To illustrate just how far the madness has gone with one-inning closers in baseball today, just take a look at what happens in a fantasy baseball league when a pitcher with the magic "C" on his chest goes down for the count for any stretch of time. If news comes down the wire that a team's closer has hurt himself and will be out for a month or so, within minutes, fantasy managers are descending upon the waiver wire like rabid jackals looking for his successor. The absurdity reaches its nadir when the lucky manager who has nabbed said new closer starts parading him around as trade bait five days later. I've watched this happen so many times it makes me want to retch.
Managers are so desperate for saves wherever they can get them, that they're willing to use a roster spot on a crappy pitcher just because he's tasked with getting the last three outs of a ball game. Take the Orioles' situation last season. Nominal closer Kevin Gregg (who was pitching for his fourth team in four years!), began to struggle mightily in mid-summer and ended up losing his job for about a month to Jim Johnson. Johnson, a nondescript setup man before this series of events, suddenly turned into waiver wire gold, simply because he was due to get some saves on the rare occasions when the Orioles actually won games.
Now, a world where Jim Johnson has fantasy value is not one I especially want to live in, but until the ghost of Jerome Holtzman rises to publicly denounce the invented stat that haunts our dreams, we're stuck with the save stat and the crummy pitchers who feed off of it.
A lot of teams have their closers set in stone, but others have late-inning situations that are far from a sure thing. After the jump, five uncertain closer scenarios to keep an eye on for those in constant search to fill their need for the all-important save stat.
When I first saw Javy Guerra enter a game last year, I swear I thought the Dodgers had somehow acquired Deolis Guerra and made him their closer. As I quickly deduced, Deolis was still in Minnesota's system, continuing to make the Johan Santana trade look horrible. Javy, meanwhile, had been plucked out of nowhere to become LA's closer, a role in which he thrived last year, saving 21 of 23 chances after taking over for the much-maligned Jonathan Broxton. Guerra did a fine job in his rookie season, but no one believes that he's going to last long in the role.
The reason? Kenley Jansen. Guerra was good in 2011, but Jansen was other-worldly, striking out 96 batters in 53.2 innings (that's 16.9 per nine innings, folks), and he spent the entire year being generally scary and unhittable. Jansen used to be a catching prospect who couldn't hit his way out of a paper bag, but he chucked the bat and utilized his cannon arm to transform into a killer mound presence. It's only a matter of time before he's the closer in La-La-Land.
Jansen is probably too good to be stuck in a strict one-inning reliever role, but I don't see the Ned Colletti- and Don Mattingly-run Dodgers as being able to think too far outside of the traditional closer box. Keeper leaguers in particular, nab this guy, because he's going to be a star. If he wins the closer job out of Spring Training, he could be the premier closer in the league by June.
Chris Perez, in his second season as closer for the Indians, saved 36 games, made the All-Star team (a nebulous pick, but that's a rant for another day), and blew only four saves. So why is he appearing here? Because his strikeout numbers were unimpressive, his 1.21 WHIP was bad for a reliever, and because the Indians have Vinnie Pestano, who is better.
Perez was far from dominant last year and often did the tightrope-walking act that leads so many fans to a life of chain-smoking and hair loss. Pitchers who can't rack up strong strikeout numbers and allow a lot of baserunners tend not to last very long in the role. Just ask Ryan Franklin what he thinks of the whole situation. With a little less luck, Perez could easily implode and turn into the second coming of Joe Borowski.
Pestano, meanwhile, is awesome. He struck out 84 batters in 62 innings in 2011 and he was just a flat out better pitcher than Perez in every aspect. He posted similar strikeout numbers in the minors, also, so this probably wasn't some kind of fluke. Manny Acta is one of the more progressive managers in the game, so he's more inclined to understand the value of keeping Pestano in a longer middle relief role instead of the more confining one-inning job (in contrast with the Dodgers and Jansen). If this is the case, it'll kill his fantasy value, but he's one to keep an eye on regardless.
For Cubs fans, the cherry on top of the crap sundae that was the team's 2011 season had to be watching Carlos Marmol implode again and again. Marmol's sensational 2010 season, when he struck out a Dibble-esque 138 batters in relief, proved to be some kind of magical dream. He turned into a pumpkin last year, blowing ten saves, watching his strikeout rate fall, and generally earning calls for his head from the Wrigley Field masses. Trade rumors have been swirling since the Winter Meetings, and the new Theo Epstein-led regime might be quick to deal Marmol if they can convince some dumb team to give up something of value for him.
If Marmol does vacate the closer role, whether by trade or continued ineptness, the guy to jump on is probably the unspellable Jeff Samardzija. Cubs fans generally hate the guy because the team paid out the nose to drag him away from pursuing a football career, but look past those shenanigans and you get a hard-throwing pitcher who finally turned into a quality major leaguer last year. The Cubs have dabbled with the idea of turning him into a starter, but if he does stick in the bullpen, he has the strikeout numbers to succeed as a closer. Now, if only he could reign in the walks...
The Cubs could also go the safe route and plug Kerry Wood in as closer if the need should arise. He's very low-upside at this point, but he's a known commodity and he's been competent in the role before. Basically, if Marmol goes bye-bye, you'll want to have Wood on your radar as a quick pickup, especially down the stretch in the case of a July deadline trade.
J.J. Putz was terrific last year. He saved 45 games for a division winner, and put up tremendous numbers despite pitching in a bandbox. There's just nothing bad to say about his 2011, and the effort he gave. Here's the thing, though. He hasn't pitched 70 innings in a season since 2007, and he hit the DL last season in what can be regarded as one of his "healthy" years. He's always hurt, and now that he'll be 35, the risk of him getting injured is only going to increase from here on out.
Enter David Hernandez, a former failed starter who was stolen from the Orioles for Mark Reynolds. Hernandez was terrific in his first season in Arizona, striking out ten batters per nine innings in a setup role for the DBacks' revamped bullpen. He even saved eleven games and served as closer when Putz went down in July. Given that another potentially long Putz DL stint is a very real possibility, Hernandez makes for a very good insurance policy and is the obvious successor to the closer job in the desert.
5. Houston Astros (???)
The Astros are going to lose a lot of games this year. A lot of games. However, that doesn't mean you can't wring some value from whomever they anoint as their closer. Hell, managers who weren't totally napping last year were able to take advantage of Mark Melancon's 20 saves. The closer role is an open tryout so far in Houston. I imagine it being sort of like that scene in The Dark Knight where The Joker gives three goons a couple of broken pool sticks and tells them to have at it. Just monitor the headlines out of Spring and see who comes away from the wreckage with the role, and act accordingly.
The most interesting candidate (seriously, look at this depth chart and see if you can recognize anybody in that bullpen...you can't) is probably Juan Abreu, a not-so-young minor league reliever who came over in the Michael Bourn trade last season. Abreu posted some very impressive minor league strikeout numbers and averaged about 96 mph on his fastball in a cup of coffee in the majors last year. If he does become the Astros' closer, he probably won't rack up too many saves, but he's likely to help out in strikeouts and he has decent potential, despite not being young for a prospect.