There are two paths for a set-up type pitcher to inherit the role of closer, discounting injury, which is often difficult to predict and therefore generally not viable for speculation. A closer can either implode and lose his job on the basis of his performance, or, at this point in the season especially, he can be traded to a different team where he will be expected to perform a non-closer relief role.
What’s interesting is that these two reasons for losing a job are almost mutually exclusive prior to the trade deadline. Non-contending teams with non-spectacular closers who don’t project as necessary parts of the team’s future often put these players on the trading block to help contending teams looking to solidify their relief corps. Some of these pitchers are severely underperforming, but in order to retain maximum trade value, teams are reluctant to strip the mediocre closer of his job. This is actually rather curious, as it presumes that other teams won’t see past these players’ roles and realize the caliber of pitcher the player in question is. Nonetheless, my point here is that while David Aardsma or Kerry Wood may actually be in danger of performing at a level that could precipitate a loss of job, they are really not threatened to lose their job based on performance because their respective teams are committed to keeping their trade value as high as possible. So, while Wood may actually qualify under both poor performance and trade candidate, that doesn’t actually make him much more likely to lose closer status than, say, Matt Capps, for whom only trade-ability is an issue.
When choosing between potential heirs to a closer job an owner is faced with many questions to guide his course of action. Which current closer is most likely to lose his job? Do any of the potential heirs have value without a closer job? Does the potential heir have additional competition from his own team to inherit the role? Normally, decisions are made on some combination of the subjective answers an owner derives from these questions.
But how does that decision-making process change when an owner owns one of the imperiled closers? And, to what extent should that influence the decision making process? Let me give you a real life example.
In my shallow mixed league, I’m struggling for saves. I own Aaron Heilman and have a roster spot to play with. A few days ago, I picked up Sam Demel, but I really wanted to pick up Brandon League instead. On Sunday, Heilman entered a tied game in the eighth inning (and promptly surrendered a two-run dinger to Matt Kemp), which really tripped the alarm in terms of his job security. I need saves and I’m ready to dig through the bottom of the barrel for them, so the “who is the most likely player on the wire to get saves soon” criterion is pretty much trumping all the others when it comes to making these decisions. However, I was really tempted to add League anyway because I’m not sure if I’m in position to be hedging my bets, especially by owning two questionable commodities in the league’s worst bullpen. Plus, I worry that Chad Qualls may re-enter the mix.
In this decision, there are essentially two closer jobs at stake. By picking up Demel, I’m hoping to ensure that I will net ownership of the Arizona closer. At the same time, the ceiling of these two roster slots is one closer. Had I just held on to Heilman and picked up League (or dropped Heilman for Demel and picked up League), my ceiling would be two closers from two roster spots. However, the floor for those two roster spots would drop from (hopefully) one to zero.
To get back into the race, I need to find an “extra” closer, and to do so I need to be aggressive and embrace risk. In this case, the risk would be that Heilman generally keeps the Diamondbacks’ closing job throughout the year. That would allow me to spread my chips across the table and hopefully hit on a player like League too (Evan Meek, Chris Perez, and other likely heirs are already owned). I’d love to spread my chips, but Sunday convinced me the likelihood of Heilman’s implosion is much higher than Aardsma’s trade – high enough that I have to hedge my bet.
As a side note, I’m not willing to trade for saves at this point because so many jobs may soon be in flux that I’m scared to bet on half the market and because I’m holding out that I can address this need for free on the wire by capitalizing on a player personnel shake-up. Our trade deadline extends further than MLB’s, so if I have to pay for saves I’ll wait until that’s my only option, even if that raises the prices a bit. This is a calculated risk on my part. However, if you are willing to embrace risk, this may be a very good time to trade for an imperiled closer at a discount rate.
Back to the question at hand, if you own an imperiled closer should you buy insurance or double down? I think the answer to this depends on context.
If you’re strong in the saves department, I think it might be a good idea to give additional privilege to the question of which pitcher among you choices is the best overall player. It’s often difficult to speculate who and who will not be traded; every year many names are brought up and several of them invariably stay put.
If you’re weak in that category, then I’d advise you take the biggest risk you can justify. I really wanted to be able to justify passing on Demel, partly because he’s a virtually unknown quantity himself, but I think sound judgment prevailed over fanciful thinking.
Many tough decisions regarding closers will be made at this point in the season and while none of us can predict the future, what we can do is strive to make decisions that are most justifiable within the context of our needs. I urge you all to establish what level of risk is most appropriate for your situation before determining your course of action.