The Exploding MLB Reliever Market: Finding the Next Great Closer
Len Redkoles/Getty Images
If there is one position that's absolutely exploded during the baseball off-season thus far, it's the closer market. We've already seen some large dollar free agent signings - including Jonathan Papelbon to Philadelphia, Heath Bell to Miami - and there are surely more to come with multiple teams rumored to be hunting for end-game stoppers.
With the price and demand for an established high-leverage reliever seemingly at an all-time high, it makes sense for budget-minded general managers to start looking to create their own closers from promising set-up men, middle relievers and hard-throwing prospects.
We're going to take a look at the Top 10 pitchers that should be targeted for future closers' roles.
1. David Robertson, New York Yankees
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
It seems like current Yankees closer Mariano Rivera may pitch forever, but he will eventually retire, which will force the organization to look for a new end-game reliever for the first time in at least 15 seasons.
Luckily, the club should have to look no further than its own bullpen where Robertson currently resides. The 26-year-old hurler just keeps getting better and better. In 2011, he was fourth in reliever strikeout rate (13.50 K/9), second in ERA (1.08) and fifth in FIP (1.84). Robertson also allowed just one home run in 66.2 innings, and recorded the sixth most shutdowns with 37 (along with eight meltdowns).
2. Al Alburquerque, Detroit Tigers
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
Alburquerque is yet another example of why teams never give up on hard-throwing pitchers. He bounced around with multiple teams in the minor leagues because he couldn't stay healthy and he struggled mightily with his control. Alburquerque finished his rookie campaign third in reliever strikeout rate (13.92 K/9), seventh in FIP (2.08) and produced the fourth lowest line-drive rate (13.6%). Impressively, he did not allow a home run all season (43.1 innings).
He'll continue to serve as the set-up man for incumbent Jose Valverde in 2012. The veteran closer is in the final year of his contract with the Tigers and Alburquerque could assume the mantle in 2013.
3. Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Current Giants closer Brian Wilson has saved at least 36 games in each of the past four seasons. The incumbent showed some signs of weakness in 2011, but San Francisco can rest easy knowing that Sergio Romo is waiting in the wings.
The right-hander doesn't look like a prototypical closer because he's under six-feet tall and has an average fastball velocity below 90 mph hour. However, Romo has plus command of the pitch and also features a plus slider. He finished 2011 fifth in reliever strikeout rate (13.13 K/9), fifth in ERA (1.50), and also had the lowest FIP (0.90).
4. Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Joe Murphy/Getty Images
Already featuring a strong core of young players including Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw and MVP candidate Matt Kemp, the Dodgers organization now has one of the best up-and-coming relievers in the game.
Jansen, just 24, is a converted position player who has taken to pitching like a duck to water. During his rookie campaign in 2011, he finished first in reliever strikeout rate (16.10 K/9) and fourth in FIP (1.74). He features an impossible-to-hit fastball in the low-to-mid 90s and a nasty breaking ball. He'll look to make sure the organization doesn't miss former closer Jonathan Broxton.
5. Jonny Venters, Atlanta Braves
Daniel Shirey/Getty Images
Atlanta already boasts perhaps the best young closer in the game in Craig Kimbrel, but it also has Venters, who produced the highest ground-ball rate (72.5%) in the majors in 2011, as well as the most shutdowns (47). He also had the fifth lowest line-drive rate (13.7%), showing just how hard he is to hit - with any level of authority. Venters, a left-hander, has two plus pitches with his 95-mph fastball and 86-mph slider (which technically is a plus-plus pitch).
6. Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
With one of the best young closers in the majors in Joakim Soria, Kansas City still went out and signed free agent reliever Jonathan Broxton, formerly of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and at one time one of the best closers in the National League. That pushes the underrated Holland down into the seventh inning role even though he was one of the top relievers in the majors in 2011.
He features a repertoire that includes a mid-90s fastball and a plus slider. Holland posted a dominating strikeout rate of 11.10 K/9.
7. Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
The White Sox organization already has the closer's role set for the foreseeable future with the emergence of former shortstop Sergio Santos. Sale's best position, though, is thought to be the bullpen, as well. He's similar to Matt Thornton as a tall left-hander with a plus fastball but questionable command. Unlike the veteran, he has the ability to develop three reliable pitches, which could help him develop into a No. 1 or No. 2 starter. Chicago will likely be tempted to move him to the starting rotation beginning in 2012.
8. Rex Brothers, Colorado Rockies
Jack Dempsey/Getty Images
The club is said to be actively shopping incumbent closer Huston Street, so Brothers may get an opportunity to close in the very near future.
He should face some stiff competition from veteran Rafael Betancourt, though. The rookie southpaw posted the seventh best reliever strikeout rate (13.06 K/9) in the majors. His repertoire includes just two pitches, but both have plus velocity (95 mph fastball, 86 mph slider) for a left-handed pitcher.
9. Antonio Bastardo, Philadelphia Phillies
Drew Hallowell/Getty Images
Bastardo is yet another left-handed reliever with a solid fastball and a plus breaking ball.
He might make a good trade target for a team in need of a high-leverage reliever because he's currently third on the bullpen depth chart in Philadelphia behind newly-acquired closer Jonathan Papelbon and veteran Jose Contreras. If he can sharpen his command, Bastardo could really dominate.
10. Vinnie Pestano, Cleveland Indians
David Maxwell/Getty Images
Pestano came out of nowhere in 2011 to be one of the most valuable parts of the Cleveland bullpen.
Chris Perez saved 36 games in 40 tries, but he didn't exactly dominate. If he falters, Pestano could be there to pounce on the opportunity with his solid fastball-slider combination. He could also be used as trade bait to fill other holes on the big league club.