Keeper league strategy: Closers

For the past three years, at the end of each season I’ve made it a habit to discuss 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 Kerry Wood (to take an example from this year) is being auctioned for some crazy amount, like $16.

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 2010 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, and it certainly would anger the rest of your league if you drop a $49 Miguel Cabrera because you decide he’s too expensive to keep. Might even get you kicked out before you make your run for the title in 2011!

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 active (or even bench) 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 Fernando Rodney gets auctioned for $17 next year, you might be sitting on the Braves’ newly anointed closer, Jonny Venters, 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 Brian Wilson for $17.

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 2011, they could run away with the job.

Last year, of the 19 guys who made the list, two opened the year as their team’s closer (and four more inherited the job for some portion of 2010). This is far from 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 both guys who opened the year as closers). This has been the fewest number in the three years we’ve done this, though, likely because there were a lot of free agent signings and trades, mostly making it a game of musical chairs without too many new names being thrown into the MLB closing mix.

Matt Capps went to Washington, so the Bucs signed Octavio Dotel to replace him. Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano left Atlanta for the O’s and Rays, and the Braves signed Billy Wagner to replace them. Jose Valverde signs with Detroit, and the Astros trade for Matt Lindstrom. Really the only new names we saw were Carlos Marmol and Jon Rauch (and Rauch was only because of Joe Nathan‘s spring injury). It was that sort of year.

The list

So, bearing in mind that this is all speculative, here is my list for 2011. Lots of potential closers, but many on this list are long-shots.

+----------------------+------+---------------------+
| Name                 | Team | Current Closer      |
+----------------------+------+---------------------+
| Sam Demel            | ARZ  | Juan Gutierrez      |
| Jonny Venters        | ATL  | Billy Wagner        |
| Takashi Saito (FA)   | ATL  | Billy Wagner        |
| Mike Gonzalez        | BAL  | Koji Uehara         |
| Daniel Bard          | BOS  | Jonathan Papelbon   |
| Matt Thornton        | CHW  | Bobby Jenks         |
| J.J. Putz (FA)       | CHW  | Bobby Jenks         |
| Clay Hensley*        | FLO  | Leo Nunez/Hensley   |
| Kevin Jepsen         | LAA  | Fernando Rodney     |
| Octavio Dotel (FA)   | LAD  | Jonathan Broxton    |
| Joe Nathan           | MIN  | Matt Capps          |
| Brian Fuentes (FA)   | MIN  | Matt Capps          |
| Jon Rauch (FA)       | MIN  | Matt Capps          |
| K-Rod (FA)           | NYM  | Hisanori Takahashi  |
| Bobby Parnell        | NYM  | Hisanori Takahashi  |
| Jose Contreras (FA)  | PHI  | Brad Lidge          |
| Evan Meek            | PIT  | Joel Hanrahan       |
| Adams/Gregerson      | SDP  | Heath Bell          |
| Brandon League       | SEA  | David Aardsma       |
| Joaquin Benoit       | TBR  | Rafael Soriano      |
| Chad Qualls          | TBR  | Rafael Soriano      |
| Frank Francisco (FA) | TEX  | Neftali Feliz       |
| Jason Frasor         | TOR  | Kevin Gregg         |
| Shawn Camp           | TOR  | Kevin Gregg         |
| Tyler Clippard       | WAS  | Drew Storen         |
+----------------------+------+---------------------+

Explanations

Arizona
Arizona’s closing situation has been a mess this year, and they’ve said that they’ll actively look for a closer this winter. Sam Demel might be their best in-house option, but there are going to be better speculative options available to you as the 2011 D’Backs closer may not be on the team right now.

Atlanta
Billy Wagner has said he’ll retire after 2010, leaving the closer’s chair vacant in Atlanta. Takashi Saito has been fantastic this year, but he’ll be 41, is a free agent, and rookie Jonny Venters has dazzled. Rotoworld seems to think Craig Kimbrel has the inside track for the job, but I don’t see how he’d make a better choice than Venters. Little experience at the upper levels and control troubles would likely spell a short reign as closer even if he were to take the job. Saito has previous experience closing and is a possibility to lock on somewhere, but his age might make him seem too risky for some teams.

Baltimore
Koji Uehara is doing a good job holding down the gig, and should remain the closer for the remainder of 2010. As long as he doesn’t implode, he looks like a good bet to open 2011 as the closer. Mike Gonzalez will still be around, though, and is someone we’ll need to keep an eye on since the O’s do have a relatively large investment in him. If he comes back healthy and effective in 2011 and Uehara struggles (I don’t expect him to, but bad luck happens. Ask Frank Francisco), Gonzalez could take back over for good.

Boston Red Sox
With Jonathan Papelbon struggling this year, there is some speculation that the Sox could trade him this winter. If they do, Daniel Bard would be able to step right in and make for a top-15 closer if the Sox don’t bring in a free agent to take the job or to compete with Bard.

Chicago White Sox
Bobby Jenks has been a mess this year. A lot looks either injury-related or simple bad luck, but in either case, the White Sox may be done with him. A trade or non-tender is a distinct possibility, leaving Matt Thornton as the obvious candidate to replace him. J.J. Putz will be a free agent and will likely seek a job closing somewhere (and has a good chance of getting it), but it wouldn’t make sense for Chicago to give him the big bucks with Thornton around.

Florida
Leo Nunez has been temporarily removed from the closer’s role and Clay Hensley is now closing, but he’s owned in just 3% of ESPN leagues (and he went unclaimed in Tout Mixed for the past two weeks). Part of that could be end-of-the-year inactivity, but if he’s somehow available in your league, he’s been fantastic this year and should, at the very least, compete for the job in 2011 (barring a FA or trade addition).

L.A. Angels
With Brian Fuentes traded, Fernando Rodney is closing in Anaheim, but Kevin Jepsen would be a better choice. Rodney simply isn’t closer material, and even if he opens 2011 closing, I doubt he’ll make it very long.

L.A. Dodgers
I expect Jonathan Broxton to resume closing in 2011, but Octavio Dotel will be a free agent and is worth mentioning as he could be one of those cheap, veteran options some teams like to bring in (like he was in Pittsburgh this year).

Minnesota
Matt Capps is a perfectly capable closer, but we can’t forget about Joe Nathan. It doesn’t look like he’ll be ready by Spring Training, but if he is and looks good, Twins brass might have a decision to make. Brian Fuentes will be a free agent and would surely like to close, but he’s probably more of a middle-tier option, maybe in the Dotel mold. Ditto Jon Rauch.

N.Y. Mets
With Francisco Rodriguez done for the year, Hisanori Takahashi is closing most games for the Mets, but he’ll be a free agent at the end of the year and will likely seek a job somewhere he can start. That might end up being with the Mets, but odds are against him closing in 2011. Omar Minaya will likely be gone this offseason, so it’s anyone’s guess who gets brought in and what direction they go, but going in-house at closer probably isn’t the most likely scenario. A free agent makes sense, but if they do go in-house, Bobby Parnell has been great (2.46 xFIP), although this is the first year we’ve really been able to say that about him since Single-A. K-Rod will almost certainly be leaving the Big Apple, but he should land a job closing elsewhere.

Philadelphia
Brad Lidge is the closer here, but Jose Contreras has had a good year and received some ninth-inning experience, so as a free agent he could be a long-shot to find a job closing.

Pittsburgh
Joel Hanrahan has been getting most of the saves in Pittsburgh, and he’s a perfectly capable closer. He’s a pretty good one, actually. Still, Evan Meek is younger and perhaps the more “exciting” choice. Keep an eye on this, as the two could end up battling in Spring Training.

San Diego
The long-standing Heath Bell rumors may finally be quieting down, especially with the Padres potentially playoff bound, but a winter trade is possible, which would leave Mike Adams and Luke Gregerson to duke it out. Neither makes for a great keeper play (despite great skills) with the presence of the other in San Diego.

Seattle
David Aardsma looked like he was going to get traded in July, but that failed to materialize. If talks pick back up again this winter, Brandon League could find himself closing games to start 2011. He’s got the skills to hold down the job and shouldn’t have much other competition unless the Mariners go external.

Tampa Bay
Rafael Soriano has been great, but he’ll be a free agent again this winter and will likely seek a long-term deal that the Rays may not be able to provide. Unless they bring in another cheap, Soriano-like option, their in-house choices include Joaquin Benoit and Dan Wheeler. Chad Qualls will be a free agent but could re-sign, especially if he’s offered first crack at the job. Lots of uncertainty here.

Texas
Frank Francisco may be a distant memory to those in shallower leagues, but we may need to remember him real quick. If Neftali Feliz is moved to the starting rotation in 2011 (he absolutely should—he’s being wasted in the bullpen with his stuff), Francisco could resume closing. While he was removed after two unlucky weeks in April, he’s been nothing short of dominant since. The potential problems are that the Rangers’ rotation picture is very crowded (see: Cliff Lee, Colby Lewis, C.J. Wilson, Derek Holland, Tommy Hunter, Rich Harden, Scott Feldman, Brandon McCarthy, Martin Perez, etc.) and the Rangers might not see Francisco as a viable closer because of his past “troubles.” We also need to consider that Francisco is a free agent, so he could go elsewhere. If the Rangers offer him a chance to close, though, I’d have to think he’d stick around. It’s also possible someone else offers him a job closing.

Toronto
Kevin Gregg could be a trade option and Jason Frasor and Scott Downs will be free agents this winter. It seems somewhat unlikely that Frasor or Downs sign on to close anywhere, but it could happen. If Gregg is traded, a cheap outside option might be most likely, although Shawn Camp has had a good 2010 season for the Jays and has long been underrated.

Washington
Everyone knows that Drew Storen is supposed to be the closer of the future in Washington, but he just hasn’t been that great this year. He should start 2011 closing, but if he struggles, Tyler Clippard looks like the better pitcher right now.

Teams in the market for closers

Everyone. Or at least it seems like it. Plenty of closing situations will be in flux this winter, so a lot of movement seems likely if teams decide to look externally. Here is a list of teams who could be in the trade or free agent market for closers:

  • Arizona
  • Atlanta
  • Baltimore
  • Boston
  • Cincinnati
  • Colorado
  • Kansas City
  • Milwaukee
  • N.Y. Mets
  • Tampa Bay
  • Texas
  • Toronto
  • White Sox

A lot of these teams (Reds, Rockies, Red Sox, Royals, Rangers, Jays) would only be in the market if they move their current closer, but others could be seriously looking to acquire someone (D’Backs, Mets, Rays). Others have in-house options but could bring in a cheap veteran to compete (Braves, Brewers, O’s, White Sox).

Of the teams that are definitely look for a closer, the Mets are the only team likely to have big bucks to spend, though things can change since there appears to be so much uncertainty this year. If the market is more dormant, we could see more trades (good news for guys like League) and closers re-signing with their current teams (bad news for guys like Benoit).

My choices

If I had to pick right now, here are the five guys I’d pick up now in my keeper league to speculate on (in order):

  • K-Rod
  • J.J. Putz
  • Matt Thornton
  • Clay Hensley
  • Jonny Venters
  • Brandon League (if Hensley doesn’t count, he’d be my fifth)
  • Frank Francisco (if K-Rod doesn’t count, he’d be my sixth)

There of course will be other guys vying for closers job (more so this year than in recent years, in all likelihood), but these guys all have good enough skills to close and a decent chance of receiving the opportunity to do so.

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. Jonathan Sher said...

    Dark horse in Tampa: Jacob McGee, who was just called up. Long-shot to be named closer out the gate but might improve odds with strong performance in September.

  2. phil said...

    Feliz is a dominant closer.  His situation is reminiscent of the Papelbon situation, where Papelbon was touted as an awesome starter, but was dominant at closing, and he’s been doing it ever since.  Leave Feliz at closer, and then use the multiple starters they have at their disposal. 

    Why do you want to change a guy that’s doing his job well?  It’s not like Texas is short on starters.

  3. Brad Johnson said...

    I do get the sense that Feliz might have played himself out of being a starter. Between their depth and his mediocre change up, it just seems like it will be easier for the Rangers to use him in a role he already dominates rather than go through several years of growing pains at the ML level.

  4. P.S. said...

    What are your thoughts on the order of likelihood for these guys to start the season as a closer? I can only pick up to two, so even the top two (or so) would be appreciated.

    Mike Gonzalez
    Bobby Parnell
    Jose Contreras
    Mike Adams
    Dan Wheeler
    Takashi Saito
    Michael Wuertz
    Robinson Tejeda

    Gracias.

  5. Brad Johnson said...

    Gonzalez and Parnell are your best bets to get closer time. But for my money I’d pick up Parnell and Adams. I might have a man crush on Adams, he’s on all of my teams, so take the recommendation with a grain of salt.

  6. Tim said...

    Chris Sale can be a dark sleeper for the closer position. He will be a really deep sleeper b/c white sox might convert him to a starter. but worth a shot for cheap price.

  7. P.S. said...

    Thanks, Brad. I’m really high on Adams myself. Actually owned him prior to the trading deadline, but ended up dropping him recently.

  8. P.S. said...

    Thanks for the advice, Derek.

    I agree that the opportunities for the guys listed seem quite slim right now. At least I already have Venters, Hanrahan, Takahashi, Benoit, and Madson. Snagging two closers would be great…although that’s looking kind of sketchy (my rough and uneducated estimates put it at about 1.5 closers).

    Had Hensley and Francisco but incorrectly chose to drop them, and they both ended up being taken eventually.

  9. Derek Carty said...

    Coop,
    I’m not huge on Walden, and regardless it would probably take a lot for him to pass Rodney and Jepsen, especially by Opening Day.  But he’s someone we could keep an eye on.

    Detroit Michael,
    You’re right.  I thought I made sure to double check everyone’s contract status, but I must have missed Francisco.  I’ll fix that.  Thanks.

    Brad and Jonathan,
    Yeah, like I said, there’ll be a lot of guys in Tampa’s mix if Soriano leaves.  Howell would be a legit option, I’d think, while McGee (like you said) is more of a darkhorse.

  10. Derek Carty said...

    DD,
    Kerry Wood would certainly like to close, I’d imagine, but I think he’s less likely than a lot of the other free agents-to-be (i.e. Putz).  The list I gave isn’t exhaustive, so he could certainly go on there.  He wouldn’t be one of my top choices, though.

    Phil,
    You might be right about what they will do, but I’d certainly consider using him as a starter if I were the Rangers.  Sure, he’s doing great as a closer, but few pitchers have the capability to be as good of a starter as Feliz does.  And the truth of the matter is, there are dozens and dozens of starters who would excel as relievers, and a good starter has a lot more value than a good reliever due to the number of innings they throw.  I mean, it’s not as if the Rangers couldn’t shift their value around, trade their excess starters for players to fill holes elsewhere.

    Brad,
    I’m not sure I’d call his change mediocre.  Sure, the results aren’t there this year, but he’s thrown very few, and looking at the PITCHf/x data, it doesn’t look that bad.  And it’s not as if you can’t succeed as a starter with two plus-plus pitches.

  11. Derek Carty said...

    Tim,
    Sale is definitely a guy worth watching.  Again, the list wasn’t exhaustive, but he certainly could have made it, especially since he’s getting some save opps now.

    P.S.,
    Parnell and Gonzalez might be the best bets to get saves next year, but if you’re looking for who will start the season, it might be better to go Parnell and Adams.  I’m not in love with any of your options, unfortunately.

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