MLB Predictions 2011: 15 Setup Men Eyeing the Closer Role
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Look at what fantasy baseball has done to us. We pore over pre-season rankings, stalk the Internet for live game box scores, pray for injuries just major enough to open up opportunities for sleepers. All in the hope of compiling enough saves to win the category.
Of course, roto leagues aren't the only reason for the baseball-loving public's collective love affair with closers, but they sure do bring out the fanatic in all of us.
Prior to 1969, saves weren't even and official statistic. Prior to 1960, they didn't exist at all. For roughly 70 years, the sport got along just fine without having a specific way of quantifying close-game, ninth-inning success, but in the decades since its inception, the save has come to dominate the way managers deploy pitching staffs.
As relievers became more popular in the latter half of the last century, the best arms were used more and more in high-pressure situations. Ultimately, that led to the modern "closer", usually a bullpen's most reliable arm that could come in and preserve ties or leads at the end of games.
With teams depending so heavily on closers, it's not enough to have just one established guy. Each club also needs a closer-in-waiting or two, setup men that, if needed, can step in and get the job done.
So who has staked their claim to the closer-in-waiting spot in 2011? It's time to review (in no particular order) the 15 best relievers who aren't closing now, but could be in line for saves before the season is out.
Wilton Lopez- Houston Astros
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Why: Current closer Brandon Lyon isn't a reliable long-term option. Historically, he's struggled with walking batters, and that can be deadly in close games. Lopez is younger, has better stuff, and posts minuscule walk rates.
When: The Astros aren't a powerful enough team to weather shaky relief. As soon as Lyon hits a prolonged rough patch, expect manager Brad Mills to give Lopez a look. Don't be surprised if the two pitchers split time in the role this year.
How: Lopez isn't a big strikeout guy, but does possess excellent command. He's also efficient, averaging roughly 3.5 pitches per batter in 2010. Last year's 2.96 ERA and 1.06 WHIP show what he's capable of. In 67 innings, he walked only five batters. Finally his ground ball to fly ball ratios have been excellent, and keeping the ball on the ground keeps pitchers safe.
Mike Adams, San Diego Padres
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Why: Adams is currently blocked from the closer role by Heath Bell, one of baseball's best relievers. But the Padres are one of those teams constantly looking to the future. A deep and talented bullpen gives San Diego the luxury of moving a high-demand guy like Bell without much (if any) drop-off in production.
When: As the trading deadline nears, teams will come calling for Bell, which could leave Adams as the man. San Diego does have other options—Luke Gregerson for one—but Adams has proven himself to a greater degree. If Bell is in fact dealt, Bud Black is likely to give Adams the first crack at the job.
How: Adams is a power guy; his K rate (strikeouts per nine innings) has been at or above ten in each of his three full seasons in San Diego. And while some of that is due to the dimensions of Petco Park, Adams' ERA totals have actually been lower in away games each of the last two seasons.
Koji Uehara, Baltimore Orioles
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Why: Baltimore's bullpen is full of would-be closers. Kevin Gregg has the job at the moment, and is "proven"...meaning, he's done a serviceable job closing games in the past. But with a career ERA over 4.00 and a penchant for issuing walks, Gregg is not a prototypical fireman.
If he falters, Buck Showalter could turn to Mike Gonzalez who has had some experience saving games for the Pirates and Braves. But his walk rate is also high. Uehara has the best stuff in the bullpen, combining sufficient power with excellent command.
When: Expect Uehara to move into the role at the first available opportunity. Assuming the closer role is something that must usually be earned, and Uehara has done plenty to prove himself. He just needs a misstep from Gregg to open the door.
How: The Orioles first tried him as a starter in 2009, but found that Uehara is far more useful coming out of the bullpen. His 2010 numbers were outstanding- a 2.86 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 55 strikeouts and only 5 walks in 44 innings. Uehara can overpower hitters when he must, but also has the command to locate his pitches perfectly.
Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox
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Why: White Sox closer Matt Thornton is one of the game's stronger relievers, and has posted great K rates over the past three seasons. But he's never been a closer, and until he proves he can handle the full-time gig, Ozzie Guillen must have a back-up plan in mind. Sale would be the guy to step in if Thornton stumbles.
When: The truth is that Sale and Thornton had very similar numbers last year, and it's entirely possible that Thornton will succeed in his new role. But he has struggled in the early going this year. Transitioning from a setup role to closer isn't always easy. If Thornton blows a couple of saves, the White Sox won't hesitate to go to a committee approach.
How: In limited appearances last year, Sale was almost unhittable. His 1.93 ERA and 1.07 WHIP over 23.1 innings speak for themselves, and the 32 strikeouts indicate his power potential. His fastball can touch 100 miles per hour and his slider is solid. The only thing holding Sale back is the fact that he's a lefty, and not all managers relish having a southpaw closer.
Matt Capps, Minnesota Twins
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Why: Capps is another "proven closer" who has been pushed into a setup role by circumstance. Joe Nathan is the man in Minny, and as long as he's healthy he'll be among the league's best ninth-inning arms. But Nathan missed all of 2010 following Tommy John surgery, and the first year back can be tough.
When: The word is that Nathan's velocity hasn't fully returned, and if he struggles with his power pitches, the Twins might elect to go with Capps in certain situations. Capps was a reliable closer with the Pirates before struggling in 2009, and rebounded with 42 saves in 2010 for the Nats and Twins. If Nathan falters, Capps will fill in well.
How: Capps is all about command. He's never been a big strikeout guy, but he keeps his walk totals incredibly low (around two walks per nine innings) and is efficient on the mound. He averages fewer than four pitches per batter faced, which helps keep his arm intact over the course of the season.
Jason Motte, St. Louis Cardinals
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Why: Ryan Franklin is 38 years old. That alone makes him a risky bet. He's also not really a closer. Though he's done a good job after taking over for Jason Isringhausen and flashed some good command in 2010, he's generally been too free with walks for a guy who doesn't strike out many batters.
Motte is almost ten years younger and brings more power to the table. He also sports a more presentable beard.
When: A Franklin injury would do the trick, as would a slump. But if neither happens, Motte could be stuck. Tony LaRussa prides himself on doing things differently, often for the sake of just being different. If TLR wants to to stick with Franklin, very little will convince him to do otherwise.
How: Motte has posted high K rates in each of his three seasons, but 2010 saw him cut way down on baserunners allowed. He'll have enough strikeouts to keep batters on guard and enough to command to catch them by surprise on the edges.
Brian Fuentes, Oakland Athletics
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Why: Like Matt Capps, Brian Fuentes is a guy who's been there, done that with regard to closing. Teams have a long memory for such accomplishments. Saving games in Colorado made him look good, and while he's lost velocity at age 35, his pedigree will keep him in demand.
When: Andrew Bailey is Oakland's closer. Or will be, as soon as he heals from a forearm problem. So barring more health issues, Fuentes won't be saving many games for the A's.
But Billy Beane is always looking to make good deals, and the Athletics are generally active in the trade market. Fuentes could help teams down the stretch, and it wouldn't be a shock to see him dealt to a team that will give him a shot at closing.
How: As he's aged, Fuentes' strikeout rate has fallen while his walk rate has stayed fairly consistent. That doesn't bode well for his long-term outlook. But taking a short view, he obviously knows what it takes to finish a game. While the so-called "closer's mentality" might be overblown, it's also believed by plenty of managers and players.
Clay Hensley, Florida Marlins
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Why: Leo Nunez is closing for the time being, but the buzz is that Hensley will be the guy at some point soon. And frankly, Nunez's numbers have been pretty pedestrian over the past couple of seasons. Hensley took a big step forward last year after a missed 2009 season and disappointments in 2007 and 2008.
When: Nunez is a marginal pitcher whose job is seemingly always at risk. Hensley just needs him to have a bad run in order for a role reversal to occur. Though the early going has been kind to Nunez, Hensley usurped his position last season, and it feels like it's just a matter of time until things change again in 2011.
How: After briefly trying to make it as a starter with San Diego, Hensley was converted to a reliever in 2007. The initial results weren't good. But after a minor-league stint in 2009, Hensley improved his walk rate dramatically in 2010. That change led to his best numbers since 2005. With his new command, Hensley should be effective in keeping runners off the basepaths.
Jake McGee, Tampa Bay Rays
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Why: Because Kyle Farnsworth is closing in front of him, need I say more? Ok, perhaps that's unfair. But Farnsworth's numbers have often been less-than-stellar and he'll turn 35 next week. McGee is the team's appointed closer-of-the-future. At 24 years old, he's still raw, but at some point soon he's going to get his shot.
When: Since Tampa can't score any runs, it's tough to evaluate what Farnsworth has done so far. But when (not if...when) his ERA creeps back towards 4.00, the Rays will have to consider giving McGee some experience. By late summer, he should at least have a share of the duties.
How: It's tough to say what McGee will do in the big leagues because he has so little experience. But since age 17, he's been posting double-digit K rates in the minors. That kind of power should serve him well. Clearly, he'll be a work-in-progress if and when he does assume the closer's role.
Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
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Why: Chapman might have the most electric stuff of anyone on this list (which is why he got the cover shot). Francisco Cordero has been closing for most of his career, but he's always been a higher ERA guy and will be 36 next month. the Reds know they have a phenom in Chapman and are eager to use him in a high-profile way.
When: The team is just waiting for a reason to let Chapman sink his teeth into the role. But Cordero is established, and it can be tricky to unseat a "proven closer". His advancing age makes injury an increasingly likely possibility, but his walk rate has been high for three straight years. That loss of command could require a switch this year.
How: If Chapman does step up, he's going to torch batters with his live fastball. And to keep them honest, he has a good slider that tops out near 90. He can also throw the curve for strikes, and with some polishing, his skill set could be dominating.
Rafael Soriano, New York Yankees
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Why: Now 31, the one-time hot prospect has done pretty well for himself. Soriano's career numbers are very strong, apart from a few hiccups. He was a very good closer in Atlanta, and earned a league-leading 45 saves with the Rays last season. Clearly, the guy can do the job.
When: This is the problem for Soriano, because barring a catastrophe, he's not going to unseat Mariano Rivera. Even at age 41, history's greatest reliever is untouchable. It would take an injury for Soriano to get the chance in 2011. But if New York continues to have more pressing needs, like starting pitching, Soriano could be trade bait as the deadline nears.
How: Soriano's strikeout rate dipped a bit last year, but he lowered his walk rate to compensate. His nasty stuff and combination of pitches make him tough to hit. Still in his prime, he'll likely be a full-time closer again at some point.
Sergio Romo, San Fransisco Giants
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Why: Romo is looking a lot like Brian Wilson's Latino brother these days, both in facial hair and performance. If anything, Romo's numbers are a little better than Wilson's, but the closer situation in San Fran is not in doubt. When healthy, Wilson is the guy. However, Romo is too good not to get a chance somewhere at some point.
When: The defending World Series champs now have a taste for winning, and as they try to defend their title they may want to make some key additions at the deadline. The Giants' offense has weaknesses, and it would be a surprise to see Romo dealt for a bat.
How: Romo is one the game's more complete relievers. He strikes guys out, doesn't walk people, keeps his hit rates down, and works efficiently. Last season he averaged 3.7 pitches per batter despite having 70 Ks in 62 innings of work.
Aaron Crow, Kansas City Royals
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Why: Of all the names on this list, it's Crow's that is probably the most unexpected. He's a rookie stuck behind one of the game's better closers, Joakim Soria. So why include him? In truth, this could just as easily be about fellow Royals, Jeremy Jeffress or Tim Collins. But Crow is the one who's caught Ned Yost's eye early in 2011.
When: Like the Padres' Heath Bell, Soria is going to one of the most highly-prized targets in the trade market this year. He's a free agent after the season, and K.C. will likely be looking to get some value for him before he walks. When he goes, someone will need to fill the gap. Right now, Crow has the confidence of the coaching staff behind him and could be the lead player in a by-committee approach.
How: Like Tampa's McGee, Crow doesn't have enough major league innings to give a good sense of his readiness. But he more or less washed out as a starter in the minors, and his conversion to the bullpen seems to be working. He's at the top of Yost's "two-tiered bullpen" and is trusted enough to pitch in close games, unlike his young colleagues.
Hong-Chih Kuo, Los Angeles Dodgers
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Why: It's tough to find better numbers than what Kuo posted in 2010—a 1.20 ERA and 0.78 WHIP are nearly unbelievable. Closer Jonathan Broxton still has the job for now, but after four dominant years, he tanked in 2010, posting a 4.04 ERA thanks to 64 hits in 62 innings.
When: If Broxton gives any indication that last year is about to repeat itself, the Dodgers will pull him in favor of Kuo. The L.A. rotation is strong, but finishing games will be just as important as starting them. Kuo's mix of power and finesse make him an obvious saves candidate.
How: Kuo had the best hit rate of his career in 2010, and couple with a low walk total and 73 strikeouts in 60 innings, that made him one of the game's best late-inning weapons. He has the whole package, assuming he can build on that success.
Daniel Bard, Boston Red Sox
Why: Bard's 2011 has been brutal so far. After only three appearances he already has a pair of losses and a 16.88 ERA. But that's temporary. Bard is one of the best relievers in the game and Boston regards him as the future closer. He'll settle down in due time.
When: The Red Sox have made it very clear that they want to trade Jonathan Papelbon. Though clearly a talent, Paps is costing the team $12 million this year and will be a free agent in 2012. he will not be re-signed. So Boston will do all it can to shop him and let Bard assume the closer's role this season.
How: Bard has a fastball that tops out at 100 miles per hour. if that's not working, he has a filthy slider in the 80-85 mph range. He also has a couple of strong secondary pitches, but rarely needs them. Bard's biggest issue will be developing the toughness it takes to close, but he clearly has the skills.