Monday’s six-run meltdown. The most talented pitcher of the bunch is Trevor Rosenthal, whose blazing fastball and bright future will warrant a longer discussion in a future edition of The 30; suffice it to say if skill were all that mattered, Rosenthal would blow everyone else away. If I’m John Mozeliak, I’m invoking the Aroldis Chapman Overqualification Rule and gently nudging Mike Matheny to use anyone else in the role, though. If Boggs falters, Salas or Mujica could probably do a passable impression of a decent closer.

So what does all this mean for your team? If you’re in a league with relatively casual players, Rosenthal’s probably the call, since Boggs has the job right now and the Cardinals might not be able to resist the temptation to give Rosenthal his own entrance music. If you’re in a savvier league, everyone knows about Rosenthal’s talents and they’re probably targeting him while downplaying Boggs, in a Kenley Jansen vs. Brandon League kind of way. In that case, try to trade for Boggs now. There are many traits that go into being a closer. None of them are more important than actually having the job.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS

Closer: Rafael Soriano
Lying in wait: Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard

Storen and Clippard passed the closer’s job back and forth a couple of times last year, but GM Mike Rizzo recognized that the bullpen could stand to get deeper. So, addressing one of the few (only?) weaknesses the team had, he inked Soriano to a multi-year deal, thus bolstering the Nationals’ setup crew by making both Storen and Clippard available in earlier innings. Soriano should be a reliable saves option, with a slight lean toward Storen as the better handcuff of the two.

Filed Under: Arizona Diamondbacks, Atlanta Braves, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Colorado Rockies, Fantasy Baseball, Los Angeles Dodgers, Milwaukee Brewers, New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburgh Pirates, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals, Washington Nationals

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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