The Closer: Winter Edition

The Closer Logo 1There is no shortage of news on the relief front, so I thought the best thing to do was go back to my midsummer roots and report on the events surrounding the bullpens around the league.

The Trade that Wasn’t

Earlier this week, an unusual and monumental trade was reported. Aroldis Chapman, who I expected to be first in the 2016 closer rankings, was going to be moved. And not to Detroit, Seattle, or another place that desperately needed stability in the ninth. He was going to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who already have Kenley Jansen (who I expected to place second in the 2016 closer rankings).

This situation was going to be fun to write about. However, off the field chaos began to derail the transaction and writing about it became a lot less fun. Allegations of domestic violence came to light against Chapman and the trade was put on hold. While the police have closed their report, MLB is still investigating. What happens with Chapman remains to be seen. Meanwhile, it is assumed Jansen would be upset about a presumed demotion to the eighth inning. Hopefully these feelings won’t linger into the season or impact performance.

So even though we are not going to see a Jansen/Chapman dream team one-two punch, another trade like this is certainly possible. After all, the goal of every team is to win the World Series, and the Royals won the last one thanks largely to their fantastic relief corps. Meanwhile, the past few postseason’s have shown how desperate the Dodgers are for good pitching between their starters and their closer. The Dodgers and other teams might follow Kansas City’s model by going after another team’s best bullpen arm, and very often that arm belongs to the guy pitching in the ninth inning. For fantasy purposes, it is worth thinking about what is an appropriate action when your stud closer is still his dominant self but is relegated to a set-up role.

The Yankees have the closest thing to what the Dodgers were shooting for with this trade. Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller were two of the top handful of relievers in baseball last year. When we were drafting we assumed Betances was closing and some people speculated on Miller in later rounds. As it turned out Miller got most of the saves, but both were worth a spot on fantasy rosters all year long. If you look at end-of-season player rankings, Betances placed higher than most closers on account of his exemplary ratios and high strikeout totals. Plus he picked up some saves while Miller was out, as well as some wins because he was used primarily in high leverage situations.

Based on how that played out for the Yankees, the best thing to do is sit tight if for some reason Cody Allen is traded to Boston or Ken Giles is inexplicably setting up Luke Gregerson. (These sound unlikely, but what seemed more unlikely than Chapman to the Dodgers). This is especially true in dynasty formats. Their elite skills will play no matter what the role, and chances are the saves will come back.

I feel compelled to note, that this applies to the top 10-12 closers, the ones with elite skills. Players like Glen Perkins or Huston Street are good options on your team when they are getting saves, but if they are moved out of the ninth inning, they’re not likely to be worth rostering except in very deep formats. I’ve seen too many players hold on to deposed closers in the hopes that they will get back in the saves mix only to have them do damage to the team when they could have been on waivers.

Boston Builds Up Bullpen

Dave Dombrowski brought the Tigers back to prominence, but it seemed like he could not get the bullpen pieces he needed to get a very good team over the top. Most of us recall David Ortiz’s eighth inning grand slam off of Joaquin Benoit in 2013, but Detroit had to rely on questionable relievers throughout his time at the helm. The list of closers during Dombrowski’s time at the helm of the organization is enough to give me an ulcer just seeing it in print: Joe Nathan, Fernando Rodney, Jose Valverde . . . no more please! I give!

Now Dombrowski has moved on to the Red Sox and he made a couple of moves to ensure that their bullpen should be a strength for 2016 and beyond. First of all, they acquired Craig Kimbrel. After 4 seasons of utter domination in Atlanta, Kimbrel’s numbers were merely amazing last year for the Padres. Make no mistake, Boston paid a heavy price, but Kimbrel’s velocity is still there and his strikeout numbers remain elite. He gave up more long balls last season, but if that corrects itself he could be the best closer in 2016.

Dombrowski made a lower profile bullpen move when he brought in Carson Smith from the Mariners. I almost listed Smith in my top 20 relievers for dynasty leagues before this move, and while he won’t have much of a chance for saves with Kimbrel around, his 60% ground ball rate and 30 % strikeout rate suggest he will be useful in AL only and holds leagues. There are two red flags to be aware of. First, his velocity declined as the year went on so we will want to check how hard he’s throwing during spring training. The other issue applies to most relievers: It is the most erratic position and the range of outcomes is wide for pitchers that throw so few innings. So if things don’t look good early on, don’t be afraid to move on.

Speaking of throwing few innings, declining velocity, and holds, I should mention that Koji Uehara has been bumped from the closer role thanks to Kimbrel. I’m interested in seeing how the Red Sox use him, but however it is I think we have seen the last of his fantasy relevance. Uehara pitched for more than one inning in a game once and rarely pitched on back to back days. I don’t doubt his effectiveness, but I fear he won’t pitch enough to have a huge impact on your ratios.

Bullpen Bullets
Let’s take a look at some of the other moves this off-season that will impact your fantasy bullpen plans.

  • The Phillies only benefitted from Ken Giles closing for two months. He has been shipped to Houston where he will presumably take over ninth inning duties there. Provided he doesn’t get jerked around, I am high on Giles and will definitely have him in my top 10 closers – maybe even my top 5.
  • Even with Dombrowski gone, Detroit has continued its parade of controversial closers by bringing in K-Rod. I said this last year: He has been better and more consistent than you think and he largely returns value on draft day.
  • Jonathan Papelbon and the Washington Nationals are continuing their pissing match. Expect it to be resolved for the start of the season. He’s not likable, but Papelbon remains useful and could provide surprising value again – keep Drew Storen in queue though, just in case.
  • Seattle will turn to Joaquin Benoit in the ninth inning after getting him from the Padres. Benoit must feel like most of MLB is a tease, but it seems like the job genuinely is his to lose. It’s possible he gets nudged out of the ninth or even traded again, but let’s cross our fingers that he will finally get to show his stuff in the ninth for a full season.
  • Oakland has been busy, bringing in Ryan Madson and Jon Axford. Sean Doolittle is assumed to be the closer, but I don’t know if he is all the way back from injury. It didn’t seem like it at the end of last year so keep an eye on the situation and don’t be shy about adding Madson. Jon Axford has a games finished bonus apparently, but he’s clearly third on the depth chart.
  • The Rockies also signed a pair of veteran relievers, Jason Motte and Chad Qualls. If you are part of the “saves are saves” crowd, I would probably take Motte, but it might be best to avoid this situation if you can.
  • With Giles out of the picture, who closes for the Phillies? Luis Garcia pitched in the eighth after Giles took over last year, but this is a situation where any number of pitchers might step up so monitor in the spring.
  • Equally mysterious is Milwaukee. Jeremy Jeffress and Will Smith handled the most high leverage innings last year. Whoever emerges from the competition would be a nice second closer on your fantasy squad.

Be sure to come back Sunday when we list our top 20 closers for dynasty leagues.

 

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Michael Zakhar

Michael Zakhar

Michael lives in New Jersey with his beautiful wife Virginia and his adorable son Johnny. We enjoy going to see the Lakewood BlueClaws, who play 20 minutes from home. In addition to baseball, Mike loves reading, music and professional wrestling.