Keeper league strategy: Closers

Last year around this time, I discussed a few keeper league strategies. One dealt with closers. I’ll first restate the theory behind it here, changing a few examples to make them more current. After that, we’ll look at how we can put it into practice this year.

Closers in keeper leagues

All keeper leagues are different, but if you are in one where your league-mates make a habit of keeping top closers, this strategy will be especially good for you.

In these leagues, when auction day or draft day rolls around, the number of closers will be limited. Those who haven’t kept a top closer will be bidding against each other for the left-overs… the second tier closers. By default, their price will rise, quite possibly above their raw value. This can trickle down the list of closers until Joe Borowski (to take an example from this year) is being auctioned for some crazy amount, like $11.

So how do you avoid this? Do you simply punt saves? Do you overpay for a closer? I hope you won’t have to do either, that this draft day inflation won’t happen. The intelligent owner, though, will prepare—just in case—read the market come draft day, and decide on a course of action.

If you’re out of the running this year, the stats you accrue over the remainder of 2008 make no difference to you. You shouldn’t have your keepers set in stone yet, although you definitely should have a good idea who they will be. You could, theoretically, drop every player you don’t intend to keep, tank, and it wouldn’t make an ounce of difference. Of course, I don’t advocate this; this type of behavior skews league results. It certainly would anger the rest of your league if you drop a $49 Alex Rodriguez because you decide he’s too expensive to keep. Might even get you kicked out before you can smoke them all in 2009!

Knowing this, feel free to drop any overpriced, old, or otherwise unkeepable players (within reason) and pick up some that fall into the next category: middle relievers with the inside track for a closing job. The owners in your league who are in it for this year might be ignoring these guys. Since you are concerned with next year, take the inside track while you can. Any advantage you can get is one worth pursuing, and there are several to be gained this time of year while many of your opponents don’t have the flexibility to make moves you can if you’re out of the race.

When Salomon Torres gets auctioned for $13 next year, you might be sitting on the Padres’ newly anointed closer Heath Bell for $1. The great news is that it won’t cost you anything in the short term because you’re already out of it! How’s that for value?

Of course, there’s no way to predict who will be closing next year for certain, but you don’t have to. If you’re out of it, you just need to play the odds a little bit. Pick up five guys from the next list and, come March, if any of them have been promoted, decide to make that guy a keeper. That’ll show the guy who’s keeping Joe Nathan for $15.

The list

Last year, the list had a few hits and some definite misses. This is going to happen. Surely you know by now that closer situations can change from week to week. From season to season, things can change even more drastically.

When a team has an entire offseason to make changes and acquire new players, its in-house options often get pushed aside. Teams make choices that don’t look to be optimal (think the D-Backs choosing Brandon Lyon over Chad Qualls and Tony Pena this season. Both were on last year’s list). This is a no-risk strategy, though, so if you don’t hit on anyone, you haven’t lost anything. If you do hit, you can reap some great rewards.

I prefer to take the players who have a good shot at the role and who have good skills. Lyon wasn’t on the list last offseason, but even if he had been, I wouldn’t have chosen him. His skills didn’t indicate he would make a good closer. They got better out of nowhere this year, but without knowing the future, Lyon was a poor bet. Even if you correctly choose who will begin the year in the closer’s role, if the skills aren’t there, he won’t last long anyway. I’d rather take a worse percentage play (in terms of strictly getting the role) but know that if the player does get the opportunity to close, he’s going to succeed.

All this being said, here is the list:

+------------------+------+---------------------+
| Name             | Team | Current Closer      |
+------------------+------+---------------------+
| Scot Shields     | LAA  | Francisco Rodriguez |
| Jose Arredondo   | LAA  | Francisco Rodriguez |
| Jon Rauch        | ARZ  | Brandon Lyon        |
| Chris Ray        | BAL  | George Sherrill     |
| Fernando Cabrera | BAL  | George Sherrill     |
| Carlos Marmol    | CHC  | Kerry Wood          |
| Rafael Perez     | CLE  | Jensen Lewis        |
| Manny Corpas     | COL  | Brian Fuentes       |
| Joel Zumaya      | DET  | Fernando Rodney     |
| Kyle Farnsworth  | DET  | Fernando Rodney     |
| Matt Lindstrom   | FLA  | Kevin Gregg         |
| Eric Gagne       | MIL  | Salomon Torres      |
| Huston Street    | OAK  | Brad Zeigler        |
| Joey Devine      | OAK  | Brad Zeigler        |
| Santiago Casilla | OAK  | Brad Zeigler        |
| Heath Bell       | SD   | Trevor Hoffman      |
| Chris Perez      | STL  | Chris Perez         |
| Dan Wheeler      | TB   | Troy Percival       |
| Grant Balfour    | TB   | Troy Percival       |
| C.J. Wilson      | TEX  | Eddie Guardado      |
| Frank Francisco  | TEX  | Eddie Guardado      |
+------------------+------+---------------------+

Looking back on last year’s article, I realized that there was little explanation of why certain guys were on the list and which were the better percentage plays. So I thought I’d dissect this better this year, allowing you to understand each specific situation and make better choices. This list will likely change by the end of the year, so maybe I’ll revisit this at the very end of the season.

LA Angels
Francisco Rodriguez will be a free agent this offseason and has expressed a willingness to leave the team. With all his saves this year and his history as a dominant reliever, his price tag will be high. If the team doesn’t pony up and doesn’t sign a replacement closer, Scot Shields has been setting up for years now and has the skills to be a closer. Jose Arredondo has emerged this year and could surpass him, though his skills aren’t as good and he doesn’t have the seniority.

Arizona
Brandon Lyon was projected to fall flat on his face to start 2008, and while he had early success, he is struggling now and Jon Rauch could be the closer before 2008 is over. Lyon is a free agent at year’s end, so it’s possible he will leave Arizona even if he keeps the job the rest of the year.

Baltimore
George Sherrill, the current closer, is on the DL. Jim Johnson is replacing him. Johnson has been incredibly lucky and should struggle. Sherrill’s job security had been waning a bit, and his skills aren’t really closer-worthy. Former closer Chris Ray should be back next year (could even be back later this year), and it’s possible he’ll have the opportunity to take his old job back.

If the Orioles don’t think he’s ready and decide Sherrill isn’t the answer, a dark horse candidate is Fernando Cabrera. He’s long been said to have electric stuff, but his control has been a problem. His 10.0 K/9 and 4.6 BB/9 this year are pretty good, though he’s an extreme flyball pitcher (23 percent ground ball rate this year), has a 4.24 ERA, and has just an 0.70 Leverage Index.

Chicago Cubs
Kerry Wood is closing now and pitching exceptionally. He has injury concerns and is under a one-year contract, so it’s possible Carlos Marmol will get a chance to close next year. The likelihood of Marmol closing in 2009 is much smaller than it was earlier this year, though. His best chance would be if another team offers Wood money.

Cleveland
This is an all-around messy situation. Jensen Lewis was a very good reliever last year, but has struggled this year. He’s closing now, and it’s entirely possible he’ll enter 2009 as the closer if he doesn’t slip up over the next five weeks. It’s possible he will, though, making the situation very murky. The most likely scenario might be that the team goes externally to fill the hole; the Indians see this as its highest priority (hat tip Melnick & Greco).

If they don’t go externally and Lewis pitches himself out of contention, Rafael Perez might be the choice, though the team has opted to keep him in a setup role numerous times this year. Rafael Betancourt would be a good choice, but his awful luck this year means he probably won’t be considered. Edward Mujica is a darkhorse candidate but is a very low probability play.

Colorado
Brian Fuentes wasn’t traded at the deadline, but he’ll be a free agent this offseason. It’s very unlikely the Rockies will fork over the cash for him. And if they won’t for him, they won’t be able to bring someone in who’s better than Manny Corpas, making Corpas an excellent speculative pickup right now. Taylor Buchholz is hanging around, but Corpas is clearly ahead of him unless he implodes over the next few weeks.

Detroit
Fernando Rodney simply isn’t a closer, and it’s likely he’ll pitch himself out of a job before year’s end. Kyle Farnsworth would likely take over in that case and could keep the job into 2009 (assuming he re-signs with Detroit, which he probably would if he knew he would be the closer). His skills are actually pretty good this year. Joel Zumaya has long been viewed as the closer of the future in Detroit, but he’s had lots of injury troubles and his control was awful in his brief time this year. If he looks good in spring training, though, the team could install him as closer right away. Keep in mind that an external option is a definite possibility.

Florida
Kevin Gregg is closing in Florida, but his strikeout rate is down this year despite a good ERA. If he doesn’t collapse over the next few weeks and isn’t traded over the offseason, he’ll likely enter 2009 as the closer. Matt Lindstrom had a great 2007, though, and has been excellent since being recalled from the minors a few weeks ago and would make a very good closer if given the opportunity. There’s a pretty decent chance he’ll be closing sometime in 2009, even if not right away.

Milwaukee
Salomon Torres is closing in Milwaukee, but his skills are very borderline for a closer. He has good job security at this point, though, and the team has a club option for 2009, so there’s a pretty good chance he’ll begin the year closing. Eric Gagne will be a free agent. He has been decent since the middle of July, and if the Brewers don’t give him a job, he could be given a chance similar to the one he received this year by another team. Not a great speculative pick, but worth mentioning.

Oakland
Brad Ziegler is closing in Oakland now, and the team has made it clear that Joey Devine is currently next in line. Ziegler is a great story and a pretty good pitcher, but I don’t see him as the long-term closer in Oakland. Many consider Devine as that player, and that future could come at the start of 2009. Huston Street is still around though, and has a history of dominance despite his recent struggles. The team could trade him this offseason if he pitches well the rest of the way, but they’d probably be able to get more for him if he starts 2009 as the closer and turns in a good first half. He might be the best pick of this group.

San Diego
Trevor Hoffman will be 41 this winter, and his contract runs out at the end of the year. If he wants to come back, the team would likely take him up on it, but if he decides to retire, Heath Bell would be the choice to close (assuming the team doesn’t look externally). Bell would make a very good closer.

St. Louis
Chris Perez is already closing in St. Louis, so he’s probably not available in your league, but if he somehow is, go get him. He’s the favorite to continue closing into 2009, although his control is below average.

Tampa Bay
Troy Percival is the closer in Tampa Bay and has been excellent this year, but he has just been placed on the DL for the third time. He’s under contract for 2009 and almost certainly will be the closer, but with all of his injury concerns, there’s a good chance someone else will be able to grab a bunch of saves. If any of his injuries ends up being serious, his 2009 could be over like that, and his replacement would have a chance at a season’s worth of saves.

Dan Wheeler is currently closing in place of Percival, but Grant Balfour got the most opportunities the last time he went on the DL. Balfour also is showing the better skills this year. I might give the edge to Wheeler, though, given the current situation. You could pick him up once Percival returns and he is dropped.

Texas
Eddie Guardado, not a quality closer by any means, was closing for the Rangers until his trade to Minnesota this week. He was likely to lose the job by the end of the year anyway, and Frank Francisco should take over. Francisco has good skills and is a great speculative pickup for this year.

Next year, Francisco could be the favorite if he gets some chances over the next few weeks, though C.J. Wilson says he’s determined to retake his role. He should be healthy by spring training and might be the best pickup here. His skills were pretty bad this year, but the decline could have been injury-related. The team could opt to look externally, but with guys like Wilson, Francisco, and Joaquin Benoit around, I doubt the Rangers would bring in a top tier guy. Maybe just someone to compete.

Free agents
There is also a set of guys who aren’t currently closing but are either former closers or have the skills to close and will be free agents at the end of the year. These guys probably aren’t as good bets as many of the above pitchers (some are extreme longshots), but I thought I’d note them anyway. Here are a few: Juan Cruz, Scott Downs, Jason Isringhausen, Chad Cordero (the Nats have said they’ll non-tender him), Joe Borowski (haha), Bob Howry, Damaso Marte (option year), Rafael Soriano, Derrick Turnbow, David Weathers.

Teams in the market for closers

In several of the above situations, I noted that the current closer is a solid pitcher who will be a free agent at the end of the year. Whether the next guy on the depth chart enters 2009 in a position for saves may depend on whether the current closer gets a better offer elsewhere.

I thought that it would be a good idea to see which teams could be looking externally for a closer. The more teams that will be (and the more money they have), the better the chances for all of those “next in line” types (as well as those listed in the “free agents” section) to be closing next April.

Here is a list of teams that might be looking for a closer.

  • LA Angels
  • Cleveland
  • Detroit
  • Florida
  • LA Dodgers
  • Milwaukee
  • San Diego
  • Seattle
  • St. Louis
  • Texas
  • Washington

A decent number, but some of the teams (i.e., Angels, Seattle, Florida) would be looking for a closer only if they lose their current one (K-Rod leaving, Gregg or Putz getting traded). Others, like Milwaukee with Torres or the Dodgers with Takashi Saito and Jonathan Broxton, might be content. Others, like Washington, probably would want to spend their limited money elsewhere.

Overall, not the most favorable situation for guys like Marmol and Shields, but for guys with talent like this, it still might be the right decision to take them.

My choices

This year, if I’m going to pick five potential closers, these would be my choices:

  • Manny Corpas
  • Heath Bell
  • Huston Street
  • Jon Rauch
  • Scot Shields

Chris Perez would be on there in place of Shields, but I doubt he’s still available in a lot of leagues. I’d also pick C.J. Wilson over Shields if I were more certain his struggles this year were injury-related, and it still might be a mistake not to, given the lack of teams with an obvious need for a closer (meaning K-Rod is more likely to re-sign with LA). Just missing the cut were Wheeler, Marmol and Ray.

Concluding thoughts

I hope this will help some of you in keeper leagues. If you think I forgot anyone or have anything to add, feel free to comment or send me an e-mail.

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