Spring Training is still well over a month away, but before our preseason coverage gets underway on Monday, we thought it would be helpful to highlight some of the spring battles at the closer position. The closer turnover was high this offseason, including a trade no one saw coming. If a team isn't listed below that you think should be, let us know in the comments.
When Arizona traded away outfielder Adam Eaton for Addison Reed, it was expected Reed would automatically slide into the closer's role. Why else would the team be so willing to deal an attractive piece like Eaton? Oh, right...Kevin Towers. The Diamondbacks entered last season with a similar situation, with a high-cost, ninth-inning option in Heath Bell at their disposal, and decided to use him in a setup role despite the hefty price tag. Could they do something similar with Reed?
Fortunately for Reed owners, it doesn't appear so. Putz has recently been the subject of trade rumors, which points to Reed being the favorite to close in the desert. The former White Sox closer saved a career-best 40 games last season, including a 3.79 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 72 strikeouts in 71 1/3 innings. If Putz isn't traded, there's always a chance of a committee-type approach, but it would really surprise me if Reed didn't lead the Snakes in saves.
Tommy Hunter, Darren O'Day
The Orioles finally had enough of Jim Johnson and appeared to be set on free agent Grant Balfour as the team's closer going forward, but he failed a physical. With Balfour no longer in the picture, incumbents Tommy Hunter and Darren O'Day are the favorites for save chances in Baltimore.
Both performed admirably in 2013; O'Day recorded a 2.18 ERA and 1.00 WHIP, while Hunter recorded a 2.81 ERA and 0.98 WHIP. Between the two, Hunter was the better closer in a pinch, saving four out of six chances; O'Day, meanwhile, had two saves and four blown saves on the year. Determining the better closer in Baltimore is tricky, as O'Day holds an advantage in career strikeout rate and Hunter has the better walk rate. Hunter's K-rate picked up considerably in 2013, however, with a career-best 20.2 percent. He also had the better K/BB rate (4.86 to 3.93).
Over the last two seasons, Hunter has thrown 91 more innings than O'Day (he started 20 games in 2012), so it could benefit him and the team to limit his innings to the eighth and ninth. He has the upper hand heading into spring training, but would it totally surprise you if O'Day was the team's Opening Day closer? The O's stood behind Johnson for far too long, in my opinion, so anything is possible.
Last season, the
backend of the entire Cubs bullpen was a comical mess. Each time out, Carlos Marmol would find a new way to implode and Twitter would erupt in their usual #marmoled way. The team found a replacement on the street in Kevin Gregg, but he wore out his welcome when the Cubs gave Pedro Strop a few save chances in September. Gregg didn't like that, told the world and the team released him outright.
The Cubs signed former Astros closer Jose Veras this offseason, giving the team a couple of options in the ninth. Strop was the clear front-runner before Veras signed, but Veras is probably the more dependable option. In 2013, he saved 21 of 24 games with a 2.93 ERA, while Strop was one-for-four with a 4.55 ERA. However, Strop was much better after coming to Chicago from Baltimore in the Scott Feldman trade, recording a 2.83 ERA (2.31 FIP; 2.79 xFIP) with 42 strikeouts, 11 walks and one home run allowed in 35 innings.
Despite Strop's dominance on the Cubs, the likeliest scenario remains the more experienced Veras opening the season as the team's primary closer. But if Strop shows plus command in spring training, he can't be completely ruled out.
Perhaps no ninth-inning role is more open than that of the White Sox. With Reed no longer in town, the club will look to a foursome of candidates, with 27-year-old Nate Jones leading the way. Jones owns a career 3.31 ERA and 1.30 WHIP to go along with a 25 percent strikeout rate and 9.4 percent walk rate. He had four blown saves last season, but has some experience in the role in Double-A, where he saved 12 games in 2011. He can hit 100 on the gun and has racked up 154 strikeouts in two seasons, so he's the logical choice.
If Jones doesn't work out, the team can use veteran reliever Matt Lindstrom, who has 45 career saves. He's the White Sox most reliable reliever, so they might choose to use him for high-leverage situations only. Bellisario, who pitched for the Dodgers last season, and Webb, a 24-year-old prospect, are considered long shots at this point.
Leave it to the Rockies to mess with a good thing. Brothers stepped in for an injured Rafael Betancourt in 2013 and converted 19 of 21 save chances, striking out 76 while walking 36 in 67 1/3 innings. He recorded a minuscule 1.74 ERA, but that number was on the low side (3.36 FIP; 3.49 xFIP). In his career, Brothers owns a 29.1 percent strikeout rate, but a 12.4 percent walk rate is what's most concerning.
His control problems are likely what led to the team signing 41-year-old LaTroy Hawkins to a one-year, $2.5 million contract. Like Brothers, Hawkins stepped in for an injured closer -- Bobby Parnell -- and was very successful in doing so. He went 13-for-16 in save chances with a 2.93 ERA and issued 10 walks in 70 2/3 innings. This battle is a classic veteran vs. young gun, and I expect Hawkins to get the first crack at closing.
All teams produce saves (some more so than others), but the Astros might be the hardest team to project in 2014. After they traded Veras to the Tigers, Josh Fields and Chia-Jen Lo were each given save chances, but neither could put a firm hold on the job.
Houston went out and signed a pair of veteran relievers in Jesse Crain and Chad Qualls, and I think one of those two will get the first opportunity. Crain was awesome with the White Sox, posting a 0.74 ERA (!) with 46 strikeouts in 36 2/3 innings before being shut down with a shoulder injury. Qualls wasn't as impressive with the Marlins, recording a 2.61 ERA, 1.25 WHIP and 49 strikeouts in 67 innings. Crain is the favorite heading into spring training. If fully healthy, he's their best reliever by a long shot.
It was somewhat surprising when the Padres signed Joaquin Benoit this offseason, as Street has been very reliable in save situations. In two years with San Diego, Street is 56-for-59, including a 2.35 WHIP and 0.90 WHIP. His strikeout rate plummeted from 32.6 percent in 2012 to 20.7 percent in 2013, however, and he had a ridiculously high 99.5 percent strand rate, so it's fair to wonder if he's due for some ugly regression in the upcoming season.
Benoit comes over from the Tigers after a successful year as their most effective closer. He saved 24 of 26 chances with a 2.01 ERA, 1.03 WHIP and 73 strikeouts in 67 innings. In 2014, I see Benoit stealing plenty of save chances from Street, with the possibility of taking over full time if latter struggles out of the gate -- I'd feel more comfortable rostering Benoit than Street.
Tampa Bay went out and signed Heath Bell, who was very up-and-down in his one year with the Diamondbacks. Bell saved 15 games, but blew seven more, posting a 4.11 ERA and 1.37 WHIP. He did have an impressive 72:17 K:BB ratio, however, and there is a matter of 168 career saves. Jake McGee is someone who has been up-and-down in his own right, posting ERAs of 4.50, 1.95 and 4.02 over the past three seasons. Benoit was a popular sleeper candidate for Tampa last season, but he only converted one save chance. Joe Maddon stuck with Fernando Rodney all year, so there's little worry he would move on from Bell if he's indeed handed the reigns.
With Joe Nathan in Detroit, the Rangers' ninth-inning job is Neftali Feliz's to lose, according to MLB.com's T.R. Sullivan. Feliz made only six appearances in 2013 after recovering from Tommy John surgery, throwing -- WARNING: SMALL SAMPLE SIZE -- 4 2/3 scoreless innings with four strikeouts and two walks. With starting most likely an afterthought, health is the only thing standing in the way of Feliz. He owns a career 25.5 percent strikeout rate as a reliever to go along with a solid 2.51 ERA and 0.96 WHIP. The only way I see Feliz losing to job is to injury, but Texas has great fall-back options in setup man Tanner Scheppers and former All-Star Joakim Soria. Feliz provides top-10 upside if he can grab the job and hold on.
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