This column about closers may be a little too meta for some readers, but I like it. The concept combines the tried-and-true "who's next in line?" with the always-entertaining, "will [insert closer's name] lose his job?"
I give you ... the CloserTron 2010 (That's a working title). It's a very speculative look into the future, with a guess at who will be the closer at (1) the All-Star break and (2) the end of the season.
I worked in some injury concern, a lot of stats, biographical research, and then trumped it all by deferring to old-fashioned gut feeling on a couple. And because it was becoming a massive, onerous read, I'm splitting the column into two pieces.
This time around, you get the American League, separated by division. At some point in the next two weeks, I will present the National League. So that's two separate chances to anonymously comment at the bottom of the story that I know nothing, you wish you were in my leagues so you can beat me, and you can do my job better for free. Huzzah!
American League EastOrioles
Count me among the Jim Johnson believers. We may not see 51 saves again in 2013, because of Baltimore's strange ability to get into close games and eventually pull out the win last year, but I can see Johnson getting to 40.
So why put Tommy Hunter in at the closer on September 15? It's a long season, and Johnson has encountered some elbow issues in the past (a UCL strain in 2010 cost him almost three months). It's mostly a precautionary call, but I also wanted to shed some more light on the re-born Hunter, whose velocity has jumped 4 mph this season as a reliever as he strikes out a batter per inning.
While the popular thought is that Andrew Bailey could supplant Joel Hanrahan as Boston's closer with a strong string of games while Hanrahan sits on the DL, it's still pretty likely that Hanrahan -- who has saved 76 games the last two years -- takes the job back. However, with what is now a recurring hamstring problem (Hanrahan was bothered by the same issue, to a lesser degree, last year), Bailey could slide right back into the closer's role at any given time.
John Farrell pulled a somewhat similar "Dance of the Closers" back when he managed Toronto in 2011. Jon Rauch was the closer at the start of the season, but was replaced by Frank Francisco when he returned from injury in late April. Francisco had 10 saves and a 4.81 ERA by July 4 -- with Rauch mixing in a few, as well -- but got just one save between Independence Day and the end of August as Rauch took over. Francisco saved another six games in September, when Rauch went on the DL.
It's not a ton of data to go on, but Farrell does have a short history of going back and forth with two closers as need or performance dictates.Yankees
Fernando Rodney, 36, currently has a 7.36 ERA and 1.91 WHIP in 3 2/3 innings pitched. Granted, this is a very small sample size, and he looked dominant at the WBC this spring. But before last year's late-career breakout, Rodney was 11-25 with a 4.42 ERA and 1.50 WHIP in his previous five seasons with the Angels and Tigers. I'm not sure if McGee will take over before the All-Star break, but early returns this season, along with a history of relative ineffectiveness, make me a little worried about Rodney's chances to come close to his 2012 numbers. And even if you have faith in Rodney, there's always the other side of the coin to consider: this Rays team seems to be a notch below those of years past, so an effective Rodney -- in the last year of his contract -- could end up being traded to a contender if the Rays falter in 2013.
Casey Janssen is a top-flight reliever. Over the last two years, he's compiled a 2.41 ERA and 0.98 WHIP, striking out a batter per inning and racking up 24 saves. But he did battle some shoulder issues this spring, and while there's a case to be made that the Blue Jays would prefer Santos to close -- as they locked him up for six years (counting club options) when they traded for him -- one cannot deny that Janssen has been a stud since taking over as closer. Santos may pop up in the middle of the season if Janssen's shoulder woes pop up again, but my guess is that Janssen comes back from the issues and is given his job back at the back of the bullpen as the team makes a late playoff charge.
American League CentralRoyals
Holland had a bumpy two-game run against the Phillies early in April, but he has successfully converted his last two opportunities and now has three saves on the season. With heir apparent Kelvin Herrera having given up four runs in 2/3 of an inning against the Braves this week, Holland's grip on the closer role strengthened a little more.
I'm not sure where all the anti-Holland sentiment came from, as he was stellar as the closer last year (1.98 ERA and 11.5 K/9 once he was anointed the closer on August 1) and really had just two rough games this year, both in interleague play. Additionally, Herrera and Holland have five saves between them already, which could point to a lot of opportunity coming this season. I've taken lumps for defending Holland so far this year, but I see no reason not to like him, especially with is velocity back up to 96 in his last game, on Wednesday.
With all the bad feelings between the Tigers and Jose Valverde last year, the fact is that the team needs him to close games. The Bruce Rondon experiment failed. Joaquin Benoit is solid but doesn't seem to have the closer mentality. And Phil Coke may be better suited for situational usage. Valverde has saved 84 games for the Tigers the last two years, and has saved 44 or more games three times in the last six seasons. He's supposedly lost weight, and it's tough to make the "he's old" argument when Valverde is six months younger than Benoit. I would give him two more weeks down in the minors until he is officially a Detroit Tiger again. At that point, I would expect no fewer than 25 saves from him on the season.
The funny thing about the White Sox bullpen is that it's full of solid backup options, including Jesse Crain, Matt Thornton, Matt Lindstrom, Donnie Veal and Hector Santiago. And Reed, 24, actually had a relatively unimpressive line in 2012, with a 4.75 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, and under a strikeout per inning. But Reed showed an ability (talent?) to let the damage happen where it didn't really matter. His worst outing -- in which he gave up six runs in 1/3 of an inning -- came in a game the team lost by eight, and just two games after Reed got his first save. Of the six other games in which he gave up multiple runs (never more than two runs in any outing), Reed only got tagged with the loss twice. He still managed two saves and a win (with the sixth being a no-decision). It's tough to look at what Reed did last year and pinpoint a spot where he should have been removed, even though his final numbers suggest he wasn't that great.
Reed did have really great minor league numbers, though, and is off to a sparkling start in 2013. If he can minimize the damage this year -- or, at least, masterfully move his poor performances to situations where they won't be noticed again -- then Reed could hold the job all year long, and see north of 35 saves.
Glen Perkins spent eight years in the minor leagues before finding a niche as a relief pitcher. In 2011 and 2012, appearaing exclusively as a reliever, Perkins rewarded the Twins with a combined 2.52 ERA and 1.13 WHIP over 132 innings, striking out 143 batters. He also stepped up as closer last year, managing 16 saves after Matt Capps went down. A rare left-handed closer, Perkins has been a little shaky so far in 2013 (two runs in 4 2/3 IP), but should straighten himself out and keep the job for the rest of the season.
And even though I have great confidence in Perkins holding onto the job all year, I will still be rooting a little bit for Anthony Slama, a 29-year-old Twins prospect (farmhand?) who had a 1.38 ERA last year, a 12.3 career minor league K/9, and has five seasons of 14 or more saves in six minor league campaigns. I'm sure he's pretty far down in the pecking order if something happens to Perkins, but I'd love to see him at least get in the mix, based on what he's accomplished in the minors.
Chris Perez is the closer everyone loves to hate. Last year, we all heard about how he was going to get traded and yield to Vinnie Pestano. Instead, Perez saved 39 games (his second straight season of 35-plus saves) and struck out over a batter per inning.
This season, Perez is closing games for a much-improved Indians team, which means he should see his chances of getting traded at the deadline to a contender shrink, as Cleveland will likely be one of those contending teams. Perez may make some questionable statements, but isn't that edge what a team wants from its closer?
American League WestAthletics
It was tempting to try and slide Sean Doolittle or Ryan Cook's name into the "All-Star break" line, but the A's pulled that move with Balfour last year, and he still ended up reclaiming the role and getting 24 saves, with a 2.53 ERA and 0.92 WHIP. He has three saves this season and is coming off three previous seasons of an ERA below 2.55 and WHIP below 1.08. Balfour is pretty underrated as far as closers go, with consistently good numbers and the apparent mettle to close games. More importantly, though, is that the A's look like contenders again this year, and it would make little sense to pull an effective closer from the role (or to trade him during a pennant chase) for the second straight year.
Here's the thinking behind Soria in September: the Rangers, like the Rays, seem to be a team that dropped a tier from their past few. I'm not predicting a total drop-off, but a couple key injuries could really sink the Rangers' season early, and that could turn into Nathan getting traded away at the deadline to a contender. The team has Soria locked up until 2015 (on a team option) at a much better price than Nathan, and will eventually get Neftali Feliz back, as well. This has nothing to do with Nathan's talent; it's mainly the idea that if Texas isn't in contention, they could try to trade him away and replace him with cheaper options.
Here's a fun Tom Wilhelmsen stat: he got his first save last year on June 4. From that day forward, Wilhelmsen had a 1.76 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, struck out over a batter per inning, and saved 29 games.
For all the volatile closer situations across baseball, Houston may own the most enigmatic. From what we understand, Jose Veras is the team's closer. We don't know this because, as of April 19, the only Astro with a save is Erik Bedard, a member of the rotation who pitched 3 1/3 innings on Opening Day in relief and exploited a loophole in the "save" designation.
Houston isn't great, but the team isn't hopeless, either. The 61 runs the Astros have scored this year are 15th-most in the majors. But their four wins have been by six, seven, five, and five runs -- not allowing for a Veras-type, one-inning save opportunity.
One would think after 15 games, a team would have at least one save from its closer. But no dice. What makes it interesting, though, is that Bill James' Pythagorean winning percentage gives the Astros a 6-9 record, suggesting that maybe they should have been in a couple more games, and giving hope that, as things even out, Veras will get more chances. It looks grim now, but Veras owners should keep reminding themselves that the Astros have scored the 15th-most runs in the majors, and the saves should be on the way.
So, for part two: why Fields? Simply because the Astros will probably be out of things by the trade deadline, and some contender might be able to use Veras in middle relief.
In 2011, Joe Nathan was coming back from Tommy John surgery that he underwent on March 26, 2010. He pitched his first game on April 3 and immediately gave up a run on two hits and two walks. He would pitch nine more times in April and finish the month with a 10.00 ERA. By the end of May, when he was shut down, Nathan had a 7.63 ERA.
Nathan returned on June 25 to a middle relief role. On July 16, he got his third save of the season and his first since April. From his return forward, Nathan had a 3.38 ERA, with 11 saves and 28 strikeouts in 29 1/3 innings.
Ryan Madson underwent Tommy John surgery on April 11, 2012. He's had a series of setbacks this spring, but reportedly felt great in his latest bullpen and should be on a rehab assignment soon, joining the team by early May. While Nathan may have rushed back and required a month off, Madson was aware of the pain early, pulled back in spring training, and may be ready to close games by Memorial Day. There's no guarantee that the team won't just keep Madson in middle relief, but there's always the argument that Frieri could be more valuable in a setup role, able to contribute more multi-inning appearances than Madson.
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