Wednesday February 1st, 2012
Sam Evans: Closing ballgames takes confidence, skill, and experience. There are select players that have earned the closer role at the highest level possible. These players come in all shapes and sizes, with diverse backgrounds.
Without further adieu, here are the closers for all fourteen American League teams:
New York Yankees: The Yankees have had the same closer for the last fifteen years. That is by far the longest stretch of any closer with their current team. Arguably the most successful closer of all time, Mariano Rivera has constructed his whole career around one pitch.
Rivera’s cutter is simply dominant. He breaks more bats than any other closer in the league, and he knows where to throw it to specific hitters. Even at 42 years old, hitters know what’s coming but still have no chance of making solid contact. In 2011, Rivera had a 1.91 ERA and he recorded 44 saves. Mariano Rivera still has at least five more years closing out games. The Yankees should be content with him as their closer for as long as he wants to pitch.
Tampa Bay Rays: Rays closer Kyle Farnsworth had a surprisingly effective 2011. Coming into the year, he was expected to compete with young prospect Jake McGee for the closer role. Farnsworth stole the show and was Tampa’s closer for the whole season. He posted a 2.18 ERA in 2012, along with 25 saves. It was a nice bounce back year for the once overpaid, angry reliever.
The Rays picked up the fiery reliever’s option for 2012, so he will likely retain his job as the Rays’ closer. However, if Farnsworth can’t get the job done, Joel Peralta or Fernando Rodney (87 career saves) will step in.
Boston Red Sox: The Red Sox bullpen has had a perplexing offseason so far. They let their closer leave in free agency and they moved two of their other best relievers to the rotation. Now, they’ll be trusting a young, former Rookie of the Year, who hasn’t thrown fifty innings since 2009. I think the Red Sox made the right move by letting Jonathan Papelbon walk, but I don’t see the benefit in moving Daniel Bard to their rotation.
Moving from Oakland to Boston, Andrew Bailey will have to learn to deal with constant criticism and media pressure. He’ll go from pitching in front of 10,000 people every night to almost 40,000. It’s impossible to quantify how much of an impact that will have on Bailey, but it’s got be at least a small factor.
The Red Sox will have a strong bullpen, despite which of their relievers end up in their rotation. Besides Bard, the Red Sox also acquired Mark Melancon who could see time as Boston’s closer. Melancon isn’t as good of a pitcher as Bailey, but he is still a strong option for late-inning relief.
I’m not high on Bailey and I see him having issues in 2012. Bailey relies too heavily on his fastball and his curveball was not effective last year. If he succeeds in Boston, then the Red Sox will look like geniuses for trading for him. If he struggles, then new General Manager Ben Cherington will have some questions to answer about the future of this bullpen. (I wrote more about the Red Sox bullpen here.)
Toronto Blue Jays: With the abundance of closers on the market, Toronto went out and got their closer of the present and future, in Sergio Santos. They had to give up Nestor Molina, a young starting pitching prospect, but they scored Santos and his team-friendly contract.
Since being converted from shortstop to pitcher a couple of years ago, Sergio Santos has molded into a top-notch closer. In my opinion, he has the second best slider in baseball. (Braves closer Craig Kimbrel gets a slight edge.)
The Blue Jays have a fairly strong bullpen and General Manager Alex Anthopoulos could always trade for more bullpen pieces. Rebuilding Toronto’s major league team is going to take a couple of years and right now the bullpen appears to be the least of their worries.
Baltimore Orioles: Jim Johnson emerged as a star for the Orioles in 2011. The twenty-eight year old reliever threw ninety innings but recorded only nine saves. The Orioles leader in saves last year was Kevin Gregg with 22 saves. This was surprising considering Gregg wasn’t even one of the Orioles top three relievers.
I’ve been a huge fan of Pedro Strop ever since he was with the Rangers organization. The twenty-six year old had a 2.62 FIP in 2011, and the Orioles have implied he’ll be their setup man in 2012. With Johnson, Gregg and Strop all gunning for the Orioles closer job in 2012, they’ll definitely have competition throughout the year. I’d expect Johnson to get the most saves, but Strop could have a breakout season as a 9th inning superstar. Plus Alfredo Simon could always get hot and take back the role if he fails as a starter.
Detroit Tigers: For the Tigers, having a closer they can trust to close out games in 2012 will be huge. The Tigers are going to have plenty of late-inning leads, thanks to a strong pitching staff and a powerful offense. Jose Valverde has been the Tigers closer for the last two years and he’s excelled at the back of the Detroit bullpen.
Papa Grande took a step forward in 2011. He saved 49 saves in just as many opportunities in 2012. His electric (and to a lesser extent, annoying) personality provides a spark at the end of Tigers games.
Valverde will be back in 2012 and will help Detroit down the stretch as they look to make a run at the World Series.
Chicago White Sox: The White Sox no longer have a clear closer after trading Sergio Santos to the Blue Jays. Now, their bullpen will rely on the flame-throwing lefty Matt Thornton and rookie Addison Reed.
Matt Thornton had a rough 2011. He lost his closer job to a former shortstop and saw his strikeout rates plummet. In 2010, he struck out 12.02 batters per nine innings. In 2011, he saw that rate drop to 9.5. He also walked more hitters than he had in previous years, and his LOB% dropped to 61.2%. In 2012, he will probably see his numbers improve moderately- but not to the level they were at in 2010.
Addison Reed is the best prospect in the White Sox deprived farm system. He will probably start the year in the majors. He has a higher ceiling than any other White Sox bullpen arms and that might lead to a job closing for Chicago. Reed is a nice sleeper in 12-team leagues, in which you are looking for saves.
Manager Robin Ventura has said that Reed is likely to make the 25-man roster out of Spring Training. He also said that the closing job is Matt Thornton’s to lose. I don’t think it will be very long before Reed takes over the job from Thornton, so Reed will probably get the majority of saves for the White Sox this year.
Kansas City Royals: Last year, it seemed inevitable that the Royals would trade away their longtime closer Joakim Soria. Then Soria’s value dramatically dropped. In May, Soria gave up ten runs in ten innings, and Royals fans started to panic. Eventually, Soria got back to the pitcher he always was. He finished 2011 with 28 saves, his lowest total since 2007. General Manager Dayton Moore made the right move hanging on to Joakim Soria because his value was so low at the trade deadline.
For 2012, Soria will be the Royals closer barring a trade. Not to be forgotten is former Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton who was signed this offseason. The Royals have a talented young bullpen that has the chance to develop into one of the best in the league.
Minnesota Twins: The Twins have no real closer heading into the 2011 season. Sure they have Matt Capps, who has 124 career saves. But he’s not a legitimate option if they plan on contending this year. They recently signed former Detroit Tiger Joel Zumaya who is coming back from a serious arm injury, but he used to be able to throw triple digits.
For fantasy players looking for sleepers, this team isn’t a bad place to start. Any one of the Twins pitchers could step up and take the closer role. This might be the worst bullpen in the league, so Minnesota will probably have to make some moves this year.
Cleveland Indians: The Indians a strong bullpen that should be able to give their starters a proper amount of rest. Vinnie Pestano is the best reliever on the team… and he’s not even closing. Pestano was worth 1.5 WAR in 2011, and he had 23 saves. If Chris Perez were to slip up in his closing duties, Pestano could easily fill in.
Chris Perez is a very good closer because he is a clutch performer. He doesn’t strike out many hitters and he walks a lot of hitters (1.50 K/BB in 2011), but he doesn’t blow many saves. He was 36 for 40 in save opportunities last year.
Even though Perez will likely be the starting closer on Opening Day, if Pestano keeps pitching like he has, he could eventually take over the position.
Seattle Mariners: The Mariners probably should have traded their closer, Brandon League, this offseason. As strong of an asset as League is, the Mariners won’t be contending in 2012.
When Brandon Leauge decides to throw it, he has one of the best splitters in the league. Last year he threw his splitter 28.2% of the time. Mariners fans want him to throw it more because of how dominating it can be. In 2011, using his splitter more led him to 37 saves and a 2.78 FIP. If League were to be traded or injured, Shawn Kelley, Tom Wilhelmsen, or Chance Ruffin would likely step into the role.
Oakland Athletics: Since the A’s traded Andrew Bailey, their closer responsibility is no longer set in stone. Brian Fuentes will likely start the year as their closer, but he has 37 career blown saves and is no longer the pitcher he once was.
The next pitcher in line to get saves is probably Fautino De Los Santos. As a rookie in 2011, De Los Santos struck out 11.61 batters per nine innings. Fautino De Los Santos may be electric but he only has thirty-two career saves (all of which were in the minors.)
Texas Rangers: The Rangers have the most depth out of any bullpen in the AL West. Joe Nathan will be the closer out of spring training. If Nathan were to fail, the Rangers also have Mike Adams, Koji Uehara (barring a trade) and Alexi Ogando (if he doesn’t start) waiting in the wings. If the Rangers bullpen were a flavor of milkshake- they would be banana. Not always the first thing that comes to mind, but after you try it, it’s much better than you expected.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: The Angels should have spent more money this offseason on their bullpen. Jordan Walden is far from a sure thing. Although it was his rookie year, Walden had his ups and downs in 2011. Walden looked nervous at times. Hopefully in his second year, he will have a better ” closer’s mentality.”
Setting up Walden will be most likely be Scott Downs, who was extremely lucky in 2011. Downs had 26 holds and a 1.34 ERA. He had a 3.40 xFIP and he left 86.4% of his men on base. In 2012, there’s no question that Downs is going to regress. The only question is how much.
Overall: The bullpens in the American League aren’t as strong as they look. There are talented pitchers on nearly every team, but no bullpen stands out as the clear winner. 2012 is going to be the an important year for closers, as there will be many AL teams in contention (especially if the 2nd Wild Card goes through). Some say that the whole closer role and mentality is not important. But once this year’s playoffs are upon us, I think 2012 will prove just how important closers really are.
***Today’s feature was prepared by our Baseball Writer, Sam Evans. We highly encourage you to leave your comments and feedback at the bottom of the page and share in the discussion with our readers. You can also follow Sam on Twitter***
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