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Rafael Betancourt: Elite Closer?

The Rockies parted with Huston Street at the GM meetings on Wednesday, trading him to the Padres for a player to be named later. The move saves Colorado $7 million that they hope to put toward acquiring a durable starter or a third baseman, but the reason the Rox were comfortable swapping Street is that they have a top-tier reliever ready for a shot at the closer’s spot. While Rafael Betancourt has to look over his shoulder at the likes of Rex Brothers, Matt Belisle and Matt Lindstrom, he’s got all the skills necessary to rank among the game’s best stoppers.

A converted minor league infielder signed by the Red Sox back when Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince reigned, Betancourt didn’t make his big league debut until his late twenties and never got a chance to close until age 36, when Street hit the DL last August. Betancourt converted eight of his nine attempts and kept the job even when Street’s triceps healed. That surprised some, but it shouldn’t have. Over the past three seasons, Betancourt ranks fifth among qualified relievers in K/9 (11.11), sixth in BB/9 (1.79) and eighth in Fielding Independent Pitching (2.63). Name recognition or not, he’s nasty.

Betancourt is a rarity in that he can survive at Coors while chucking four-seam fastball after four-seam fastball high in the zone. He has thrown that fastball about 77 percent of the time over the past three seasons, and nearly 80 percent dating back to 2002. While all that high heat at high altitude leads to lots of fly balls (52.5 percent of his batted balls since 2009), Betancourt hasn’t been burned too badly by homers (1 HR/9 since ’09, 0.95 career). When hitters aren’t meekly putting Betancourt’s fastball in play, they’re swinging through it: per Texasleaguers.com, the pitch’s 12.4% whiff rate more than doubles the league average for four-seamers. Overall, Betancourt’s fastball has been one of the ten best on a per-pitch basis (+1.46 runs/100 pitches) among relievers in recent years.

With a dominant fastball and top-notch control, Betancourt could prove to be an elite closer option without necessarily costing you a high draft pick. Check out his 2012 Bill James projection, compared to some other closers sure to be taken much higher on draft day:

He’s not Mo or Kimbrel, but there’s little difference between the forecasts for Betancourt and Papelbon. Lots of Ks, few walks, a manageable home run rate and a low-to-mid-twos ERA. Aside from age, name value and, like, $45 million in guaranteed money, you’d have a hard time differentiating the two.

If there’s one downside in drafting Betancourt, it’s that he has plenty of capable usurpers in his own bullpen. Rex Brothers, a lefty taken in the 2009 supplemental first round out of Lipscomb, had a 59/20 K/BB ratio and a 2.88 FIP in 40.2 innings as a rookie while sitting in the mid-90s with his fastball and showing a wicked slider. Matt Belisle, another anonymous-yet-nasty right-hander, has proven highly durable over the past two years while posting 8.2 K/9, 1.7 BB/9, 0.7 HR/9 and a 2.85 FIP in 164 innings pitched. Matt Lindstrom isn’t on the same level as those two and dealt with a nerve injury to his arm late in the year, but he was decent last year, too (a 3.30 FIP in 54 innings).

Even so, Betancourt is expected to open 2012 as Colorado’s closer, and there’s little reason to think he’ll falter with an overwhelming fastball and a marksman’s control. If you don’t land a big-name closer, don’t sweat it. Draft Betancourt and watch him keep pace with the Papelbons and Axfords of the world.