Keeper league strategy: Closers

The past two seasons around this time, I’ve discussed keeper league strategies for acquiring cheap closers. As I did last year, I’ll simply copy and paste the underlying theory behind the strategy, changing a few examples to make it feel current.

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 Fernando Rodney (to take an example from this year) is being auctioned for some crazy amount, like $12.

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 David Wright because you decide he’s too expensive to keep. Might even get you kicked out before you make your run for the title in 2010!

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 they can’t afford to waste bench (or even active) roster spots. Since you are concerned with next year, however, 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 Kerry Wood gets auctioned for $15 next year, you might be sitting on the Brewers’ newly anointed closer, Todd Coffey, 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.

Last year’s results

As I’ve said in years past, this plan is far from fool proof. If these guys were guaranteed dominant closers, there’s a good chance they’d be closing already. Some of them do have the right stuff, though, and if they are given the opportunity to start 2010, they could run away with the job.

Last year, of the 21 guys who made the list, four (Heath Bell, Huston Street, Frank Francisco, and Matt Lindstrom) opened the year as their team’s closer (and two more inherited the job for some portion of 2009). This isn’t a great raw percentage, but I think that’s more the nature of the beast than anything else (and I did give strong recommendations to Bell and Street).

The list

+------------------+------+---------------------+
| Name             | Team | Current Closer      |
+------------------+------+---------------------+
| Koji Uehara      | BAL  | Jim Johnson         |
| Chris Ray        | BAL  | Jim Johnson         |
| Chris Perez      | CLE  | Kerry Wood          |
| Ryan Perry       | DET  | Fernando Rodney     |
| Brandon League   | TOR  | S. Downs/J. Frasor  |
| Matt Thornton    | CHW  | Bobby Jenks         |
| Mike Gonzalez    | ATL  | Rafael Soriano      |
| Carlos Marmol    | CHC  | Kevin Gregg         |
| Daniel Schlereth | ARZ  | Chad Qualls         |
| Nick Massett     | CIN  | Francisco Cordero   |
| Several Options  | COL  | Huston Street       |
| Todd Coffey      | MIL  | Trevor Hoffman      |
| Mike DiFelice    | MIL  | Trevor Hoffman      |
| Mike Adams       | SD   | Heath Bell          |
| Joel Hanrahan    | PIT  | Matt Capps          |
| Chris Bootcheck  | PIT  | Matt Capps          |
| Jorge Sosa       | WAS  | Mike MacDougal      |
| Garrett Mock     | WAS  | Mike MacDougal      |
| Tyler Clippard   | WAS  | Mike MacDougal      |
+------------------+------+---------------------+

Explanations

Arizona
Chad Qualls was a trade candidate this year, and if he goes in the offseason, the team could turn to any number of players. Jon Rauch would have been next this year, but he’s not really a long-term option (or very good, for that matter). Daniel Schlereth has been called a closer-of-the-future, though his control is a problem and he might still be a year or two away from really dominating. Clay Zavada and Juan Gutierrez might be darkhorse options. I might say Schlereth is the favorite, but there are stronger alternatives on other teams.

Atlanta
Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez are both free agents, and the team could easily re-sign at least one of them. If Soriano leaves and Gonzalez stays, he’s the closer. If both leave, the team probably doesn’t have any in-house options they’d be comfortable handing the job to.

Baltimore
Jim Johnson has inherited the role from recently traded George Sherrill, and he could just as easily start next season in the role. There is a sect of fans who believe Japanese import Koji Uehara could actually open 2010 as the closer, though, and he certainly would be expected to thrive if he did. He closed in Japan, and with so many good SP arms, it might make sense for the O’s to put him in the role. A very interesting play since Johnson is surely owned, although Chris Ray is still around and was a candidate to close this year had Sherrill struggled. Kam Mickolio and Cla Meredith have also been discussed as darkhorse options.

Chicago Cubs
Kevin Gregg is a free agent at year’s end, and if the team lets him walk like they did withKerry Wood, Carlos Marmol could finally get his chance to close. Despite his control issues, his LIPS ERA is still an OK 4.28. Of course, he could still be owned from this season’s draft. Angel Guzman might be the choice if it isn’t Marmol.

Chicago White Sox
Maybe a long-shot, but Bobby Jenks could be a trade candidate. If he goes, I’d have to take Matt Thornton as my choice for his replacement.

Cincinnati
Francisco Cordero‘s name came up at the trade deadline, and if he is moved in the offseason, Nick Massett makes a strong case to replace him. Jared Burton could be a darkhorse.

Cleveland
Kerry Wood hasn’t been very good this year, and combined with his big contract he might not be the easiest guy to trade. The Indians didn’t rule it out in the middle of this year, although the changes he’s made could have been suggested by the team to keep him healthy (meaning they might not be too disappointed with his season). They did acquire former Cardinals closer-of-the-future Chris Perez this year, and although he has poor control, he could close at some point. Former closer Jensen Lewis could be a darkhorse.

Colorado
Huston Street is still arbitration-eligible after the season, but Colorado might not want to pony up the cash to keep him. If the Rockies trade him, in-house options include Manny Corpas, Rafael Betancourt, Matt Daley, and possibly Franklin Morales. Jhoulys Chacin would be a long-shot. His future is likely in the rotation. This is a pretty murky situation. I’d probably go Corpas, Morales, Betancourt, Daley, in that order.

Detroit
Fernando Rodney will be a free agent, and if he doesn’t return, the team will be loaded with replacement options. Ryan Perry was drafted to be their closer of the future, but his control has been pretty awful. I’d probably call him the favorite with Bobby Seay, Freddy Dolsi, and (of course) Joel Zumaya as other options. Brandon Lyon could also be an option if he doesn’t leave via free agency.

Houston
Jose Valverde is a free agent, and it might be more likely the team resigns him or looks externally because they don’t have very many solid in-house options. LaTroy Hawkins? He’s a FA too. Felipe Paulino? Good numbers, closer-ish stuff, but poor surface numbers for a backwards organization. Best to stay away from this situation.

Milwaukee
Trevor Hoffman will be a free agent, and retirement probably isn’t out of the question. Either way, there’s no guarantee he’s staying in Milwaukee after a strong 2009 campaign. This team doesn’t have a history of forking over big bucks for a closer. Todd Coffey might be the pick here, even if Mike DiFelice is the better pitcher (albeit a non-conventional closer-type). Coffey had been discussed as a closer-of-the-future type in Cincinnati, and he’s putting up a very nice 2009.

Pittsburgh
Matt Capps is not having a good season, and there was talk mid-season of trading him. Unless he implodes or is traded in the offseason, he’ll still start 2010 as the closer, but if he is traded, I see two candidates who might be able to take the job and run with it. Paul talked about Chris Bootcheck the other day, and the team didn’t acquire Joel Hanrahan for nothing. They’ve got a smart front office now and probably realized he was unlucky, and it wasn’t but five months ago we were all calling this guy an undervalued fantasy closer. He’s got good stuff, good numbers, and might be the best speculative choice here.

San Diego
It looked like the Pads could trade closer Heath Bell at the deadline this year, and they may explore that option again in the offseason. If he goes, Mike Adams would be a fitting option. The team could go younger with Luke Gregerson or Greg Burke, but Adams was the speculative add this season, and the team wasn’t afraid to give a 31-year-old Heath Bell the job this season (of course, they also didn’t have two other legitimate options). If it isn’t Adams, I’d take Gregerson over Burke.

St. Louis
Ryan Franklin has been good this year, so there’s no real reason to expect him to not open 2010 as the closer. If he is, for whatever reason, traded or (more likely) struggles to open 2010, Jason Motte and Kyle McClellan could be options to replace him.

Toronto
Both Scott Downs and Jason Frasor were trade candidates this year, and if both are traded this offseason, Brandon League is a solid option to replace them. Jeremy Accardo could also be in the picture.

Washington
Let’s face it. Mike MacDougal is not going to last (and I mean, like, past next week), so who will be closing in Washington to start 2010? If they don’t look externally, it could be whoever closes out 2009 for the team. Right now, that might be Jorge Sosa, who actually put up good numbers at Triple-A this year. The team has said in the past that they view Garrett Mock as a closer-of-the-future type, so he could also be considered, and Tyler Clippard was mentioned as a potential replacement should MacDougal falter. Overall, I’d avoid this situation unless I have few options.

Free agents
Kiko Calero, Mike Gonzalez, Octavio Dotel, Brandon Lyon, and Billy Wagner are guys who will be free agents who could be cheap options for teams looking for a closer.

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 2010 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.

  • Atlanta
  • Baltimore
  • Detroit
  • Florida
  • Houston
  • Milwaukee
  • Tampa Bay
  • Texas
  • Washington

Not as many teams as last year, and not as many who figure to be strong suitors. Detroit and Milwaukee never seem to want to go big on a closer; Washington might not have the cash; and Baltimore, Texas, Tampa Bay are more long-shot types with solid in-house options to rely on. Florida could be active, but probably more-so in the trade market than in free agency. That just leaves Atlanta and Houston, who could simply resign their current options.

This probably doesn’t bode to well for guys who need their current closers to ship off. With few teams probably willing to dole out the big bucks, they might opt to stay with their current teams, especially if they’re willing to accept a home-town discount.

My choices

There are few obvious choices this year as most of the situations are quite murky (although maybe that’s the case any year). Here are five guys I might take if I had to pick right now:

  • Mike Gonzalez
  • Carlos Marmol
  • Todd Coffey
  • Jorge Sosa (uggh)
  • Joel Hanrahan

I don’t like picking Sosa because of his history, but he makes some sense since he could prove himself to the team by the end of 2009. I kind of wanted to pick Ray or Uehara in Baltimore, but there are so many options there that it’s tough to back just one horse (especially since Johnson could simply keep the job). I had a similar dilemma in picking Hanrahan, but even if he doesn’t open 2010 with the job, he might be one of the best speculative setup men options. Massett and Adams were also in consideration simply because they’d be strong options to succeed if they got the job.

Concluding thoughts

Disagree with my choices? Did I miss someone entirely? Did you use the strategy last year? Any thoughts, questions, or comments, leave ‘em below.

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Comments

  1. Derek Carty said...

    Todd’s an interesting guy as well.  I’m not sure I’d take him over Chris Perez, but he could certainly be a candidate and pitch well at the big league level.

  2. neo said...

    How about Drew Storen (WAS)?  In A and A+ ball since being drafted, he has 23.2 innings, 36K and 2BB.  He had a rough start in terms of hits/runs, but in his last 11-12 appearances seems to be lights out.

    Yes, it A ball, and a small sample size.  But given how high he was drafted, the front office in Washington has incentive to give him a shot, so maybe he should be considered.

  3. Derek Carty said...

    Meyer could definitely have a chance to close in Florida if Nunez and Lindstrom struggle in the coming weeks.  If they don’t, I’m not sure if I’d put him ahead of either of them for the job heading into 2010.

    As to Storen, he’s definitely interesting.  I can’t see the Nats handing him the closer’s job at the start of 2010, but he’s someone to keep an eye on for sure.

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