The Next Batch of Cheap Closers

LaTroy Hawkins for $2.5 million. Jose Veras for $4 million. John Axford for $4.5 million. If there’s been one clear trend this winter, it’s been a move away from expensive multi-year contracts for ninth inning specialists. After years of getting burned with long contracts for inconsistent relievers, Major League teams are now going after multiple cheaper options, perhaps having noted that Koji Uehara (signed for $4 million last winter) was the Red Sox third choice at closer last year, and having him around as insurance ended up being a critical reason the team won the World Series.

More and more, baseball is learning that closers are made, not born, and that you don’t necessarily need experience in the ninth inning before you can be trusted to get the final three outs. So, with teams hunting for bargains in the closer role, let’s look at a few low profile relievers who could make excellent closers if given the chance.

Casey Fien, Minnesota Twins

The Twins have an excellent closer in Glen Perkins, a hometown kid who isn’t going anywhere any time soon, so Fien might be the Twins reliever to target in trade talks. At 30 years old with an average fastball and a non-descript track record, he doesn’t look like a closer-in-training, but he certainly pitched like one last year. His 6.08 K/BB ratio was 5th best in the majors, just ahead of some guy named Mariano Rivera, and it wasn’t just because he was dominating right-handers in a setup role: his K/BB ratio against LHBs was 4.83, better than the mark put up by Jonathan Papelbon, David Robertson, or Greg Holland, for instance.

Because Fien leans heavily on a cutter and doesn’t have top shelf velocity, it’s easy to write him off as just another generic middle reliever, but pitchers like Rivera and Kenley Jansen should have taught us to not underrate cutter-centric relievers by now. His ability to control the strike zone while getting a lot of swings and misses, against both left-handers and right-handers, makes him an interesting option for a team that is looking for a cheap bullpen upgrade. The Twins won’t give him away, but convincing them to trade a 30 year old setup man is a better bet than throwing a lot of money at a guy with a bunch of saves on his resume.

Brandon Kintzler, Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers have become a model club for the make-a-closer-out-of-nothing formula, first turning John Axford and then Jim Henderson from non-prospects into dominant 9th inning options in short order. Henderson is going to be the 9th inning option in Milwaukee again this year, but if he falters, don’t be too surprised if Brandon Kintzler doesn’t take the role and become another obscure but effective closer for the Brew Crew.

Unlike Axford and Henderson, Kintzler isn’t a big strikeout guy, as he comes more from the Jim Johnson family of relievers: lots of groundballs, hardly any walks, and enough strikeouts to get him out of jams when he needs them. While pitchers of this ilk can often struggle against opposite handed hitters, as the two-seam fastball dives right into their wheelhouse, Kintzler was actually better against left-handed hitters last year (.235 wOBA allowed) than he was against right-handed hitters (.264 wOBA allowed), so he’s not simply a match-up specialist. His fastball works against hitters from both side of the plate, and his command gives him the ability to work the corners while in search of ground balls.

As Johnson showed in Baltimore, you don’t have to strike everyone out to be a good closer, and Kintzler’s overall profile suggests he would do well in the 9th inning if given the chance.

Nate Jones, Chicago White Sox

Jones is more of a classic closer prospect, given that his fastball averages 97 mph and he regularly hits 100 on the radar gun. Last year, only Aroldis Chapman, Kelvin Herrera, and Craig Kimbrel posted a higher average fastball velocity than Jones, so his stuff certainly suggests dominance is possible.

His 4.15 ERA doesn’t match up with the stuff, but the underlying peripherals certainly do. With a 3.42 K/BB ratio and a 50% GB%, Jones put himself in a group of just 13 other relievers who managed that combination last year. The average ERA of the 14 pitchers who managed that 3.0 K/BB/50% GB combination was 2.78. Among the relievers in this group were Mark Melancon, Bobby Parnell, and David Robertson, three of the game’s most dominant relievers last year. If you control the strike zone and keep hitters from putting the ball in the air, you’re most of the way towards shutting opposing hitters down.

The White Sox just showed a bunch of faith in Jones’ future by trading away proven closer Addison Reed, and it’s likely that they’ll give Jones a shot to finish games next year. Don’t be too surprised if he’s even better than Reed was.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.
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Brandon Warne

The best part about Fien is that a team would own his rights until he’s right around 35. You’d basically have him as long as you could possibly want with no risk involved.