Closer Volatility At an All-Time High?

Take a look at the left column of ESPN’s Closer Depth Chart, won’t you? I’m almost terrified to mention any names, because based on what we’ve seen so far this year, it’s likely that some of these guys will change in the few hours between my writing this and it being posted on the site. But seriously, Rafael Dolis? Dale Thayer? Santiago Casilla? Steve Cishek? Casey Janssen? We’re barely more than a month into the season and the closer landscape is just littered with the corpses of injured and ineffective incumbents; entire drafts lay ruined in the carnage.

For years, I’ve avoided overpaying for closers in drafts, because saves can always be found, unlike harder to fill categories like home runs. Sure, if you’ve got multiple spots for relievers it can make sense to lock down one spot with an established closer seen as “safe” so you’re not completely punting the category, but saves will always present themselves – last year, 34 pitchers had at least 10 saves, a number which was 37 in 2010. If the theory goes that hunting for saves in the draft is rarely a wise strategy, this year is an extreme example of that, as nearly half the clubs in baseball have already made changes in the back end of their bullpens.

There’s always some change to be expected at the position, of course. The situation on the South Side of Chicago never seemed to be settled entering the year, and roughly 140% of us thought that Javy Guerra would lose his job to Kenley Jansen at some point, which he did right on schedule. Meanwhile, you always know that someone is going to blow out their arm or suffer some other injury, though I’ll admit that “Mariano Rivera tearing up his knee shagging fly balls during batting practice” wasn’t exactly high on my list of expectations.

Still, I can’t remember a year – a month, really – where we’ve seen anything like this, particularly when it comes to established closers. In addition to Rivera’s knee trouble, Joakim Soria, Drew Storen, Brian Wilson, Ryan Madson & Kyle Farnsworth all suffered elbow injuries of varying severity, while Sergio Santos is dealing with shoulder woes. Andrew Bailey is going to miss at least half the year after thumb surgery, and Huston Street is now out while working through a lat strain. It’s not only injuries that create turnover, though. It may not have been surprising that Guerra lost his job, or even the always volatile Carlos Marmol, but raise your hand if you thought both Heath Bell and Jordan Walden would struggle so much they’d be replaced just a few weeks into the season. Here’s a hint: you didn’t.

Some teams are actually on their third closer or more already in just the second week of May. When Bailey went down in Boston before the season started, it was Mark Melancon who took the job, where he lasted all of two nightmarish innings before being farmed out to Triple-A; Alfredo Aceves was the surprising choice to take over, and all he’s done since is incite Boston fans to scream for Daniel Bard to return from the rotation. It’s a similar situation in Toronto (Santos to Francisco Cordero to Casey Janssen), Washington (Storen to Brad Lidge to Henry Rodriguez) and Miami (with Edward Mujica battling Cishek until Bell turns it around). That’s without even considering the mess that is the White Sox; remember when Hector Santiago was the next big thing for about ten minutes? That is, until it was Addison Reed. Or Chris Sale. Or Matt Thornton. Or, who knows at this point, maybe Bobby Thigpen. Of the 30 teams, 24 of them have more than one reliever with a save, and while a few of those situations are simply due to the regular guy getting a night off, it’s still surprisingly large for so early in the season.

How crazy has it become this year? With all of the turnover due to injury, ineffectiveness, or player movement, the current active leaders in seniority among closers date back only to 2010, just over two years ago. That’s when Detroit’s Jose Valverde & Cleveland’s Chris Perez ascended to their roles with their current teams, and in Perez’ case, he’s barely managed to hang on since then, fighting off uninspired peripherals and several nagging injuries. Third behind them is Milwaukee’s John Axford, who two years ago today was pitching in a middle relief role for the Nashville Sounds ahead of the immortal closer Chris Smith, who isn’t even in professional baseball this year.

The impact on fantasy players is clear. Closers are known to be a volatile quantity to begin with, if the first month of this year is any indication, it’s only going to get worse. Deposed incumbents are going to reclaim their jobs. Unforeseen injuries are going to happen. Trades will cost jobs and open up opportunities. Guys you haven’t even heard of yet are going to arrive from the minors to make a splash, a la Axford two years ago. (On that note, I’ll admit I’m biased, but take a look at Shawn Tolleson‘s minor-league stats when you get a chance.) The point is, if you have closers to spare, it’s an excellent time to pounce on the owner in your league smarting from multiple losses and sell high. Even if you don’t have an excess at the position, if you can trade a closer for a position of greater need, well, the next closer is usually right around the corner.

It’s been a season unlike any I can remember. Oh, and we haven’t even made it to the annual “Matt Capps is terrible at his job” parade. So mark your calendars for that, too.




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Mike Petriello lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times site, and was an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.


21 Responses to “Closer Volatility At an All-Time High?”

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  1. godzilla70 says:

    Making it worse, typically solid options like Axford, Marshall and Putz all have gotten (it seems) unlucky and significantly underperformed their peripheral stats. Ugly year for closers so far…

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  2. FreddieM says:

    If you were asked at the start of spring training, which of the AL East closers (Farnsworth, Bailey, Mo, Santos, Johnson) would still be standing at mid-May, I would not have guessed Jim Johnson.

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  3. LegallyMinded says:

    “The point is, if you have closers to spare, it’s an excellent time to pounce on the owner in your league smarting from multiple losses and sell high.”

    I suppose that explains how one owner in my league was able to trade Aceves and Broxton for Curtis Granderson. Or how someone else traded Jim Johnson for Zack Greinke straight up.

    I think our commissioner, rather than vetoing trades, enjoys watching the members of the league hang themselves when given too much rope.

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  4. Matthew Berry says:

    NEVER PAY FOR SAVES

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  5. phishie says:

    I wish you hadn’t named Jose Valverde and Chris Perez in the article. I thought I was getting lucky without a single injured RP this year but now…

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  6. Mario Mendoza of commenters says:

    All is as it should be. Mariano should be the last to wear 42, and the last dedicated closer. Leverage index, baby — it’s the future of relief. As for fantasy, if you really want good RP to matter… try Baseball Manager. I believe they are running a free version on facebook this year.

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  7. supershredder says:

    Wouldn’t the more appropriate column be to point out all the closers that have been successfully doing their job all season. Both of them. No but really, I feel like a genius for drafting League, Motte, & J. Johnson.

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    • Dave W says:

      Well, until League gets traded to a team that needs a solid 7th 8th inning guy.

      I have league too, but I’m not holding out hope he lasts past the trade deadline.

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  8. SteveJobs says:

    I understand and have used the don’t pay for saves approach in the past. But people who drafted Kimbrel and Papelbon (drafted him on multiple teams) are probably pretty happy they paid for saves so far.

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    • Choo says:

      I don’t know. Seeing as how it has never been this easy scoop saves (piles of them) from the FA pool, a mid-round draft pick spent on Kimbrel or Papelbon might feel more like mistake than not. I foresee a spike in TJ surgeries among LIMA strategists due to excessive self-congratulatory back-patting . . . and a huge over-correction in closer values for 2013 auctions and drafts.

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      • Corey says:

        I punted saves in a league this year, have been trying to acquire a closer pretty much every week off the free agent market in our league, still have 0 saves.

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  9. sirvlciv says:

    I had 6 (yes 6!) closers a few weeks ago. I’m down to 2, and one of those was a pickup (Robertson) after Mo went down.

    Mariano – injured
    Santiago – I dropped him before he lost the job
    Guerra – lost the job
    Rodriguez – traded
    Marshall – traded
    Casilla – still has job?
    Robertson – still has job?

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  10. Trevor says:

    I find it funny that many of the closers considered the “riskiest” during draft season – ie: Nathan, Myers, Perez, Capps, Francisco – are still left standing, while it’s been lots of the “safe” guys going down.

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  11. Tony E says:

    In my league saves have also been expensive and they hold out for the best offer possible… i effing hate it! Valverde was dealt straight up for Felix Hernandez, which in turn I have offered Johan Santana for closers straight up (motte for example) and have the trades rejected. I have Guerra (lost his job), Sale (drafted), Coco Cordero (dropped him after his 5 run feast in Oakland) and John Rauch (now im fishing)… I am running out of ideas and am sitting in 2nd place in my league being last in saves.

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    • Choo says:

      Sounds like Sale’s MRI was clean, starting Saturday night vs. KC. I hope everyone picked up Addison Reed.

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