The Closer Debate: To Buy or Not To Buy

This is an article that I decided to put together for sanity’s sake. Currently, Chris and I have been debating whether to value minor league closers and RP. It’s a big debate and has a huge fantasy divide among players. Some want the top tier options, like Mariano, and Kimbrel, and Chapman. Guys who you can rely on year to year to give you huge numbers and produce consistently. Who you don’t want to monitor week to week to see if they still have the job.

On the other hand, there are those who avoid closers. Many of these players play in leagues that incorporate holds in some fashion. Whether that be having holds as a separate category or combining Holds and Saves to make one big category, it’s another fantasy option. I prefer this format for fantasy, but that’s not what this discussion is all about. This is about whether or not you want to hone in on saves in prospects, such as elite RP prospects and draft them hoping they make an impact. Guys like Bruce Rondon, Mark Montgomery, or in the past Addison Reed. These guys who destroy the minors on their way to heading to become future closers. Let’s take a look at this methodically as to why I prefer to avoid these guys

 

Reason #1: Three Years Ago

http://sports.espn.go.com/fantasy/baseball/flb/story?page=mlbdk2k10rpranks

If a closer holds his job in the majors for three seasons, I think he’s a reasonably good option to be a long term guy. He doesn’t have to be a monster to be a consistent saves machine. So let’s take a look at ESPN’s RP Rankings from pre-2010, which gives us three seasons past (2010, 2011, 2012) to evaluate the list on.

1 Jonathan Broxton, LAD – Racked up 56 saves over the last three years, not that great for a guy who was the #1 closer going into 2010. Not elite. Probably gets a shot with CIN as closer in 2013.

2 Mariano Rivera, NYY – 77 Saves between 2010 and 2011 before getting injured. He was getting old, but give him a pass for the injury. An elite arm in the closer spot.

3 Joakim Soria, KC – 71 saves in 2010/2011 before getting injured in 2012. He then had his option declined and he’s in the Rangers bullpen now. LESSON LEARNED HERE – Things change really fast.

4 Jonathan Papelbon, BOS – Struggled some and then signed with PHI, where he’s still closing. Still a good RP commodity.

5 Francisco Rodriguez, NYM – Was elite and then fell off, recording 51 saves in 2010-2012. Now a setup guy.

6 Heath Bell, SD – Dominant in 2009 through 2011. Then struggled some in 2012 and lost his job for part of the year. Things change really fast. Went from elite closer to questionable option in less than a year.

7 Francisco Cordero, CIN – Pitched really well 2007 through 2011, and then became a setup guy in 2012 where he was expendable in a trade for JA Happ

8 Jose Valverde, DET – Was pretty solid, and then became shaky in 2012. And now they let him go after being solid for a few years.

9 Andrew Bailey, OAK – Went from dominant closer of the future to disabled list superhero. Traded to Boston for what was thought of as cheap (Reddick turned out to be a surprise). May not close in 2013 (up in the air).

10 Brian Wilson, SF – Dominated. Won a WS. And then got injured, replaced by Sergio Romo, and was now signed to a MINOR LEAGUE DEAL with a ST invite.

11 Trevor Hoffman, MIL – Was very good, fell off towards the end, and retired. Was a fantastic closer for a while.

12 Billy Wagner, ATL – Was a great closer for a long time. No complaints, retired.

13 Chad Qualls, ARI – Has been on 6 teams, with a 5.24 ERA and 12 saves from 2010 to 2012. Middle relief fodder.

14 Rafael Soriano, TB – Was great in TB, probably the Yankees successor until Robertson happened. Should land somewhere as a setup guy in 2013, and probably deserves to close still. Update: Soriano signed for 2y/$28M. He likely is the closer in Washington now, but that can change fast if Storen gets off hot and he starts cold.

15 Brian Fuentes, LAA – Saved 41 games with an ERA over 4 over the last three seasons.

 

So if we owned all of these pitchers in 2012 and were headed into 2013:

I’d be happy with: Rivera and Papelbon

I’d be nervous but still own (for saves purposes): Broxton and Bell Update: Add Soriano here

I’m undecided on: Bailey, Soriano and Soria

I’d release: Rodriguez, Cordero, Valverde, Qualls and Fuentes

Retired: Hoffman and Wagner

 

So in 2013 I’d own two good closers, I’d be hoping and praying for two more, I’d speculate on a few and I’d cut five. That’s out of thirteen. We’re talking about four of thirteen guys still owning closers jobs after three seasons.

Reason #2: Six Years Ago

http://insider.espn.go.com/fantasy/baseball/draftkit/story?page=flb07/draftkit/pitcherauctionvalues

So now we’ve established what closers were in 2010, but now let’s dig back a little further. If you think about it, you don’t draft a top 100 player hoping they last three years at their job. I know that if I draft someone in the first 3-4 rounds of my dynasty draft, I want them to last me five or six years at least. Hopefully they can produce until they are 30+ years old. If that happens, you’ve done a great job drafting. So now let’s see the guys from six years ago.

1. Francisco Rodriguez, Angels – Talked about him above

2. Joe Nathan, Twins – Closer for the Rangers now. Aside from one injury, has been fairly consistent. Props for anyone taking him 5+ years ago.

3. B.J. Ryan, Blue Jays – No longer a closer, or pitching in the majors. Terrible 2007 and 2009 sandwiched a solid 2008. Retired young at 33.

4. Mariano Rivera, Yankees – Talked about above

5. Billy Wagner, Mets – Talked about above

6. Huston Street, Athletics – Was a young gun at this point (23 years old). Bounced around a bit but still closing. A successful youngster.

7. Trevor Hoffman, Padres – Talked about above

8. Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox – Talked about above. Props for being good for six years.

9. J.J. Putz, Mariners – Closing in ARI, but a shaky job. Had only 20 saves from 2008 through 2010, so he did lose value for three years before beginning again. Volatile job.

10. Brad Lidge, Astros – Was very good before 2011, then he fell off, lost his job, and went to WAS where he pitched middle relief to Storen/Burnett/Clippard combo.

11. Chad Cordero, Nationals – No longer a closer, lost relevance within a few years and went from young sensation to middle RP to fodder.

12. Francisco Cordero, Brewers – Talked about above, but was relevant back here.

13. Takashi Saito, Dodgers – No longer an MLB closer, but is in LAD’s ‘pen. Has saved 3 games in the last four years.

14. Bobby Jenks, White Sox – No longer an MLB closer, sucked in 2011 and hasn’t pitched since July 2011.

15. Tom Gordon, Phillies – Retired, had a decent body of work but he tailed off into a regular RP at the end.

 

So again, let’s count them if we owned them in 2013.

Current closers: Nathan, Rivera, Street, Papelbon, and Putz

Still MLB pitchers: Rodriguez, Lidge, F. Cordero, and Saito

Retired/Done: Ryan, Wagner, Hoffman, C. Cordero, Jenks and Gordon

 

Five closers remain (Putz with an impasse), and four others are still MLB RP. Six have retired, but guys like Ryan, Cordero, and Jenks really went out because of lack of production, not because they were old. So if we lap them in with the guys who lost jobs, we’re looking at five of twelve who are still closers. Four if you discount Putz for being ineffective for three whole seasons. Right about where we expected.

 

Reason #3: The Fact of the Matter

Now, let’s seriously think about this activity. I took the TOP 15 closers from fantasy boards on ESPN. If we used all 30 there’d be some staggering numbers of turnover. But taking the top 15 at a position should be relatively consistent. Without going through this whole activity, I looked at MLB 1B players from 2010. Fourteen of the fifteen are still strongly fantasy relevant (meaning you can use them at their current position as a viable option in a 12 team league). Ten of the fifteen catchers are still options (with Posada retiring, make it 10/14). That’s a great rate rather than four to six closers.

Yes, closers have the most turnover of any position. The biggest issue is that they have some sort of pretend “skill” to be the last player pitching in the game. Even though in 2011 everyone loved Johnny Venters, he never closed. Kimbrel closed. But he had fantastic ratios and could have closed for 25 teams. Being a “closer” doesn’t mean that you’re the best pitcher on the team, it’s a title that gives you saves.

 

Reason #4: Minor League RP Are Even Worse

Okay, time to dig into some prospects. Why not use our own prospect lists, assembled by Bradley O’Neill, in late 2010 (for the 2011 season). This isn’t a shot at Bradley at all, it’s hard as hell to predict the most volatile players (prospects) at the most volatile position (closer).

http://www.deepleagues.com/2010/11/29/top-25-relief-pitcher-prospects/

1.  Aroldis Chapman—Reds – A dominant closer, he’s been lockdown. But he’s moving to the rotation now in 2013.

2.  Chris Sale—White Sox – Was a starter and destroyed the first half of 2012. Won’t move to closer unless arm falls off (so eh, maybe he’ll move to closer).

3.  Tanner Scheppers—Rangers – Likely a middle reliever at this point

4.  Kenley Jansen—Dodgers – Hard thrower has the closer tag now in LA.

5.  Craig Kimbrel—Braves – Best closer in the majors as of this minute

6.  Jordan Walden—Angels – Closer, but ineffective. Then replaced. Now a Middle Reliever in ATL. We can say he has closer potential still, but only for a non-Braves team.

7.  Jeremy Jeffress—Brewers – Now the 5th or 6th reliever on the Blue Jays. Likely will never move past middle RP.

8.  Brad Boxberger—Reds* – Could close down the road, but currently slots as a middle reliever in SD.

9.  Tim Collins—Royals – Middle reliever in KC now, maybe gets a shot to close down the road

10. Diego Moreno—Pirates – Who?

11.  Chad Bettis—Rockies* – Still in the minors, could make a good closer down the road but has work to do. Missed all of 2012 injured.

12.  Cameron Bedrosian—Angels* – Middle reliever. Likely won’t close.

13.  Chance Ruffin—Tigers – Still in the minors, likely a middle reliever or #5 starter.

14.  Dan Cortes—Mariners – Middle RP at best

15.  Junichi Tazawa—Red Sox* – Middle RP if lucky

16.  Josh Fields—Mariners – Middle RP at the very best

17.  Wilmer Font—Rangers* – Still could close down the road, but unlikelier by the day

18.  Wynn Pelzer—Orioles – Middle RP if lucky

19.  Dan Burawa—Yankees – Who?

20.  Scott Mathieson—Phillies – Middle RP if he’s lucky

21.  Justin Grimm—Rangers* – Could be a #3/4 starter, and could close in the future. Still possible

22.  Phillipe Aumont—Phillies – Remember when he was an essential piece to get Halladay? He’ll be a Middle RP in Philly. Maybe he gets a shot to close down the road

23.  Casey Weathers—Rockies – Who?

24.  Nick Carr—Mets – Who?

25.  Gregory Infante—White Sox – Who?

 

Current Closers: Chapman, Jansen, Kimbrel

Closer Potential: Walden, Boxberger, Collins, Bettis, Font, Grimm, Aumont

Middle RP: Scheppers, Jeffress, Collins, Bedrosian, Ruffin, Fields

Failed Players: 8 Players

Excluded (Starters): Sale

So essentially of the RP ranks, three of the 25 have been successful. Chapman might move to starter territory. Maybe one or two guys get a shot at closing from the other group.

The issue with RP prospects is that for the most part, the best of the failed SP become RP in the majors. They are SP throughout the minors. So if a RP fails, he doesn’t turn into something, he just fails to make the majors. At least a SP can fail back into RP land. For example, if Mike Montgomery fails, he’ll turn into a LHP Reliever, or a LOOGY, or something along those lines, and then he fails to nothing. If Jeffress fails, he fails to nothing already with no backup plan

And no, I’m not avoiding Sale. He was a great success story and when you drafted him as a RP you got everything you wanted from him as a SP. So he’s definitely a big success of the list. And who knows, he could find himself back in the bullpen if critics are right about his throwing motion.

So what we have here is a big mixture of good (Kimbrel, Chapman, Sale, Jepsen) and bad (Scheppers, Jeffress, Collins, Moreno) that didn’t pan out. And that’s what prospects are.

Reason #5: The Flip Side of Prospects

Well there’s a flip side to prospecting for sure. It’s that players spring up out of nowhere to become stars. Or, in this case, we get closers. In the field, you get guys like Robby Cano who pop up out of nowhere to become really good.

Jason Motte (STL): In 2009, Sickels graded him as a C+. He’s now the closer on the STL Cardinals

Other guys like John Axford, Sergio Romo, Tom Wilhelmsen, Jose Veras, Rafael Benthancourt all came out of nowhere to become closers, and there are many more.

Well if we look at the minor leaguers, we get the same idea. Guys like Carter Capps and Stephen Pryor dropped out of nowhere to become legit closer prospects in Seattle. Failed starters will become more options as well. And then guys will come out of nowhere (Hector Sanchez, CHW) to nab a few saves here and there. Guys pop up out of nowhere.

 

Reason #6: The Most Volatile of the Most Volatile

To conclude, closing prospects are far too up and down to get a good grasp on. Giving you the top 15 closers from three years ago, the guys who were the best at what they do, the vast majority of them failed. And looking back six years, the majority of them failed as well. So what can we deduce from this mess of players?

1. If you are going to buy a closer, look back 5 years and find the top closers. For the most part, anyone in the top 20 on both the list 5 years ago and this year are a good bet to have a job and hold onto it, especially if it’s the same team. Outside of that, investing in closers is very limited, and likely you should wait unless you get a chance at Kimbrel or Chapman or Mariano or someone of that caliber. And even they are not invincible (Bell and Wilson come to mind).

2. Prospects as closers are near impossible to project. You have guys who come out of nowhere. Hell, Carter Capps was a catcher before he became a closing prospect. The guys who project as relievers from the start have nowhere to fall back on. Starters will take their jobs, and most relievers come from minor league starters. Guys like Wade Davis, Robbie Ross, and Sean Marshall are guys who were starters who’ve gone to relief over the past few years. They take up spots. And then with the ever changing bullpen management, you have a specialist LOOGY who takes up a slot. There are just less slots for good pitching relievers in the league from the minors.

3. Infield and outfield prospects can still hold a valuable job if they fail to become regulars. If a SS flunks out, like Chris noted Hak-Ju Lee, then we’re talking about a prospect who probably ends up as a defensive sub with bad numbers. If Hak-Ju flames out, he becomes Jose Iglesias with speed. And that’s actually valuable to an MLB team. He’ll be on a roster and be a defensive replacement. Look at Brett Jackson as another example. He could strike out a lot, and he likely will. I think he’s a fourth outfielder. But as a fourth outfielder, he can run and hit for power, and play some defense. That has fantasy value in deeper leagues, and Jackson would get a year+ to start in somewhere like Houston.

 

I hope that I’ve been informative about WHY I don’t like to trust RP in general, namely minor league ones. They are the most volatile of any prospects, as if prospects weren’t risky enough. There’s a real chance that Rondon walks in and fails in the closer job and watches it get snached up by Octavio Dotel. And who knows, Dotel could hold it for another three years. There are so many outcomes for pitchers, and relievers just have theirs limited more than any other position. I hope this was a good read and I hope you can see why I take my stance on relievers. It’s not that I don’t think minor league RP have value. I just wouldn’t touch them anywhere inside my top 150 prospects. Outside of that, it’s a crapshoot anyways, so you can shoot for a high minors reliever with a lane to walk in and close. But just remember that you’re playing with fire. Don’t burn yourself.