TOP 75 RELIEF PITCHERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 75 relief pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
Let me let you in on a little secret. If you're a fan of any one baseball team, you are probably far more knowledgeable about that team than most fantasy experts, including myself. The reason should be obvious. Because of the nature of this job, I will likely devote only 1/30 of my time to "your team" while you analyze every pitch and every at-bat of all 162 games, oftentimes losing sleep after a "questionable" pitching change results in a loss.
You know how a manager feels about every member of his bullpen, when he's likely to call on that situational left-hander and how early is too early to call on the closer. You also probably have a good idea -- that sinking feeling in your stomach when you hear that intro music piping out over the stadium PA -- when your team's relief ace is not getting the job done, and may be in severe jeopardy of losing his crown as bullpen anchor.
As for the rest of us, we have to make educated guesses by what we see in the highlights and read in the box scores, because there's no way we can "know" what a manager is likely to be thinking by being a casual observer of the team. Back in June, I introduced the idea of using FBA -- the batting average of the first batter that a reliever faces upon entering the game -- in order to try to read the mind of the manager in an attempt to help predict which closers might well be in jeopardy of being supplanted from their role.
If one supposes that a manager will stick with a closer, regardless of the results, so long as he continues to have confidence in him, then the quickest way for the boobirds in the stands to gain momentum and for the manager to start to question the status quo is to see said closer consistently struggle out of the gate. FBA might well be a window into this thought process, and a forecaster of change.
With the benefit of hindsight, let's see how my June predictions panned out. First, I identified 11 closers as being completely safe, and a near lock to remain as their respective team's closer for the indefinite future. Of this group -- Mariano Rivera, Neftali Feliz, Carlos Marmol, Jose Valverde, Kerry Wood, John Axford, Brian Wilson, Alfredo Simon, Brad Lidge, Francisco Rodriguez and Rafael Soriano -- only Wood is no longer still the closer of his team. Of course, Wood had a stint on the disabled list (something that can never be predicted) which caused his removal from the closer job in Cleveland and paved the way for his trade to the New York Yankees in a set-up role. Still, getting 10 out of 11 is not too shabby.
How did we fare at the other end of the spectrum? Well, I labeled eight closers as being likely to either be replaced as closer outright or sent away via a trade deadline deal, as there were other decent options to be found on their respective staffs. These eight names were Matt Lindstrom, Francisco Cordero, Heath Bell, Jon Rauch, Kevin Gregg, Matt Capps, Jonathan Broxton and Octavio Dotel. So, what actually transpired? Bell's team never faded from the playoff race, so he remained safe. However, Capps was indeed moved, out of Washington and into Rauch's job in Minnesota. Dotel was also sent packing from Pittsburgh, as insurance for Jonathan Broxton, who seems to have had numerous problems as of late -- certainly enough to make Joe Torre nervous and willing to deal. Considering there weren't any other noninjury changes in the closer carousel than the ones predicted by FBA, perhaps there is something to this stat after all.
There's only one way to find out, so once again, we'll chart the current closer crop to see which teams might still have some alternate sources of saves left to offer the fantasy fan for the rest of the 2010 campaign.
Safe at Home
With the July trade deadline in the rearview mirror, there's far less opportunity for closer movement, so this list is a little bit longer than earlier in the season. We've upped the FBA requirement for inclusion in this category to .200 from .175 to reflect that fact. Yes, there are some pitchers here -- K-Rod comes to mind -- who might not get every save opportunity in September, as some managers may want to use those games to see what else they might have in the organization, especially once their teams fall completely out of playoff contention. Still, there are no major red flags here.
As much as Boston fans have been down on Jonathan Papelbon -- and news of his being "claimed on waivers" may make for good copy -- the fact is he's not likely to go anywhere in 2010. Alfredo Simon is the one wild card in this bunch, since Buck Showalter has not been watching him all season long. A move to Mike Gonzalez or even Koji Uehara -- David Hernandez has gone to the disabled list or he'd be in the mix as well -- would not surprise me at all, since there's no season-long buildup of trust in Baltimore.
Ace in the Hole?
This next trio of pitchers has an FBA in the neutral zone. In this range, and with lurking competition, their jobs are only going to be as safe as their team's win-loss record, so while Heath Bell isn't going anywhere, we still wouldn't be surprised to see Leo Nunez fly the coop in the next few weeks. Michael Wuertz is essentially starting from scratch, and though he has filled in nicely, he's only in the job due to Andrew Bailey's injury.
Only Game in Town
This next group also rests in the FBA neutral zone, only the next-in-line candidates have not done much to make an impression. Even before his injury sent him to the disabled list, Jason Motte wasn't exactly a shining star. As for the Pittsburgh Pirates' job, which was vacated by the Octavio Dotel trade, FBA may show you why John Russell gave Joel Hanrahan the initial shot at saves rather than All-Star Evan Meek, although no "official" naming ceremony took place. So far, so good, so don't expect any changes.
Danger, Will Robinson!
Here are the pitchers who simply have not been doing the job, at least on the psychological level. Certainly, in the case of Joakim Soria, especially since the Kansas City Royals adamantly refused to part ways with him, he's not going to lose his job. However, he's done a lot more tap dancing this season than is necessary, which is why he is in legitimate danger of falling out of the top 10 of the ESPN Player Rater for relievers. For Jonathan Broxton, well, we've already discussed why the Dodgers snatched up Mr. Dotel, even if Joe Torre has publicly proclaimed his confidence in his current closer. Methinks he doth protest too much, though.
Brad Lidge might have already lost the job in Philadelphia if not for Charlie Manuel's stubbornness. Clearly salary had more to do with Wood being moved in Cleveland than Chris Perez's performance, though with nothing much behind him on the Tribe, he's likely keeping the job as well. In Milwaukee, although John Axford has been a revelation, he's been far from perfect, and with the Brewers all but done for 2010, perhaps they insert Trevor Hoffman back into the closer role as a way to say goodbye to the future Hall of Famer.
As for Matt Capps, who already has blown one save with his new team, certainly he starts fresh in terms of making an impression, but considering how well Jon Rauch truly did while he had the job, and given the tightness of the AL Central race, I don't think Ron Gardenhire will delay too long in switching back if Capps' troubles linger. Meanwhile, back in Washington, Tyler Clippard seems to make more sense -- at least according to FBA -- at this stage of the game than Drew Storen to get the closing job Capps left behind. Jim Riggleman has said he would use both, along with Sean Burnett (.261), as a "Closing Cerberus" so it probably doesn't pay to try to figure out a winner to this battle, as there likely won't be one this season.
Middle reliever spotlight
Sam Demel, Arizona Diamondbacks: Juan Gutierrez is on the disabled list due to shoulder inflammation and Chad Qualls now resides in Tampa Bay. So, who will take over as closer for Kirk Gibson? Odds are it will be Aaron Heilman, who has handled the job before and even got a save as recently as last Saturday in New York, but Gibson has been coy about bestowing the title to any one pitcher. But why not Demel? FBA aside, he's struck out 21 batters in 20 1/3 innings, and in "late and close" situations -- defined as seventh inning or later, with the batting team tied, ahead by one, or the tying run at least on deck -- he's held opposing hitters to a .200 batting average. That's a good sign he may have the proper mentality for the job. Kirk, if I may be so bold, you're 9-20 as a manager. Take a chance, huh?
Upgrade your roster
When a pitcher leaves the clubhouse on crutches, as Hernandez did on Wednesday after injuring his ankle covering home plate after a wild pitch, that's never a good sign, and it appears more than likely that some time on the disabled list might be in order for the Orioles reliever.
So why not fill his spot with Hensley? Right-handed hitters are batting just .186 against him, and his overall K/9 rate is an impressive 10.0. He's tied for sixth in the National League in holds with 17, and there's still a chance the Marlins realize they're not making the playoffs and try to get some value for Leo Nunez, thus paving the way for Hensley to earn a few saves as well.