I predicted before the year started that this would likely be the most volatile year for closers that we have seen in a long time… possibly ever. This was BEFORE closers Joakim Soria and Ryan Madson were out for the year, Kyle Farnsworth was out for a month and a half, Andrew Bailey was out until August, and Drew Storen was in danger of possibly missing the year as well. There just weren’t that many closers without any question marks coming in. In fact, you could make the argument that none of them had 0 question marks.
The top closer, Craig Kimbrel, has all of 1 year of closing experience. The next best option, Jon Papelbon, is switching leagues this season. He’s 1/1 so far, so he looks good. Next is John Axford, who has been a closer for just a season and a half. He has looked pretty shaky so far, pitching poorly on Sunday, then almost blowing a save on Monday… though I’m not overly concerned. The immortal Mariano Rivera is now 42 years-old… the wheels could fall off any day. He’s already blown a save and is 0/1. Heath Bell struggled a bit last season and lost the ability to strike hitters out… he’s also changing teams this season. He’s already blown a save and is 0/1 as well. Next is Jose Valverde – he of perfect 49/49 fame. His xERA (3.75) was a run and a half higher than his actual ERA (2.24) – though his job is fairly secure. He blew his first save opportunity, but closed out his second in fine form and is now 1/2 on the season. These are the top options at closer!
Then you go down a bit to Jason Motte – he looks like a solid closer, but his experience encompasses a partial season spent as closer last year for the Cards (9 saves). He looks fine so far this season, going 1/1 in save opps. Jordan Walden has great stuff, but lacks a change-up (which is necessary for a closer) and blew 10 saves last season. Luckily for him the Angels have absolutely no one else to go to if he stumbles. Joel Hanrahan would be a top 5 option if not for the fact that he plays for a bad team that is constantly out of contention and would likely have no qualms about trading him at the deadline. He’s a free agent in 2014, and many teams came calling last season about him. He doesn’t have any saves yet, but he has a Win after pitching 2 hitless innings, so he looks good. JJ Putz and Brian Wilson are both in the same boat – they’re top-notch closers who have trouble staying healthy. For Putz it’s a constant issue every season. He had a shaky outing, but is still a perfect 2/2 in save opps so far on the season. Wilson, on the other hand, is recovering from elbow woes this offseason – something you do not want to hear from a pitcher. He hasn’t pitched yet this season, so we’ll see how healthy he looks when he does pitch. Putz slots in ahead of Wilson since he’s healthy to start off with, but expect both to miss some time at some point this season. Sergio Santos looked like a solid closer saving 30 games for the White Sox last season, though he came out of nowhere to do so, then got traded to Toronto to be their closer. Now he’s struggling – having blown 2 saves already to open 2012. The save he blew against the Indians was not that bad as he had a 1-run lead and gave up a solo HR on a high heater to Asdrubal Cabrera, but he blew a save against the Red Sox in grand fashion – giving up 3 runs on 2 hits, 3 walks, and a wild pitch in 2/3 of an inning. I don’t think a change is coming just yet as Francisco Cordero has looked pretty hittable early on as well, but if he blows another one soon, it could be a problem. He will be out from April 12th-14th for the birth of his child.
The next tier is headlined by Frank Francisco. He has the stuff to close, yet he’s never even closed for an entire season due to health or losing his job, so he has yet to top 25 saves. He got crushed this spring, and also had knee problems coming into the season, so people were already talking about him losing his job… then he went out and saved 3/3 games and looked untouchable. Even if he didn’t have knee problems, he’d still be risky with his resume and the fact that he’s closing for a bad team and could be traded to a contender at the deadline (though he does have another year left on his contract). Huston Street is another closer who has trouble staying healthy. He hasn’t saved 30 games in either of the past 2 seasons and has only done so twice in his 7 years of closing – mostly due to injuries. I’d expect more DL time for him this season at some point as well. In addition, he’s pitching for a Padres team that won’t compete for the playoffs on a one-year contract… so he could very well be traded also. When Madson went down, Sean Marshall became a favorite for saves in Cincinnati, though it wasn’t until recently that the lefty was anointed closer by manager Dusty Baker. As good as he is, he only has 7 career saves. In addition, the Reds stated that they don’t want to use him on back-to-back days, which could limit his saves. Hector Santiago is a left-handed rookie reliever for the Chicago White Sox who was just named the closer after the second game of the season when he shut the door on the Rangers. He shockingly beat out expected closer Matt Thornton, veteran Jesse Crain, and future closer Addison Reed for the job. Who knows what will happen if he blows a few saves? He could easily be this year’s Sergio Santos/Jason Motte, he could get traded around midseason once the Sox build up his value, or he could be just another failed experiment. I’d take a chance on him at this point though with all the volatility at closer that’s already out there. Grant Balfour is another guy who has never been a closer before – amassing a total of 11 saves in his career before being handed the job in Oakland this year. He looks good so far, saving 2 games in 4 appearances without giving up a run, but he’s getting his first chance to close at age 34… and we all know how much Billy Beane loves to trade players at their peak value around the trade deadline. Fautino de los Santos could easily be closing for this team in July. Similarly, Rafael Betancourt is also attempting to complete a full season as the closer in his mid 30s (36 years-old). He’s failed several times before as a closer (he went 8/12 in save attempts at the end of last season for the Rockies) and has never saved more than 8 games in a season. Raffy looked shaky in his first save opportunity, giving up a hit and a walk before closing the door, but he got the job done and is 1/1 so far. He’s the last of the somewhat solid closing options.
Carlos Marmol has the talent to be the #1 closer in baseball – the problem is that he’s out of control and prone to big implosions. He could also be a trade candidate on a weak Cubs team going nowhere this year (free agent in 2014). He’s already blown 2 saves and is 1/3 on the season in save opps (the third appearance was for 1/3 of an inning and he almost blew that one too). The good news for him is that Kerry Wood has been just as bad so far and there is no one else in that bullpen to close. They’d likely call up a prospect later in the season if they were going to replace him. He’s as shaky as they come though. Chris Perez came into the season suffering from an oblique injury and promptly blew his first save opportunity on Opening Day. However, he’s been fine in 2 appearances since then, acquiring his first save along the way (so he’s 1/2 now). There will probably be talk all year about making Vinnie Pestano the closer, but I don’t see that happening. In Cleveland, the bullpen is a tight-knit group that call themselves the “Bullpen Mafia” and any change in the pecking order, such as swapping in Pestano as the closer for Perez, would likely lead to chemistry issues and a negative atmosphere. Also, Pestano has struggled a bit when he has been asked to close out games. I think the only way Perez loses that job is if he’s traded, which is a possibility also. Matt Capps is just not a good reliever. There’s no other way to put it, really. Capps was just 15/24 in save opportunities last season. He’s a bad closer on a bad team that will struggle to get him save opps. Luckily for him, the only competition he has is from lefty Glen Perkins, who the Twins don’t see as a future closer (at least not right now) – so he has a bit of job security. He has a club option for next season, so if the Twins could get something for him, they’d likely trade him… thing is, I don’t see there being much of a market for him. I don’t think other teams will value him all that highly. Still, despite his job security, the skills risk he brings makes him a less than attractive option at closer. If Perkins has another great year, it’d be hard not to hand him the closer role eventually. Javy Guerra gets no respect as a fantasy closer because everyone is waiting for the awe-inspiring strikeout machine Kenley Jansen to overtake him as closer soon. The thing is, I don’t see it happening. Javy Guerra was 21/23 in save opps last season and is a very solid reliever. So far this season, Guerra is 3/3 in save opps and hasn’t given up a hit in 2 innings. Jansen, meanwhile, had a rough first outing where he gave up 2 runs in an inning. Jansen also has a heart condition that he missed time for in 2011 and also had a scare this spring. The bottom line is I don’t see Guerra losing the closer role this season unless he really struggles, so don’t count on that happening. He’s a perfectly viable closer. Jim Johnson is a guy who’s very hard to get excited about. He has a low strikeout rate, and in 2 stints as a closer he wasn’t particularly impressive: 10/16 in 2009 and 9/14 in 2011. Due to his weak “stuff,” he really doesn’t profile as a closer. Having said that, Johnson is the man in Baltimore. He’s 2/2 in save opps and has looked good so far. Matt Lindstrom is most likely to take over if there is a change in guard, and Kevin Gregg is there as well.
Joe Nathan tops the next tier of closers. Nathan is 37 years-old and coming off a year where he struggled mightily, went on the DL, then came back strong. Now, he’s in Arlington though… where mistakes are magnified by a home park that is very unfavorable to pitchers. Nathan has health and skills risks in addition to the fact that he has likely the best set-up man in baseball, Mike Adams, looming large behind him if he implodes. The good news is that his velocity is still there. He’s 1/2 in save opps so far, so he’s doing ok… but he’ll have to be very effective in order to keep his job with good closing options behind him on a playoff-bound team. I have a feeling he’s going to lose his job at some point this season, which is why I have Mike Adams on my bench in my NFBC main event team. The Astros surprisingly decided to make Brett Myers their closer this season. Myers hasn’t been a closer since 2007, when he saved 21 out of 24 games for the Phillies. There aren’t many other candidates in Houston, though. Wilton Lopez doesn’t profile as a closer and Brandon Lyon is just bad. David Carpenter is a young reliever who does have the stuff to be a closer, but the Astros clearly weren’t ready to hand him the job out of spring training. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him with the job at some point this season though. Myers lost some velocity on his fastball from 2010 (89 MPH) to 2011 (88 MPH), but he has regained the lost velocity early on in 2012, likely due to the role change (relievers can throw harder due to throwing less innings). Myers closed out his first save, but looked a bit shaky doing it giving up a hit and a walk before retiring the side. He’s also a candidate to be traded around the trade deadline, though his $9 million mutual option will make that a difficult task. Brandon League is a very solid closer. The only reason he’s all the way down here is that he’s an unrestricted free agent after this season, and the Mariners have absolutely no reason to keep him as they will not be in contention anytime soon. He’s virtually guaranteed to be traded around midseason. He’s 2/2 in save opps so far. The real question here is who takes over when he does get traded. Tom Wilhelmsen and George Sherrill seem like the most likely candidates, though neither profile as a closer. It will likely be whoever their most solid reliever is come July. The Royals gave Jonathan Broxton a 1-year $4 million contract this offseason to see if he could regain his 2006-2009 form, then likely flip him midseason for some prospects. With Soria’s injury, however, he suddenly became even more important. He was named the team’s closer right before the start of the season, and it looks like it was a good decision. His velocity is back up to 97 MPH and his slider looks as nasty as ever. He’s 1/1 so far in save opps as he struck out the side against the Angels in a perfect inning. The only reason he’s this far down is because he’s coming off an elbow injury (even though he looks healthy), hasn’t been an effective closer since 2009, and is still likely to be dealt at the trade deadline this year once his value is up. He’s on a 1-year team-friendly contract so he’ll be plenty attractive if he looks like his old dominant self again. Then the Royals can grab a few prospects for him and name Greg Holland the new closer. The Red Sox surprised a lot of people when they settled on Alfredo Aceves as injured closer Andrew Bailey’s replacement over Mark Melancon. Aceves has never been a closer before, while Melancon was a successful closer last season for the Astros. It looked like a bad decision when Aceves couldn’t even retire a batter in his first 2 appearances against the Tigers, but then he looked fine as he finally cemented his first save against Toronto, pitching a clean inning. I’m still skeptical he keeps the job all season, though. Aceves was never talked about as a possible closer before, and doesn’t seem to really profile as one either. If the Daniel Bard experiment doesn’t work out, they could end up moving him back to the bullpen to serve as the closer. I think chances are better than not that Aceves loses the closer role in Boston.
The final tier of closers consists of 2 unstable closer situations in Washington and Tampa Bay. Both could be temporary situations with their closers currently DL’d, though Washington’s situation could be more permanent. Drew Storen’s elbow injury appears to be more serious than the Nats originally let on as he now has an appointment with Dr. Andrews. Uh oh. This has Tommy John written all over it. Brad Lidge and Henry Rodriguez were sharing closing duties in his stead, but if Storen is out for a prolonged period of time, they might make one of them the closer – and that’s likely to be Henry Rodriguez. If either of them becomes the full-time closer, they can be moved up the list considerably. Make sure both are owned in any mixed league. Tampa’s situation is a little different, as Kyle Farnsworth is only expected to miss about a month and a half. Manager Joe Maddon has stated that the team will go with a committee of Fernando Rodney, Joel Peralta, and JP Howell in his stead. However, Rodney has both of the saves for the Rays so far in 2012 and looks like the closer for right now. We’ll see who gets the next save opportunity though. Either way, don’t go out of your way to spend big bucks on Rodney because he’s just a bad reliever with very little job security, and Farnsworth will likely be back closing within a month and a half anyways. Use your FAAB wisely (on guys like Hector Santiago and Henry Rodriguez, but not so much on guys like Fernando Rodney) – but keep in mind, there will likely be plenty of changes to come throughout this volatile season for closers.