At this point so many words have been written about not paying for saves that it’s almost pointless to regurgitate all of that information here. There is certainly some value to zig when your league is zagging and passing up on drafting closers but for the most part we all want to target those saves sleepers or if all else fails, those dirty, dirty saves.
Our RotoGraphs Reliever Rankings are up and running and that is certainly a fine place to check to target your closers or future closers in drafts but I will dive into some more detail on a few players who come August should be named the team’s closer, have a few saves under his belt or worst case, help your team in the ratio department. Without further ado…
Rex Brothers: As of now, LaTroy Hawkins is the closer for Colorado but he’s also 41 years old and moving to Denver from Queens. Hawkins was actually quite good last year for the Mets, throwing 70.2 strong innings with a 2.93 ERA and matching peripherals (3.12 xFIP and 2.96 SIERA). Although he didn’t get many whiffs (8.5% SwStk% and 19.1% K%) his walk rate was minuscule (3.5% BB%), leading to an outstanding 5.50 K/BB, well above the league average. Normally known as a good ground-ball guy, Hawkins had a 48.4% ground ball rate and although his strikeouts weren’t awful, they were actually above his career norms. I’m skeptical that at his advanced age, Hawkins will continue to post near career highs in whiffs. Hawkins always pitches around the zone which isn’t a bad thing of course but without great swing and miss stuff or elite ground ball tendencies, his reunion to Colorado could be unwelcoming. I don’t expect Hawkins to implode but it’s no shock that Colin, Alan and I all ranked set up man Rex Brothers above him. Even if Hawkins is quite good, the Rockies are unlikely to compete this year and a cheap right-handed setup option (AKA Hawkins) would be compelling to a competing team. Brothers has his own warts (a lefty without much control) but there are too many potential opportunities where Brothers could see the ninth inning not to have him on your radar. His 1.74 ERA last year is not repeatable but unlike Hawkins, Brothers gets whiffs (career 13.2% SwStr%) and if he’s not closing, he should pad your team’s strikeout totals while supplying ratios lower than most starting pitchers.
Cody Allen: The last two seasons have been a bit of a roller coaster ride for John Axford and he now finds himself as the closer in Cleveland. The big problem for Axford of late has been the long ball. While Axford could be on the wrong side of luck, giving up 20 home runs in 134 innings pitched in Axford’s position is unacceptable. Axford has had a lot of success when he’s suppressed home runs but if that issue rears its ugly head in Cleveland again it won’t be long until Terry Francona thinks about looking elsewhere. As of now, the next man up would be Cody Allen. Allen quietly had a solid year posting a 2.43/2.99/3.27 ERA/FIP/xFIP and an impressive 2.74 SIERA to boot, upping his strikeout rate (29.2%) and decreased his walk rate (8.6%) from the year prior. Allen profiles as a ‘classic’ closer as a right hander with great velocity (95.4 FBv) and swing and miss (11.5% SwStr%) stuff. Unless Axford can harness some of his 2010-11 magic, Allen should get a chance in the ninth inning this season.
Tyler Clippard: Colin hit this one on the nose when he was asked about Rafael Soriano‘s low ranking in the comment section: “Can’t speak for the other rankers, but I see decline in FBv, decline in K%, decline in SwStr%, and decline in F-Strike% and I’m worried.” I don’t think I could explain Rafael Soriano any better than that. Soriano essentially slipped in every meaningful way a pitcher could last year and the guess is that his 2014 ERA isn’t as pretty as 2013 which could lead to a changing of the guard. There are nice options behind Soriano and that’s where Tyler Clippard comes in. I have doubted Clippard in the past as he’s thrown a significant amount of innings (no reliever has thrown more since 2009 – 383.1 IP) but he’s continued to be an excellent option for both Washington and fantasy owners. Clippard’s strikeout rate dipped last year but he also had the second highest whiff-rate of his career so I’m still optimistic the strikeouts will rebound and either way, a K/9 over 9 is still plenty to be happy about for your squad. Clippard has been rosterable ever since becoming a fixture in the Nationals pen and he becomes an even more enticing option with Soriano’s decline.
Joakim Soria: With Joe Nathan off to Detroit, Neftali Feliz is expected to return to the closers role in Texas. However, his velocity has been low early on this spring, sitting in the 90-92 mph range. While there is good reason to believe his velocity will increase come April, his velo last year, after recovering from Tommy John surgery was 93.7 mph. That is still plenty fast but it’s not quite the blazing 96+ mph heat that Feliz showed last time he was closing. If Feliz’ velocity struggles or overall struggles persist, the Rangers have another closer removed from Tommy John surgery that they could turn to in the ninth inning in Joakim Soria. Soria sat out all of 2012 but came back last year to throw 23.2 OK innings for the Rangers. He wasn’t spectacular as his BB/9 ballooned to a career high 5.32 but he still had a respectable 3.80/3.68/3.56 ERA/FIP/xFIP and more importantly showed that he was healthy. If Soria could cut back his walks to his career norms he will be an intriguing option and arguably the best one for Texas. Spring Training results are largely irrelevant but this situation is certainly something to monitor. If your draft is coming up soon I wouldn’t hesitate to take a flier on Soria and if Feliz continues to struggle this spring, feel free to move Soria up on the draft board. Tanner Scheppers could enter the equation as well but Soria and his pedigree should get the first shot after Feliz.
Others of note:
• Anyone in Houston could be in line for saves although as Eno said, the situation looks pretty sad. If healthy, Jesse Crain would be the best fantasy option with his strikeout ability but he will likely start the year on the DL. Chad Qualls and Josh Fields are other options for the ‘Stros in the meantime. However, stashing Crain on your DL and hoping he gets the job upon return might be the optimal play regarding any Astros relievers. At the moment it sounds a little better than watching a few mediocre dudes battle for saves on a poor team.
• Like the Astros last year, the Cubs signed Jose Veras to be their closer and similarly, I expect the Cubs to trade him at or before the deadline. Behind him is Pedro Strop who should close if/when Veras were to leave. Strop throws hard (95.8 FBv), kills some worms (career 54.4% GB%) and should strike out ~ a batter per inning. Add it all up and Strop is a compelling package and a nice target for those looking to take the slow play regarding saves.
• Rapid fire – Bobby Parnell‘s neck issue could lead to some Vic Black opportunities although as of now Parnell is expected to be ready by opening day. Likewise, Jason Grilli is expected to make his ST debut soon and be ready by opening day but Mark Melancon remains someone to keep an eye on as he’s also valuable even outside of the ninth inning. Huston Street is always a trade or injury candidate and newly acquired set up man Joaquin Benoit should continue to have success in San Diego. Steve Cishek was quite alright last year but remains a trade candidate putting Mike Dunn and A.J. Ramos on the radar. The Diamondbacks didn’t trade for Addison Reed so he could set up but J.J. Putz can still play and is still in the desert. I admittedly ranked Danny Farquhar too low. Fernando Rodney will be closing in Seattle but Farquhar made some real improvements last year and has real draft/roster worthy peripherals.
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