On opening day of the 2014 season, I was flipping around and saw the Brewers were going into the ninth with a small lead. I was expecting to see closer Jim Henderson come in to protect it. In case he has already been forgotten, Henderson came out of nowhere to grab 28 saves as a 30-year-old, second-year player. But who comes strolling out of the bullpen? You guessed it: K-Rod.
There was nary a whisper about this change before it happened. We wondered if Henderson was injured, but there hadn’t been any discussion of that either. One thing was certain as I watched: K-Rod looked good! His recent career had been a bit of a roller coaster, but he got the save for the Brewers, and the next one, and off he went to have a fine season.
While Henderson had a good season the year prior, his ERA after August 31 was 5.67, so perhaps that left a sour taste? Small sample sizes are unfair, but they are all we have to go on this early. Maybe the manager just didn’t like what he saw in camp. Maybe the preference was for closer experience. Whatever the reason, up until that moment on opening day, fantasy players thought they had a solid second tier closer and ended up with less than nothing. Henderson posted a 7.15 ERA in 2014 (His FIP was only 4.63 though!) in limited action and is currently in the Mets camp trying to get back to the bigs.
As dull as Huston Street is, and as downright loathsome as I may find Jonathan Papelbon, they both have a certain level of job security and will be getting saves in 2016 despite some erosion in their skills. They are not sexy picks, but sometimes it’s better to park your RP2 money here instead of a riskier proposition – like the ones below. Each of the following have potential front runners for the closer job, but things could change quickly. Monitor these situations closely. If you blink, you may miss a closer change.
Shawn Tolleson was a waiver wire all-star last season. I’ve seen Tolleson in the top 15 among closers; I have him around 20th and that may even be higher than is warranted. Maybe the ghost of Henderson is lingering in my brain, but we are forgetting that Tolleson struggled down the stretch to the point where Texas was going with a committee in the postseason. Some of his struggles were likely due to overwork, but that still doesn’t bolster his case. Perhaps there are lingering effects coming into this season.
Texas is a contending team with an impressive bullpen, so Tolleson can ill afford a rough stretch. He is also prone to the home run and too many of those could easily prompt a change. While Tolleson faltered late in the season, Keone Kela thrived, pitching impressively and upping his K-rate as the year went on. Owners assumed he would get the call over Tolleson last season, but there were reasons why he was passed over. Kela is still a pup. He’ll turn 23 at the start of the season. Hey, these are things MLB managers think about. A bigger issue is that Kela had trouble with lefties, which could leave him vulnerable to the machinations of opposing managers. So while Kela is the sexy pickup Sam Dyson may be the man who gets the saves should Tolleson go down. He didn’t have platoon issues, hasn’t been passed over for the job already (he was a midseason acquisition from the Marlins), is a little older, and didn’t allow a run after September 1.
Sean Doolittle is not your typical jock. He and his girlfriend had Thanksgiving dinner with Syrian refugees and are supportive of the LGBT community. Plus he’s a big Star Wars fan. However, we need to focus on numbers and health in the fantasy game. Last season was a rough one for Doolittle, who battled a shoulder injury throughout the season. His velocity was down during the season, though it was improving as we came to a close. But you have to be concerned given Doolittle’s history that another injury could be around the corner, or that he might not be all the way back. There is the potential for some reward, but he is as risky as just about any reliever this side of Fernando Rodney.
As with Tolleson in Texas, another issue is that Doolittle’s mates in the bullpen are talented and could supplant him in the role quickly, and Oakland has shown they have no issue making such changes. It was a long road back for Ryan Madson, but unlike Doolittle he showed peak form last season with the Royals. Certain educated corners of the internet have touted Liam Hendricks as a sleeper for saves, and though he will remain a punching bag in this column for as long as he’s pitching, John Axford has a way of pulling more saves out of his magic hat. Monitor the situation this spring, and be mindful that even if Doolittle shows good stuff, the injury risk is not going away.
David Hernandez is dealing with a tender elbow. While Hernandez was the presumed favorite to get whatever saves there are to be had in Philadelphia, he hardly had the role on lockdown and will need to get back quickly or risk losing the job entirely. With his injury history, one worries that he may not bounce back quickly or that this will linger if he tries to pitch through it. Working to his advantage is the dearth of other appealing options. Eighth inning man Luis Garcia has poor control. Meanwhile Edward Mujica, Ernest Frieri, and Andrew Bailey, all of whom have the “closer experience” tag, are lurking in camp. It wouldn’t be a shock for Philly to turn to any one of them; what would be shocking is if anyone held the job down for a significant period of time without imploding. I liked Hernandez coming into this year, but I would not be drafting him with confidence right now.
The Closer Grid
It’s time to look at the spring training closer grid. The top half is secure, but there could be a lot of fluctuation in the bottom half in the coming weeks. Be sure to check out the notes below the grid as well. For first-timers, closers are ranked from best to worst and we’ve included ratings for job security:
1 = solid, 2 = secure for now, 3 = shaky, and 4 = worrisome.
- Before we move any further I am sad to report that 2015 Closer Report hero Carter Capps will be missing the 2016 season. The enthusiasm around Capps was getting a little out of control as he dealt with injuries last year and A. J. Ramos had done nothing to lose the closing gig. Nevertheless, his ratios and strikeouts made him worthy of any team. He will be missed.
- Andrew Miller boasts top 5 closer stuff, but it is almost certain that he will give up ninth-inning duties to Aroldis Chapman when he returns from a 30-day suspension. As for Chapman, I would draft him as the fourth closer off the board, even under these circumstances.
- I’m guessing my rankings of Ken Giles and Jake McGee are more aggressive than most, but I have to bet on the talent here winning out over any threats. I can understand why Luke Gregerson might be upset, but Giles cost the Astros a sizable package and I don’t think they give that up for a set-up man. As far as Colorado goes: Jason Motte’s best days are long behind him, and McGee could be a top 10 closer soon.
- Like Giles and McGee, Arodys Vizcaino has much better stuff than his primary competition for the closing gig. However, Jason Grilli lost his job because of injury last season, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Braves use the veteran in the ninth to build his trade value. I’m keeping Vizcaino on top for now, but it may not be for long.
- Likewise, I expect that Roberto Osuna will give way to Drew Storen in Toronto. Osuna’s future is bright no matter what his role is this season, so don’t give up on him in dynasty leagues, and keep an eye on him in redrafts.
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