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NL Future Closers: An Exercise In Futility?

A look each NL team's potential future closer

Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

As you may have guessed based on the title to this piece (or know based on the intro to my last article), I am extremely suspect of the information I'm about to give you. Well, check that. I'm suspect of the conclusions you or I may draw from the information I am about to give you. The information itself is pretty solid. I'm going to throw a few of the obvious guys in their own category ahead of time because you likely know about them already. Like Jason did with the AL on Tuesday, I'm going to pick from both major and minor league rosters for this exercise. Many teams have multiple options for future closers and others have...well, I won't say no options but they're poor ones at the least. So if I leave someone out, that's because we're going with one per team, not because they were ignored. That said, if I do leave someone you like out, add them in the comments because more knowledge never hurt anybody, right? I'm also going to include Jason's excerpt on relief/closer prospects in general:

For all practical purposes, relief pitching and top prospects generally do not go together. With the notable exceptions of Huston Street, Drew Storen, and Rex Brothers, the best relievers in the Majors don't tend to come into the professional ranks as relievers. Rather, we find that many relief pitchers started out as starting pitchers, but were converted for any number of reasons to the pen. As a result, searching for relief pitching prospects is almost always a fool's errand. That said, there are a few things that I look for in a pitching prospect that may end up better suited for the bullpen in the long term. None of these are necessarily deal breakers, but more of a general idea of what we tend to see from high level relief pitchers:

  • A repertoire that leads us to see the potential for strikeouts in short bursts (good to great fastball, good to great second pitch, usually a curveball or slider)
  • Usually the lack of an average changeup, or a third pitch in general.
  • A tendency toward groundballs, or at least a tendency away from fly balls (and home runs as a result).

I'd also like to add my own disclaimer here, some of which was covered in the Jarred Cosart profile. For fantasy purposes, I find this process to be not worth your while. That doesn't mean it's fruitless, you will find guys here and there. It does mean that relievers are so fungible, and their situations so volatile, that you'll get burned more often than not. In my eyes, relief only guys are not worth taking with minor league draft picks pretty much ever. I am in a 20-team-22-keeper-15-man minors league and I wouldn't even consider taking a relief prospect in our 3 round minors draft. Obviously there are those in deeper leagues with more expansive minor leagues, and in those situations it is inevitable that a relief prospects value will be worthwhile - but on the whole it's a poor gamble. If you disagree, you might ask investors of Kenley Jansen and Drew Storen how they've enjoyed the ride (yes I own both of these players). I'm not saying these guys aren't valuable (especially in holds leagues), but you often end up cutting more valuable players at their expense for only the chance of getting saves. I'd rather pay extra for a sure thing and go after saves after the rest of my team is set, but that's a philosophical thing.

All that said, you people aren't going to listen to me and are still going to waste roster spots on these guys, so let's get to it. Once again - these are pure speculations with the aim to bring some names to the table you might not be aware of.

Obvious Guys

Jonny Venters (ATL), Drew Storen (WAS), Tyler Clippard (WAS), Kenley Jansen (LAD), Rex Brothers (COL), David Hernandez (ARI), Sean Marshall (CIN), Pretty much any Padres reliever (SD)

NL East

David Hale (ATL) - All credit for this name goes to Ethan Purser a writer for the Braves oriented Capitol Avenue Club. I was all set to go with potential fifth starter Zeke Spruill who doesn't have amazing stuff but could see it play up in the pen, until Ethan straightened me out and suggested Hale. Hale has all the thing you look for in a future reliever; he uses a quick arm to throw a low-to-mid 90s fastball and complements it with a hard mid 80s slider. He lacks a competent third pitch, portending the move to the bullpen (which has been made and unmade a few times already). He is control varies, as he's alternated BB/9s of under 3 or over 4 since 2009. With a good fastball and a knock-out slider, Hale looks like a prime fit for the bullpen and could reach the majors relatively quick, having pitched at Double-A all of last year.

Austin Brice (MIA) - This probably isn't a huge help to most of you and for that I apologize. Especially since the Miami closer gig seems eminently winnable. For those names, my favorite talent is Mike Dunn, but lefty relievers have a tougher hill to climb to get closer gigs. Back to Brice though. The 2010 9th round draft pick offers plenty of upside as a starter and a big time ability to miss bats, logging K/9s of 10+ the last 2 seasons. So why relegate him to a future closer? He's never had a BB/9 of loser than 5.58. That's not enough to force him there now, but if he does continue to walk more than half a lineup per 9 innings, he could get moved to the pen in a hurry. Other names include Jose Ceda and rule 5 pick Braulio Lara, but neither offer the fastball/curve combo that can miss bats like Brice does. Pitching in Lo-A in 2012, you'll have to wait on him for a while.

Jeurys Familia (NYM) - Someone who most prospectors should know about, Familia can touch triple digits with his fastsball and can hold mid 90s velo deep into games. As you'll hear a lot in this article though, Familia lacks a reliable third pitch to go with his heat and a mid 80s slider. Control is also an issue. He reached the majors in 2012 and could win a job in the Mets pen to begin next season. The Mets love his makeup, another reason he could be a closer down the line.

Phillipe Aumont (PHI) - Aumont has seen his prospect status wax and wane through the years, but put together an impressive run the last couple of seasons at least in regards to striking batters out. He still walks too many batters, but he has two plus-plus pitches when he's right. A heavy mid-90s fastball with serious sink and a bodacious curveball with sharp, late break. He reached the majors in 2012, striking out 14 but walking 9 in 14.2 innings. Like Familia, he has a shot at a roster spot out of Spring Training.

Nathan Karns (WAS) - A bit of a pop-up prospect in 2012, the 24 year old Karns pitched at Lo- and Hi-A, posting ridiculous K/9s of 12.38 and 10.93 respectively. He has a low 90s fastball that can touch 95 MPH and would presumably play up in the pen. He also features a sharp curveball that flashes plus. Unlike many relief prospects though, Karns' changeup also has the potential to be average. That said, he was 24 and pitching in the lower minors, so some dominance should be expected. He has real stuff though and if the Nats want to push him, the bullpen may be the way to go (not that they have a shortage of relievers though).

NL Central

Arodys Vizcaino (CHC) - By this point we know about Vizcaino. He's got enough in his repertoire to start, but the question here is health. I think the Cubs opt to limit his innings be converting him to relief and he immediately becomes the best talent in their bullpen. Carlos Marmol isn't long for Chicago (as the Dan Haren non-trade aptly pointed out), and Vizcaino could be entrenched come mid-June.

Tony Cingrani (CIN) - Bret will probably kill me for putting Cingrani here but I've always thought of him as a reliever, despite his success as a starter. He's got two pitches, a fastball and a change, both high quality. His slider lacks consistency and the Reds stocked rotation might mean Cingrani's path to a roster spot lies in the bullpen. He cameo'd there in 2012, throing 5 innings and striking out 9 along the way.

Johnny Hellweg (MIL) - It was a toss up for me here between Hellweg and Ariel Pena. I ended up going with Hellweg for a couple reasons. A) He can reach 100 MPH and I feel like that's a "closer thing" B) He sounds like more of a closer doesn't he? Anyway, aside from his fastball he has an above-average curve. It's really all about the fastball with Hellweg, and whether he can control it. If so, he could be a pretty dominant 9th inning guy. Control problems are a real issue though and could hold him back from contributing at all.

Vic Black (PIT) - Tell me if this sounds familiar? Black throws really hard (mid 90s fastball), strikes a lot of guys out (12.75 K/9 in 2012) and walks too many batters (4.35 BB/9). Black pitched at Double-A last year and also made an appearance in the Arizona Fall League. He's got a shot to reach Pittsburgh in 2013 if everything goes right.

Jordan Swagerty (STL) - I spoke at relative length about Swagerty in the Cardinals' Minor League Keeper Thoughts, so I won't rehash too much here. In short, he reached Double-A in his one full season in 2011 before missing 2012 due to surgery. He could be a starter, but has a slight build and an odd delivery. Add the injury to that and the reliever role seems fait accompli at this point. Out of the bullpen, Swagerty touches 96 MPH with his fastball and spins a breaking ball that rated the best in St. Louis' system after the 2011 season (per Baseball America).

NL West

Anthony Meo (ARI) - I've been a fan of Meo since he was drafted and perhaps his presence on this list is an excuse to talk about him a bit. He pitched in Hi-A last year so he may not be very close, then again a reliever starting the season in Double-A is definitely a threat to reach the majors. A power arm, Meo's fastball can reach 98 MPH but often sits lower. His changeup is an average pitch and his breaking ball lags behind that. He has a lot of effort in his delivery, perhaps making him a fit for the bullpen. He'll continue to start in the minors but a shift to a closer role could get him to Arizona in a hurry.

Chad Bettis (COL) - Similar to Swagerty, Bettis missed all of 2012 after a breakout season in 2011. He pitched that year at Hi-A, but will be 24 come 2013 and so could be challenged. Betting struck out 184 in 169.2 innings with only 45 walks, so unlike many of the other candidates, control is no issue for him. He both started and relieved in college, and there have been concerns regarding his height and the plane he throws on. He does lack a consistent third pitch to complement his mid to upper 90s fastball and wipeout slider. If he does shift to the bullpen, he might be my favorite bet amongst all these guys to become a dominant closer.

Angel Sanchez (LAD) - This is another one that's pure speculation, but I've liked Sanchez for a while now. He had a breakout 2011 ending the season with a 2.82 ERA and a rough 2012 that ended with a 6.58 ERA. Despite the terrible ERA in 2012, his peripherals were extremely consistent. He walks a few too many guys and I would like more strikeouts out of a reliever, but he did spend a majority of the year starting. Sanchez has a power arm capable of pumping in both two and four seam fastballs in the 92-96 MPH range and a plus change that has serious drop that arrives in the low to mid 80s. I would hope those pitches would play up a bit if he did indeed end up as a reliever, resulting in more strikeouts, but that's just wishing at this point.

Adys Portillo (SDP) - Perhaps it was foolish for me to pick a guy who has only relieved twice in his 3 year minor league career to be the Padres representative as future closer, but he has the type of arsenal I like in a reliever, so there you have it. Portillo has serious power stuff, throwing 95-98 MPH and flashing a plus curve here and there. His change lags behind the inconsistent curve so that tells you where he is with that. Portillo has terrible control, averaging 5.36 BB/9 over the course of his minor league career. He got beat up in 8 Double-A starts and if the Padres are intent on pushing him (he's only 21), he could be end up in the bullpen.

Heath Hembree (SFG) - Hembree, unlike several other guys listed here is a pure reliever. He led the minors with 38 saves in 2011 and racked up another 15 in 2012 while rocketing through the system and ending the year at Triple-A. He throws an easy mid 90s fastball with heavy movement and is unafraid to pitch up in the zone. His slider gets future plus grades and but lacks consistency. He will need to throw strikes at the major league level, but has enough stuff to miss bats. He's the heir apparent to the closer gig in San Francisco and has enough talent to overtake the guys in place at the moment.

I can't stress enough how lightly to take these "recommendations". These are just names to be aware of more than anyone to "go after", per se. It's always good to be aware of the next guy in line, but when we're talking about guys this far out, there's no way of knowing how their situation will change. My advice, tread carefully when acquiring future closers and look at them as fliers only. Don't be afraid to cut them at a moment's notice because there is always another "future closer" in the pipeline. Closers are born out of opportunity, not just talent. Hope this look has served some purpose, but if not...well the amount of time spent reading it has moved us that much closer to baseball season!

Source Material
Baseball America
Baseball Reference
Ethan Purser/Capitol Avenue Club