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Closer Carousel Starts Early

Whether it’s a worthwhile strategy or not (and I stand by the fact that it isn’t), numerous fantasy owners tend to ignore closers on draft day. Their decision is either to punt saves outright or to just not invest any auction dollars or draft picks on closers and fish off the waiver wire all year for saves. And why is that? Because when it comes to job security, the number of closers who actually have it is quite small. Not to mention, the rash of injuries we tend to see from year to year. And, of course, their side of the debate gets a little boost here in February as we see three situations involving closers already coming to light.

When the Oakland A’s exercised their $4.5M option on Grant Balfour in October, they thought their bullpen was a done deal. But Balfour required minor knee surgery the other day and is set to be out for 4-6 weeks, leaving his availability for Opening Day in doubt. Not an ideal situation for the A’s, but certainly not one that is insurmountable. In fact, before his torrid end-of-season heroics from the pen, Balfour struggled during the middle of the season last year and was replaced as the closer by Ryan Cook who managed to notch 14 saves beginning in mid-June. He also finished the season with a 28-percent strikeout rate and a 2.09 ERA and will likely be given the first chance to close in place of Balfour. What’s not to love about consistent 95-mph heat and a plus-slider? The A’s may also kick the tires on Sean Doolittle, but as a lefty, it’s more likely that he remains in his set-up role.

Just down the way in Los Angeles…well, Anaheim really…the Angels are also going through some questions regarding their ninth inning situation. Original reports in late January said that Ryan Madson, who was signed by the Angels in the offseason while recovering from early-2012 Tommy John surgery, could possibly miss the first week of the season. The Halos were being cautious, not wanting to rush back their one-year, $3.5M investment. When Madson began feeling soreness in his elbow on the first day of spring training, red flags went up and he was immediately rushed for an MRI. The tests came back clean and the team is hoping that it’s just general soreness that comes from having such extensive elbow surgery, but you can be sure they are prepping Ernesto Frieri, who was a dominant force for them last year — 23 saves with a 2.32 ERA and 80:24 K:BB over just 54.1 innings — as the possible Opening Day closer. Considering the Angels didn’t break the bank signing Madson, it is very likely that he never ends up in the closer’s role should Frieri continue his strong performance this year. He’ll be a solid handcuff, though so don’t cast him aside just yet.

And across the country, a name that is synonymous with closing catastrophes, good ol’ Frank Francisco is struggling again. Franky Frank had surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow and has had some difficulties, both mental and physical, in his recovery. He was experiencing inflammation after the first day of spring training and, according to manager Terry Collins, may not be ready to throw a baseball for another two weeks. In addition to that, Mets GM Sandy Alderson said that personal issues, including deaths in the family, have also hindered Francisco’s rehab in recent weeks and there is speculation that he won’t be ready for Opening Day

That opens the door for Bobby Parnell whose fastball averaged close to 96-mph last season but can get it up to triple digits after just a few warm-up tosses. Collins already told him that he’ll be closing while Francisco is out, so there’s no question as to who the heir-apparent is. The only question is whether or not Parnell can fully do away with some of the control issues that he’s had in his career and if he can get a little luckier on his batting average on balls in play. But his overall work last year was solid, posting a 2.49 ERA and a respectable 61:20 K:BB over 68.2 innings. Maybe I’m just not a Franky Frank fan, but should Parnell prove dominant this spring and in the early goings of the season, it would seem logical to keep him in the closer’s role all year.