Fantasy: Closer Lookby Ben Jacobs
April 27, 2004
April's almost over and I really haven't talked much about any closers since my pre-season rankings. So, today I'm going to talk about 15 closers whose early performances intrigue me. These aren't necessarily the best or the worst closers, or even the ones who have helped or hurt their value the most this season. They're just the 15 that I find interesting at the moment.
Matt Mantei, Diamondbacks: Mantei does have three saves in six appearances, but he also has two blown saves and a 13.50 ERA. He's definitely got good stuff, but he's been inconsistent and injury-prone for his whole career.
If you're looking for a silver lining, it's that pretty much all the damage was done in two outings, when he allowed seven runs over one inning in back-to-back appearances. It's also good news that Jose Valverde, who filled in nicely for Mantei at times last year, isn't distinguishing himself with a 4.09 ERA and 1.45 WHIP.
Ultimately, Mantei should be fine. He needs to cut down on the walks and home runs, but he does have nine strikeouts in 5.1 innings.
Jorge Julio, Orioles: After a dominant rookie season and big sophomore slump, figuring out what Julio would do this year was one of the big challenges of the off-season. So far, he's off to a good start with just two saves but a 1.00 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in nine innings.
Julio has been rather lucky with his ERA and WHIP, however. While four walks is well within the range of his previous seasons, five strikeouts is not at all impressive. His batting average against is going to go up regardless, but it will go up a lot if he doesn't start striking more hitters out.
Joe Borowski, Cubs: Borowski had a great season in 2002 and then had another great season last year after surprisingly getting the job as Chicago's closer, but there were still a lot of people who thought he was a question mark for this season. So far, he's doing nothing to prove them wrong as he has a 6.75 ERA and 2.25 WHIP. While he has 10 strikeouts in eight innings, the big problem is his seven walks.
Strangely, however, Borowski hasn't given up a single run in any of his four save opportunities. As the season goes on, he'll get better and worse. What I mean is that his ERA will go down, but he'll also blow a save here and there. He should be fine for your fantasy team as long as he doesn't lose the job to La Troy Hawkins or Kyle Farnsworth.
Damaso Marte, White Sox: Marte wasn't even the closer before the season started and I guess he's not officially the closer now, but he's certainly the reliever Ozzie Guillen seems most comfortable with. Marte has a 3.86 ERA and 1.57 WHIP thanks to a bad first outing, but he's pitched seven scoreless innings since then while recording two saves.
Billy Koch will still get some saves this season, but probably not enough to justify carrying his ERA and WHIP on your team. Marte is really the only White Sox reliever worth having.
David Riske, Indians: Riske had the closer spot handed to him on a silver platter when Bob Wickman went down with elbow problems, and it looked like he might drop the platter at first. Riske allowed seven runs in 3.2 innings over his first four appearances, blowing both of his save opportunities.
However, he's recovered to post consecutive scoreless, one-inning saves to stabilize his hold on the position. Now that he's gotten past the early bumps in the road, he should be fine as he was very impressive both in and out of the closer's role last year.
Armando Benitez, Marlins: Benitez has been nothing short of remarkable thus far, saving 10 games with a 0.71 ERA and 0.79 WHIP. He has 13 strikeouts in 12.2 innings and the two things that have sometimes plagued him in his career have not been an issue this year as he's allowed just two walks and one home run.
You should probably try to trade Benitez right now, because this is as good as it's going to get. He should be a good closer, with at least 40 saves and maybe even an ERA below 2.50. However, there's also the chance that he'll revert back to the merely decent reliever of 2001 and 1998.
Curtis Leskanic, Royals: Leskanic was supposed to give the Royals a solid option at the end of games while Mike MacDougal was out, but it hasn't happened. He has a 7.94 ERA and 2.12 WHIP and has blown two of his four save opportunities. He's struck out five hitters in 5.2 innings, but he's also issued six walks.
MacDougal should be ready to make his season debut soon, and he'll probably take over as the team's closer immediately or soon after. Unfortunately, there's no reason to believe that MacDougal will be an effective closer either, as his control was nonexistant at the end of last season. It's possible that Kansas City will just be one of those teams that doesn't have a relief pitcher worth using this season.
Danny Kolb, Brewers: Kolb was one of the many unproven closers that a lot of fantasy owners were counting on as a sleeper this season and he's come through so far with a 1.13 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and five saves in eight innings. However, he only has two strikeouts so far this season, which is not good.
Last year, Kolb struck out nearly a batter per inning (8.49 K/9IP) and walked fewer than one batter every two innings (4.14 BB/9IP) and had a very nice 1.96 ERA. The year before that, his strikeout rate was considerably lower (5.63 K/9IP), his walk rate was considerably higher (6.19 BB/9IP) and his ERA was 4.22. It's too early to draw any serious conclusions, but he'll need to strike out more hitters if he wants to continue to have success this season, so that's something to keep an eye on.
Joe Nathan, Twins: Nathan's early-season performance is kind of a good news-bad news situation. The good news is that he has a 3.00 ERA, 11 strikeouts and six saves in nine innings. The bad news is that he's issued seven walks and has a 1.89 WHIP.
He'll obviously need to lower the walk rate and WHIP if he wants to keep that ERA in the vicinity of where it currently is. If you're a Nathan owner, you'll also want to keep your eyes open for Jesse Crain. Crain only has a 3.97 ERA and 1.24 WHIP for Class AAA Rochester, but he also has 13 strikeouts and three walks in 11.1 innings. If Nathan struggles and Crain dominates his opponents for the next month or two, it wouldn't be a stretch to see Crain as Minnesota's closer by the end of the season.
Rocky Biddle, Expos: Biddle was one of the shakier closers coming into this season, but he's looked rock solid so far for the Expos. He has a 2.00 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and five saves in nine innings. He's only struck out four hitters, but he's also issued just one walk. Biddle has been a decent reliever the last two seasons, and this start provides no reason to think he won't be this year as well.
One of the relievers who was thought to have a shot at taking Biddle's job was Chad Cordero, who has a nice 2.00 ERA as well. However, Biddle should at least be able to keep his ERA around 4.00, which should be good enough to keep his spot as the closer. And as long as he's the closer, he's worth owning.
Braden Looper, Mets: Looper has been inconsistent throughout his major-league career, but his first month in New York has been lights out. He's allowed just one unearned run in 10.1 innings and he has a 1.06 WHIP with four saves. He's struck out eight hitters and issued just one walk and has looked pretty much like an ace reliever.
Looper is not this good, but he is a talented pitcher and anybody who was expecting him to fail this season was probably being unrealistic. He should set a career-high in saves this season and begin a nice run as the closer for the Mets.
Arthur Rhodes, A's: All over the place this off-season, people were talking about how big a question mark Oakland's bullpen was because Rhodes had never been a closer before. Well, so far he has a 2.00 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, eight strikeouts, two walks and six saves in nine innings. He did blow one save when he got touched up for two runs on four hits and a walk, but he's been just about flawless in his other eight appearances.
Rhodes will save at least 35 games this season, and hopefully that will help dispell the notion that certain people have a "closer's mindset" and other people do not. Are there some pitchers who just don't have it in them to close? I suppose it's possible, but it's definitely not nearly as common as the media would have you believe and you'll be kicking yourself at the end of the season if you passed on Rhodes simply because of his inexperience as a closer.
Jose Mesa, Pirates: Putting Mesa on your team is the fantasy equivalent of playing with fire. Sometimes he'll provide the warmth you desperately need and other times he'll give you third-degree burns. This season, his early performance has definitely been of the warming variety.
He hasn't allowed a single run and he has a 0.68 WHIP, five strikeouts, two walks and five saves in 7.1 innings. He obviously won't keep this kind of performance up all year, but it's impossible to guess how much he might fall. My advice is to use him until it looks like he's faltering and then either stash him on the bench until he rights himself or get rid of him altogether.
Matt Herges, Giants: Herges was supposed to be the setup man and backup closer for Robb Nen, but Nen hasn't been able to pitch yet and it's anybody's guess as to when he might return. So, Herges has been the man and he has not made the most of it, posting a 5.25 ERA and 1.75 WHIP with eight strikeouts and five walks in 12 innings.
However, San Francisco is a mess right now and doesn't really have any better options, so Herges has continued to get opportunities, which is why he has five saves. He should improve at least slightly, but even if he doesn't, expect him to continue to pick up saves while Nen's out.
Justin Speier, Blue Jays: Before the season, it looked like the Toronto closer spot was up for grabs among Speier, Aquilino Lopez and Kerry Ligtenberg. Speier appeared to have won the job, but he gave up four runs on Tuesday and now has a 6.10 ERA and 1.26 WHIP with just one save. Lopez has been even worse with an 11.42 ERA and 2.19 WHIP.
Ligtenberg has been the best ERA at 2.61, but his 1.45 WHIP is not good and it wouldn't surprise me if this is another team where there are just no relievers worth using. Be ready to pounce on one of these three if he gets hot and saves a few games, but don't hold your breath for it.
Ben Jacobs can be reached via e-mail.