Fantasy: Closer Reportby Ben Jacobs
June 09, 2004
It's been a while since I've talked about closers, so I thought I'd take some time today to see how thing's are going at the back of the bullpen for all 30 teams. Without further ado, let's get started.
Troy Percival was struggling with a 5.09 ERA and 1.87 WHIP when he went on the disabled list. He had 13 saves, but he had also blown four saves and he had more walks (11) than strikeouts (10) in 17.2 innings. With Percival out, Francisco Rodriguez will be closing games out.
Rodriguez has simply been lights out this year, with a 1.41 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP to go along with 52 strikeouts and 10 walks in 32 innings. For those of you who don't like doing math, that's 5.2 K/BB and 14.63 K/9IP. Rodriguez is clearly a better reliever than Percival right now, but Percival will probably still be the closer once he's healthy. However, Rodriguez is still worth owning because he's so dominant and the fact that he could continue to pick up an occasional save only helps.
Jose Valverde has been decent since taking over as Arizona's closer, and has five saves and a 4.55 ERA this year. He also has a 1.41 WHIP, 36 strikeouts and 16 walks in 27.2 innings. The strikeouts are great, but he's giving up way too many walks and home runs (7).
Valverde replaced Matt Mantei, who should be returning from the DL in the relatively near future. Valverde is the closer of the future and it wouldn't be a surprise to see him keep the job the rest of this year. However, if Arizona's going to be a seller at the trading deadline, they may put Mantei back as the closer to try and pump up his value.
Keep using Valverde as long as he's the sole closer in Arizona. However, if he's not regularly getting saves, he's not good enough for you to be using him. Mantei has no value unless he does get his job back on a full-time basis.
There's not much to say about John Smoltz. He's only got nine saves, but he has a 2.19 ERA and 0.77 WHIP to go with 28 strikeouts and no (I repeat, zero) walks in 24.2 innings. He's one of the very best relievers in baseball and the saves will come as long as he stays healthy. Did I mention that he hasn't walked anybody? Amazing.
Jorge Julio is still more promise than performance. He looks like he has good stuff and he does have a 3.24 ERA, which is decent, and nine saves, which is ok. However, he has an ugly 1.44 WHIP and his 16 strikeouts and 15 walks in 25 innings are just ugly numbers. Unless he ups the strikeouts and cuts down on the walks, I'd expect him to have a couple rough outings in the near future. He probably won't lose his job, but he's only an average closer at best to me.
Boston Red Sox
Keith Foulke has been excellent, saving 12 games with a 1.15 ERA and 0.80 WHIP to go with 23 strikeouts and seven walks in 31.1 innings. He's been a little hit-lucky (his .188 batting average allowed on balls in play is a bit low), but he's one of the safest closers around. He's going to pitch a lot of innings (80-100), he's going to have a low ERA (2.00-3.00) and he's going to save at least 35 games. At the very worst, he'll be a good fantasy closer. At the best, he'll be great.
Joe Borowski was bad and now he's hurt, La Troy Hawkins was great and now he's the closer. Borowski had nine saves, but also an 8.02 ERA and 1.97 ERA before going on the DL. Hawkins now has four saves and a sparkling 1.38 ERA and 0.80 WHIP along with 25 strikeouts and six walks in 32.2 innings.
Hawkins' strikeouts are down, but his walks are also down. He's struggled as a closer in the past, but he's simply a better pitcher now than he was then and I'd expect him to keep the job when Borowski returns unless he starts struggling. Hawkins should be one of the more valuable fantasy relievers around over the rest of the season.
Chicago White Sox
Billy Koch has finally lost his job as the closer after blowing three of his 11 save chances and compiling a 5.40 ERA and 1.71 WHIP. Damaso Marte and Shingo Takatsu will likely get the bulk of the save opportunities from here on out. Koch is no longer worth owning in any league, if he ever was worth it this year.
Marte has two saves, a 2.82 ERA and a 1.07 WHIP, although he has blown four saves (though not all of them were true save opportunities) so far. The worrisome thing about Marte is that he only has 15 strikeouts in 22.1 innings (6.05 K/9IP) after averaging 10.22 K/9IP the last two seasons. Takatsu doesn't have a save yet, but he does have a 1.21 ERA and 0.76 WHIP. He also isn't striking out that many hitters (16 in 22.1 innings), but he's only allowed six walsk and one homer.
My guess is that Marte will start getting the strikeouts back up and will probably finish the season with better numbers than Takatsu. Keep an eye on who is getting more save opportunities, however, as that will determine which one has more fantasy value.
Danny Graves has 26 saves, a 3.27 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP. He's on pace for 73 saves, and if you own him and haven't at least sent out feelers to the other owners in your league to see what they think he's worth, you're making a mistake. Despite the fact that he's more than half way there, I don't think Graves will get to 50 saves. I'd say he finishes with 40-45.
Graves has featured amazing control this year, walking just 1.09 hitters per nine innings. The problem is that he's not striking hitters out (5.73 K/9IP) and he's already allowed nine homers (2.45 HR/9IP). He's allowed a .230 average on balls in play and that's probably not going to continue. If Graves continues to give up homers and starts walking more hitters or has more hits falling in elsewhere, he could be in trouble. You should definitely be trying to trade him while his value's high.
The Indians are now on closer No. 4 for the season. Bob Wickman was supposed to be the closer, but his elbow forced him to the DL and he's out until at least the All-Star break. David Riske was the obvious choice after that, but he had a 12.27 ERA in April and lost the job. Then, it was time for Rafael Betancourt, who has an excellent 34 strikeouts and four walks in 29.1 innings. However, he's also allowed five homers and a .381 average on balls in play and has blown four saves, so he's out. And that brings us to Jose Jimenez.
If you haven't already gotten the point that Cleveland is a wasteland for fantasy closers this year, let me try to make it clear. Jimenez has a 7.61 ERA and a 1.56 WHIP and he has just 12 strikeouts and nine walks in 23.1 innings. He may get some saves as long as he's the closer, but who knows how long that will be. Just avoid this team when looking for saves (although I still think Riske and Betancourt will start to put up decent numbers, they may have permanently lost Eric Wedge's confidence).
Shawn Chacon was moved to the bullpen this season in an effort to keep him healthy, but it hasn't helped his performance. He has 10 saves, but he's blown four and he has a 6.85 ERA and 1.88 WHIP. He's striking out guys (19 in 22.1 innings), but he's walking too many (15) and allowing too many homers (4). He'll probably keep his job and provide 25-30 saves, but he's going to hurt you in ERA and WHIP. You just can't avoid it with a Colorado pitcher.
Ugueth Urbina is probably just now getting in sync because he really didn't have a spring training. He has eight saves, a 4.35 ERA and 1.55 WHIP. His 24 strikeouts in 20.2 innings are excellent, but his 14 walks are a concern. From here on out, I'd expect him to cut down on the walks -- and maybe the strikeouts, too -- and provide decent-but-not-great ERA and WHIP. He's an above average closer, but nothing special.
What a difference a change of scenery can make, huh? Armando Benitez was the closer everybody loved to hate in New York, but he's been lights out in Florida. He has 23 saves, a 0.55 ERA, 0.82 WHIP and 28 strikeouts in 33 innings. He has just one blown save and he's only allowed one earned run since his first appearance of the season.
Obviously, Benitez isn't going to finish with a sub-1.00 ERA, but he is an excellent reliever who got a lot of undeserved criticism in New York. He walks too many (11 this year), but he's got great stuff (although his strikeouts are way down this year) and there's no reason to think he can't get to 45 saves.
There were also sorts of concerns this off-season about Octavio Dotel's ability to close out ballgames and I have already seen several stories this year about how Dotel might lose the job. Well, Dotel now has a 2.79 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and 42 strikeouts in 29 innings. His 11 walks and four homers are a little higher than you'd like, but he's clearly a tough pitcher to face and there's no reason he can't succeed in the ninth inning. He only has 11 saves, but I expect him to get at least up to 35 and probably to 40 by the end of the season.
Kansas City Royals
The Mike MacDougal-as-closer and Curtis Leskanic-as-closer experiments didn't work out so well and since the Jeremy Affeldt-as-starter experiment wasn't going well either, the Royals decided to make Affeldt the closer. Affeldt has been better since making the switch, but still not terrific.
He has seven saves, a 2.61 ERA and a 1.35 WHIP. Eight strikeouts in six walks in 10.1 innings isn't really impressive, but you probably need to see more than 10 innings before you can really get a good idea on how he'll pitch as a reliever. What I think you can say pretty safely is that he'll be better than he was a starter and he'll be better than MacDougal and Leskanic were in the closer role. If you hung onto him while he was struggling, you got a lucky break because he definitely has some value now.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Eric Gagne is simply the best there is. He has 13 saves, a 1.93 ERA, 0.86 WHIP and 32 strikeouts in 23.1 innings, and that's bad compared to what he did last year. It would have been unreasonable to expect him to duplicate perhaps the best season by a reliever since the redefinition of the closer, but he has been hurt by the changes to the Dodgers.
Last year, the Dodgers scored 3.54 runs per game and allowed 3.43 runs per game and the result was a lot of low-scoring games, which gave Gagne a chance to rack up a ton of saves. This year, the Dodgers are scoring 4.36 runs per game and allowing 4.05 runs per game. As a result, Gagne's only had 13 save opportunities. He's still the closer I'd most like to have on my fantasy team, though.
I was pretty high on Danny Kolb before the season, but even I didn't expect this. I'm not talking about his 16 saves or his 1.19 ERA or his 0.88 WHIP. If you had told me before the season started that those would be his numbers a week into June, I wouldn't have batted an eyelash. However, if you had told me that he's also have just six strikeouts in 22.2 innings, I'd have laughed right in your face.
Here we are, however. Kolb is sending hitters back to the dugout with regularity, but he's not striking anybody out. He's also not walking anybody, but a strikeout rate as low as the one he's got (2.38 K/9IP) is just not good. He's really not getting as lucky as you might think, however. His .230 batting average allowed on balls in play is certainly low, but the key to his success is the low walk total and the fact that he hasn't allowed a home run.
Kolb is certainly walking a very fine line, however, and either his strikeout rate is going to need to go up or his ERA will go up. I'd be lying if I said I knew which one it would be (well, it'll probably be both, but one should go up a lot more than the other), but I can almost guarantee he won't finish the season with both an ERA and a K/9IP rate below 2.50.
After all the worry in Minnesota this off-season about the lack of a proven closer, Joe Nathan has done a nice job of putting everybody at ease. He has 16 saves, a 1.67 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 33 strikeouts in 27 innings. His walk total (12) is a little high, but you can live with that when the pitcher's getting as many strikeouts as Nathan is. Nathan might be pitching over his head a little bit, but this is just his second season as a full-time reliever, so you can't really judge him on what he did before this season.
He's probably not going to keep striking out quite this many hitters and he does walk too many, but there are very few closers with no warts at all. He's definitely in the upper tier of fantasy closers at this point.
If you don't mind, I'd like to give myself a little pat on the back regarding Rocky Biddle. In my pre-season rankings, I said, "Whatever role he has, he should provide an ERA around 4.75 and a WHIP of 1.50-1.55. He could save 30-plus games again, but he seems more likely to get replaced before he reaches 15 saves." His ERA (7.32) and WHIP (1.73) are a little higher than I predicted, but he has 11 saves and he just got replaced.
The new closer is Chad Cordero, who has a 2.18 ERA, 1.30 WHIP and 30 strikeouts in 33 innings. He also has some control problems (18 walks) and he'll probably have at least a couple pretty bad outings. However, if the Expos stick with him as the closer, he'll have some value. Fantasy-wise, he'll be below average, but he'll be much better than Biddle.
New York Mets
Like Benitez, Braden Looper has enjoyed his change of scenery. Unable to consistently hold down the closer's job in Florida, he's been very good for the Mets, saving 11 games with a 1.74 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and 23 strikeouts in 31 innings. His strikeout rate (6.68 K/9IP) is low, but he's also only allowed six walks and one home run. He should be able to save 30-35 games and while his ERA won't stay below 2.00, it shouldn't rise above 3.00 either.
New York Yankees
Despite the fact that he's already halfway to his career high in saves, Mariano Rivera is not having his best season this year. Sure, he has 25 saves and a 1.04 ERA, but his 1.15 WHIP isn't great. He only has 26 strikeouts in 34.2 innings (6.75 K/9IP) and he's already walked 12 (3.12 BB/9IP). Rivera's K/9 rate has been above 8.0 each of the past three seasons and he hasn't had a BB/9 rate above 3.0 since his rookie season.
The biggest concern regarding Rivera, however, is the amount he's been used. With 33 games and 34.2 innings pitched so far, he's on pace for 94 appearances and 99 innings. Rivera's career high in appearances is just 71 and he hasn't thrown more than 81 innings since 1996 (107.2). At some point, the Yankees are going to dial back the workload and Rivera may go through some stretches without many saves. In the end, though, he's obviously still one of the top five fantasy closers.
I fully expected to Arthur Rhodes to thrive as Oakland's closer this season, but it just hasn't happened. Rhodes has blown four of his 13 save opportunities and while his 4.01 ERA isn't terrible, his 1.70 WHIP is. He has 25 strikeouts in 24.2 innings, but he's also allowed 13 walks and four homers.
It sounds like Oakland is going to spread the save opportunities around from here on out. I think Rhodes will have the most value of anybody in that bullpen, but other people will get saves and Rhodes won't be worth as much as a full-time closer. I thought he could get 40 saves before the season started, but he'll probably have to settle for 20-25.
Tim Worrell filled in nicely as Philadelphia's closer when he was needed, but he's just not nearly on the same level as Billy Wagner. Wagner had eight saves, a 1.20 ERA, 0.47 WHIP and 21 strikeouts in 15 innings before getting hurt and he'll again be one of the most dominant relievers around now that he's back. He did allow four runs in one inning on Wednesday, but it was his first appearance since coming off the DL and it wasn't even a save opportunity. He'll be just fine from here on out.
I thought so little of Jose Mesa this off-season that I didn't even include him in my top 30 closers preseason ranking, opting instead to go with the projected closer for the 29 other teams and the then unsigned Urbina. Mesa has certainly proven me wrong, as he has 14 saves, a 1.16 ERA and 1.07 WHIP. He only has 13 strikeouts in 23.1 innings (5.01 K/9IP), but he's only allowed four walks and no home runs and he's yet to blow a save.
You have to think the bubble will burst at some point since he's 38 years old and coming off a terrible season, but who knows? He had two nice years before 2003 and he may be able to put together another one. With that said, he will blow some saves and his ERA will at least double. Those are just facts that you need to accept if you have him.
San Diego Padres
After missing almost all of last season, Trevor Hoffman looks as good as ever. He has 14 saves, a 1.80 ERA, 0.95 WHIP and 16 strikeouts in 20 innings. His strikeout rate (7.20 K/9IP) is lower than it's been throughout his career, but he's allowed just three walks and no home runs. You still have to worry somewhat about his arm wearing down on him, but he definitely looks like he's back to being an upper tier closer.
San Francisco Giants
Well, it's starting to look more and more like Robb Nen might not pitch at all for the second year in a row. That means that Matt Herges likely will continue to close games out for the Giants. Herges has 16 saves, but his 5.72 ERA and 1.59 WHIP aren't real attractive. He hasn't struck out many (16 in 28.1 innings) and has allowed four homers already, although he's only issued eight walks.
The biggest problem for Herges has been his .337 batting average allowed on balls in play. If he can get that down to a normal level, he may start putting up decent numbers. If not, he may end up losing his job. However, one would think the Giants would have replaced him already if they were getting frustrated with him. He's certainly a risky proposition, but he's worthwhile as long as he's the closer.
Eddie Guardado has been better this season than he ever was in Minnesota. He only has 10 saves and he's blown three opportunities, but he has a 0.99 ERA and 0.73 WHIP to go along with 31 strikeouts and just seven walks in 27.1 innings. He's going to give up more hits than he has been as the season goes on, but he'll continue to be an excellent closer as long as he stays close to this K/BB ratio.
St. Louis Cardinals
When he's been able to stay on the field, Jason Isringhausen has been a pretty darn good closer the last four years and this season's no different. He only has a 3.81 ERA and 1.31 WHIP, but he has 13 saves and 28 strikeouts in 28.1 innings. His 12 walks are a little high, but I fully expect him to finish this season with numbers right in line with his last three seasons. If, of course, he can stay healthy.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays
He's flown completely under the radar so far, but Danys Baez has been a solid closer so far this season, Wednesday night's blown save notwithstanding. Even with that tough outing, he has 11 saves, a 3.00 ERA and 1.30 WHIP. He has 23 strikeouts and no homers allowed in 27 innings, which is nice, but his 15 walks are a problem. In his second season as a reliever, I think Baez will be slightly better than he was last year, when he had a 3.81 ERA and 1.16 WHIP. He should finish with 25-30 saves.
Francisco Cordero has simultaneously been better than expected and not as good as he looks. His 18 saves, 1.90 ERA, 28 strikeouts and no homers allowed in 23.2 innings are all excellent. His 1.27 WHIP and 15 walks are not. My guess is that his ERA will go up around a run, but he should continue to pick up the saves. He won't get the 53 he's on pace for, but I'll be somewhat surprised if he doesn't get to 40.
Toronto Blue Jays
Jason Frasor has stepped up and taken hold of the job that nobody else seemed to want. After the four guys who seemed most likely to close games for the Blue Jays (Aquilino Lopez, Justin Speier, Kerry Ligtenberg and Terry Adams) all struggled, the Blue Jays gave Frasor some opportunities and he's been fantastic. Frasor has four saves, a 0.68 ERA and 0.98 WHIP. He only has 18 strikeouts in 26.2 innings (6.08 K/9IP) and he's walked 12 (4.05 BB/9IP), so I wouldn't necessarily expect his dominance to continue. He's been good in the minor leagues and he'll have value as long as he keep's the closer's job, but don't expect him to get through the season unscathed. He's going to blow some saves, and it may cost him the job at some point.
Note: I'm going on vacation tomorrow, so there won't be a fantasy mailbag this week. Keep sending in those questions, however, because the mailbag will be back and better than ever next week. Well, it'll be back at any rate.
Ben Jacobs can be reached via e-mail.
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