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Friday, January 14, 2011

Fantastic Thoughts: Rafael Soriano The Latest Premier Reliever To Settle For "Holds"

Rafael Soriano disappointed his fantasy owners yesterday when he signed the largest set-up man contract in the history of the game.  If you owned Soriano last year, you probably got him for a song and he proceeded to be the most productive closer in the game.  In many keeper leagues it would be possible to redouble that value in 2011...if Soriano had signed on to be somebody's closer.  Soriano chose instead to be Mariano Rivera's opening act.  There's nothing wrong with that.  He'll get to pitch for a competitive team.  He'll be in line, potentially, to be Mo's replacement (if he ever retires).  And, in the interim, he'll be content to take home around $12 Million a year.  Not too shabby.

In most fantasy formats, however, Soriano is now all but irrelevant, joining a cast which includes Bobby Jenks, Kerry Wood, Matt Lindstrom, and Matt Capps: all established closers who will spend 2011 as set-up men.  From a baseball perspective, this is a very encouraging trend.  More and more GMs have realized that it's just as rational (if not more rational) to pay for a dominant reliever who pitches whenever the game is on the line in the 7th and 8th, as it is to pay seven figures to a guy who only takes the ball in save situations.  From a fantasy perspective, this sucks.

There were already few enough guys who were consistent candidates for 30+ saves.  Now several of them are chasing "holds" instead.  When the 2011 season begins, at least a third of the 30 MLB teams will be featuring a pitcher for whom this is their first Opening Day with the closer label.  Several may elect to go with that infamous strategy which is fantasy kryptonite: closer-by-committee.

Some will be apt to tell you that this widespread uncertainty is reason to invest heavily in one of the few truly established closing options, guys like Rivera, Joakim Soria, Brian Wilson, and Jose Valverde.  I disagree.  I hate paying for saves.  With so many bullpens in flux, more cheap saves are coming into the league than ever before.  Besides Soriano (48 SV), here are some guys you could've had for next to nothing in 2010:

Matt Capps (42 SV), Kevin Gregg (37 SV), Leo Nunez (30 SV), John Axford (24 SV), Matt Lindstrom (23 SV), Chris Perez (23 SV), Octavio Dotel (22 SV), Jon Rauch (21 SV), Brandon Lyon (20 SV), Alfredo Simon (17 SV), Juan Gutierrez (15 SV), Fernando Rodney (14 SV), Koji Uehara (13 SV), Hong-Chih Kuo (12 SV), Manny Corpas (10 SV)

Just counting guys who went either undrafted or in the very final rounds of standard drafts, that's fifteen players with double-digit saves.  I'd be willing to bet there will be even more in 2011.  Let's take a look at the few of the franchises with the most uncertainty and discuss some of the candidates for closing duties.

Tampa Bay Rays:

The Rays have probably the best bullpen in baseball last season.  However, this offseason, they lost their four best releivers: Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour, and Dan Wheeler.  They also lost a couple innings-eaters in Randy Choate and Chad Qualls.  The additions Tampa Bay has made - Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta - are not exactly guys who've had late-inning success, so the new closer is almost certainly coming from within the organization.

J. P. Howell will get a crack at it, if he's healthy.  Howell was very good during a limited tenure as Tampa Bay's closer during the second half of 2009 (16 SV, 3.02 ERA).  However, he missed all of 2010 with a shoulder injury.  He may not be ready to pitch again at all until May or June, and even then nobody can predict how his surgically-repaired rotator cuff will respond.

The Padres converted Mike Ekstrom into a reliever during the 2008 season.  In two full seasons at AAA, Ekstrom posted a 2.24 ERA.  Promoted in the final month of 2010, Ekstrom looked fine doing mop-up work for the Rays (3.31 ERA in 16 IP).  However, Ekstrom has never been a closer at any level and doesn't have prototypical closer stuff (6.8 K/9 at AAA).

With Joe Maddon, anything is possible.  Maddon is notorious for going against the conventional wisdom, especially in his bullpen management.  In the past, for brief periods, he featured top-flight starters like David Price and Matt Garza at closer.  Maddon could consider rehashing that trick with Jake McGee.  McGee is one of the Rays top pitching prospects and, after a solid run at AA in 2010, he's probably not far from being major-league ready.  However, there's currently no room in the rotation.  The Rays gave McGee a quick audition in relief at the end of last year.  He posted a 0.52 ERA with 27 strikeouts in 17 innings at AAA and a 1.80 ERA with 6 K in five innings in the bigs.  Obviously, that's an extremely small sample, but he's got the kind of power stuff (10.4 K/9 in his professional career) that one likes to see in a closer.

Finally, don't sleep on Matt Gorgen.  Gorgen was the closer of the Montgomery Biscuits (AA) last year, piling up 22 saves and a 1.65 ERA in 45 innings.  If Gorgen can continue to build momentum at AAA and the closer carousel doesn't go well in the early months of the season, Maddon could be very interested in a guy who has spend his entire pro career closing games, has a solid minor-league track record, and a power arm (10.1 K/9 in minors).

Atlanta Braves:

Some, including myself, aren't fully convinced that Billy Wagner is really retiring, just two saves away from becoming all-time leader for left-handed relievers and fourth overall, behind just Trevor Hoffman, Mariano Rivera, and Lee Smith.

If Wagner really doesn't come back for a 16th season, the Braves may be forced to turn to one of their other flame-throwing southpaws, either Jonny Venters or Eric O'Flaherty.  Both Venters and O'Flaherty were excellent last seasons.  Venters (1.95 ERA, 93 K, 83 IP) even garnered a little Rookie of the Year consideration, which is a hard thing to do as a middle reliever.  Both will be 26-years-old in 2011.  O'Flaherty has more experience, but Venters would probably get the first crack at the job.

The closer of the future in Atlanta is Craig Kimbrel.  Many are assuming that future is now.  Kimbrel throws fire (14.4 K/9 in minors).  He moved quickly through the minors as a closer and posted solid numbers in his late-season audition (0.44 ERA, 40 K, 21 IP).  Fredi Gonzalez may indeed be comfortable handing him the job straightaway.  However, I expect Atlanta will be a little cautious following Kimbrel's NLDS.  When Wagner was sidelined, they asked Kimbrel to take over the ninth and in a critical Game 3 appearance he got a little ruffled and ended up taking the loss.  Bobby Cox was alwasy reluctant to use young pitchers in the 9th.  Don't be surprised if Gonzalez follows that pattern as well.

With that in mind, one probably shouldn't ignore the presence of George Sherrill.  Sherrill quietly joined the Braves bullpen this offseason.  He is the only pitcher in Atlanta with substantial closing experience (52 SV between '08 and '09).  He had a tough year in L.A. in 2010, but he's one of those unflappable reliever that managers generally love to use in the 9th.

Toronto Blue Jays:

Most are assuming that 37-year-old  Octavio Dotel has been signed to be the Blue Jays closer.  I, personally, think that's an unwise assumption.  Dotel hasn't spent a full season closing games since 2004.  His last temporary stint as a closer (during the first half of 2010 with Pittsburgh) was sufficiently underwhelming (4.28 ERA).

The Jays have other options.  Their best reliever from last season was Shawn Camp (2.99 ERA in 72 IP).  Camp's numbers have gotten substantially better every years since 2007.  He may be due for a shot.

Jason Frasor, who began the season as Toronto's closer, after posting great numbers in 2009, should also be on your radar.  Frasor lost the job to Kevin Gregg after blowing two of his first five opportunities, but he really found his rhythm again in the second half.  He had a 2.48 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP after the All-Star Break.

Also, watch for Alan Farina, who the Jays recently added to their 40-man roster.  Farina, drafted in '07, could move quickly in '11.  He compiled a 1.29 ERA, a 0.81 WHIP, and a 12.0 K/9 between two levels in 2010.

Chicago White Sox:

Bobby Jenks will be pitching for a different color of Sox in 2011, for the first time in his career, so, for the first time since 2005, the ChiSox are auditioning closers.

The Vegas money would probably be on Matt Thornton, who, in three seasons as Jenks primary set-up man, posted a 2.70 ERA and 245 K in 200 IP.  The only thing working against Thornton is the fact that he's far more valuable doing exactly what he's been doing for the last three years.  His rubber arm, his ability shut down the league's top lefties, and work out of james with inherited runners are all talents that would be slightly compromised by reserving him exclusively for save situations.

Instead, the Sox could hand the job over to Chris Sale, their 2010 draft pick who went almost directly to the major leagues.  After being drafted in June, Sale sailed through the minors and still managed to get 21 appearances in Chicago, where he posted a 1.93 ERA with 32 K.  Ozzie Guillen handed Jenks the closer job when he was just a rookie, so don't assume he'll be hesitant to put that pressure on Sale.

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