Many MLB teams tend to favor established closers over relievers who lack a ninth inning resume even when the later has a superior skill set. Managers feel comfortable with closers whom they have seen perform the job in the past, even when they have not pitched all that well in the role.
Fantasy owners really are not that much different. We prefer the name brand, established closer over the untested commodity because we feel that they are safer. The reality is, however, that the closer carousel can buck just about anybody off of it. Whether due to injury (Motte and Putz) or poor performance (Wilhemsen and Axford), the volatility at the closer position is very high. While it is true that prior ninth inning experience does allow for a longer leash, prior experience does not necessarily predict which closers will excel in the role.
Here are the top 10 RPs from Y!’s preseason ranks and where they finished in relation to other relievers in terms of 5×5 value on Y!’s player rater:
1. Craig Kimbrel: #1
2. Aroldis Chapman: #7
3. Jonathan Papelbon: #22
4. Jason Motte: Did not Pitch
5. Rafael Soriano: #23
6. Mariano Rivera: #6
7. Fernando Rodney: #25
8. Joe Nathan: #4
9. J.J. Putz: outside of top 50
10. Sergio Romo: #10
Fantasy owners are advised not to pay an exorbitant price for saves because there usually is not a very high correlation between last season’s success and future performance at this particular position. Instead of focusing on which of the elite closers make the best investments, owners would be better served by seeking to identify next season’s breakouts. Who will step up as the next Koji Uehara, Greg Holland or Kenley Jansen? Here are a few cheaper options who have the upside to be top 10 RPs in 2014 along with two potential new closers who I will be avoiding.
Allen appears to be one of the front runners for the Tribe’s closer vacancy. He is no lock to get the job, but his elite K rate (11.26 K/9 last season) along with a solid set of peripheral stats give Allen the upside to outperform many RPs who will surely be selected ahead of him next March. Allen’s 2012 season was so-so. Marred by an uncharacteristic 4.66 BB/9, he struggled through his initial big league experience. His improved 3.33 BB/9 from 2013 was still significantly higher than his minor league average, but it allowed him to improve his ERA to 2.43 and his FIP to 2.99.
Bottom line is that anybody capable of striking out nearly 30% of the batters they face has a pretty high ceiling. If Allen can continue to improve his control and he has a little better luck on batted balls (.307 BABIP in 2013) he will be really good.
2014 Projection: 67 IP, 2.72 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 78 Ks, 35 Saves
Back-to-back 50 save man Jim Johnson has been traded. Fantasy owners need to be asking who is next in line. If a mediocre reliever like Johnson is capable of getting 50 handshakes with this team, then whoever inherits the job is a potential top 10 RP, even with average ratios.
The next guy in line appears to be Tommy Hunter, at least for now. Since moving to the bullpen in 2012, Hunter has raised his K rate and lowered his BBs too. Although his K rate is very poor for a closer (7.09 K/9 in 2013) and he gives up way too many HRs, Jim Johnson is proof that the Orioles closer has value regardless of who that happens to be. Just make sure if you land Hunter that you keep an eye on Darren O’Day also. Despite the warts, Hunter has a decent chance of holding down the job if he can repeat his outstanding K/BB rate of 4.86. Solo HRs don’t hurt as much as 3-run shots do. He could be the next mediocre SP turned reliever to find ninth inning success.
Keep in mind, the Orioles are surely going to look to bolster their bullpen between now and April. There is a good chance that they sign a big name to inherit the ninth inning, so future RP signings in Baltimore need to be closely monitored.
2014 Projection (if closing): 72 IP, 3.35 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 58 Ks, 38 Saves
Mark Melancon is a very good pitcher. He is not exactly dominant, but he strikes out nearly a batter an inning, induces a ton of ground balls and rarely walks anybody (1.01 BB/9 in 2012). Put those attributes together and you have a recipe for a highly successful RP. Melancon’s 2012 struggles in Boston are the only real blemish on an otherwise stellar resume for a pitcher who appears to be improving his underlying skills.
While it is true that Melancon is merely a set-up man behind Grilli right now, he should still be owned in most formats. This is not Brandon League vs. Kenley Jansen from a year ago, but Grilli may not have a very long leash despite his success from last season. Melancon has prior 9th inning experience and he looks to be the best pitcher in the Pirates’ pen. Since he will likely be drafted around the same time as bottom of the barrell 9th inning guys, Melancon could be a great value for savvy drafters.
2014 Projection: 70 IP, 2.25 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 67 Ks, 21 Saves
Heath Bell looks like the current favorite to take the 9th inning job in Tampa Bay. If that happens, I can’t see him holding it down all year. He simply is not the dominant pitcher he used to be during his Padre days. After Bell, there are 3 pretty decent options who could each get a look. Joel Peralta, Jake McGee and
Leo Nunez Juan Carlos Oviedo all have a chance to get the job.
Of these players, Jake McGee is the one who has the talent to be a top 10 RP. His ultimate success depends on his ability to limit his walks and suppress the long ball. He has shown the ability to do these things in the past, but without much consistency in the majors. In 2012 McGee had a BB/9 of 1.79. While it would be foolish to expect such a low number given his career average of 2.89 BB/9, if he can get his walks down below 2.5 per nine, he could also be able to support a WHIP below 1.00 given his impressive BAA (batting average against) numbers.
McGee’s other major wart is the long ball. This was never a real issue for him in the minors. McGee does give up a lot of fly balls, but if he can get his HR/FB rate closer to the league average of 9.5% he will gain another big boost in ERA.
The one thing that is a guarantee for Jake McGee is an elite K rate. His career K/9 of 10.79 is exactly what you would look for in a dominant 9th inning arm. If Jake McGee can put everything together, he has the talent to be a top 5 RP. While there are no guarantees given his competition for the job, this is the guy fantasy owners should be rooting for in spring training.
2014 Projection (If closing): 65 IP, 2.70 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 80Ks, 32 Saves
Strop has the stuff to make it as a ninth inning guy and his 2013 K/9 of 10.36 looks really strong. He pitched well upon his arrival in the Windy City and with Kevin Gregg unlikely to return in 2014, Strop looks like the best internal candidate at the moment.
The issue here is Strop’s nearly Marmolian BB rate. Strop’s BB/9 of 4.08 was actually a career best. Pitchers who walk that many batters are almost always going to hurt your ratios, even when they are able to induce a lot of ground balls. Strop has shown the ability to pitch around walks in the past, but he is simply not a player I will target in 2014. The upside is there, but I generally like to draft more polished relievers. Of course, if the Cubs sign a free agent closer, this will all be moot. Latest rumors have the Cubs in discussion with John Axford.
2014 Projection: 62 IP, 3.75 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 65 Ks, 21 Saves
Scheppers appears to be the odds on favorite to take 9th inning duties in Texas upon Nathan’s departure. Unless he shows substantial improvement in 2014, however, his time as closer may be short lived. Part of the issue is that there are other RPs in his own bullpen capable of doing the job. Joakim Soria and Neftali Feliz both have past experience in the big chair and Neal Cotts may be the best pitcher in the pen. Cotts is unlikely to get the job unless the other three falter since he is a lefty, but he is worth keeping an eye on.
The real issue, however, is Schepper’s skill set. Schepper has a K/9 of only 7.35 and a K/BB of 2.7 through his first two seasons. Those numbers are not exactly indicative of a dominating closer. On the surface, his 2013 ERA of 1.88 and WHIP of 1.07 look excellent. When we take a closer look though, his .252 BABIP from 2013 was substantially lower than any of his minor league numbers and his FIP was 3.74, almost 2 full runs above his ERA.
Although I don’t expect Schepper’s numbers to be as poor as they were in 2012 (4.45 ERA, 1.73 WHIP), there are not many potential closers I would draft Scheppers ahead of.
2014 Projection: 75 IP, 3.43 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 62 Ks, 15 Saves
Keep an eye on the spring training battles which could provide valuable RPs. There are always highly valuable non-closing RPs who emerge to help your team’s ratios too, especially in daily change leagues. Be on the lookout for a future article highlighting set-up men to target in your drafts.
Which potential late round closers will you be targeting in 2014?