We've reached the final hours before ESPN's fantasy baseball trade deadline -- it arrives on Friday, Aug. 10, at noon ET -- and in this last of the "big three" columns' look at potential trade targets, let's shift our focus to the closers.
It's fitting that closers go last, not simply because they're typically the last men standing on their respective teams' mound each night. It's because they're among the easiest commodities to trade, important when we're talking about an approximate 24-hour window left to get your trades in. There is always someone in your league with an abundance of saves, and there is always someone who desperately needs said saves. As long as you're realistic in your valuation of the category, deals for saves typically aren't difficult.
To illustrate, take a look at the recent Tout Wars NL-only transactions. Since July 23, a staggering six different closers have been traded, and remember, we're talking about a pool of only 17 closers (the 16 National League teams plus former National Leaguer Ernesto Frieri).
To help you on your way to trade success, this week's "Relief Efforts" identifies players who appear especially attractive acquisitions or overpriced comparative to their remaining value. I stop a step short of calling them straight "buy-low, sell-high" candidates. They just happen to be players whom today I view worth the anticipated price tag (or more) on the buy side, or not quite their perceived value on the sell side.
Go get 'em
Kansas City Royals
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals: Three numbers tell the story of Holland's season. His .384 BABIP is sixth highest among qualified relievers, his well-hit average allowed (percentage of his at-bats -- not plate appearances, at-bats -- that resulted in hard contact) is .140, 25th lowest (85th percentile), and his ground ball rate is 53.4 percent, 38th highest (77th percentile). This is a pitcher who, on a season-to-date basis, has been unlucky. Case in point: No pitcher who has allowed 50 or more ground balls has surrendered a higher batting average on them than Holland's .379. The major league batting average on grounders is .227.
That's why Holland's performance as Royals closer since Jonathan Broxton's trade needs be taken so seriously. He's 3-for-3 in save chances with one win and six innings of one run allowed, and since his return from a left rib stress reaction, he has a 2.06 ERA and 11.67 strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio in 39 appearances. This is Holland's gig, he's the most productive Royals reliever of the past month-plus, and he ranks among the game's better relievers since the beginning of May. As a new-to-the-role closer, he might come at a dirt-cheap price, but his ranking this week shows that he's well worth the investment.
First, try to scoop him up at the price of a lower-tier starting pitcher, like Ben Sheets (No. 47 in the "60 Feet 6 Inches" rankings on Tuesday) or Vance Worley (No. 51). If you must, feel free to go as high as No. 36, Max Scherzer.
Drew Storen, Washington Nationals: He's going to close for the Nationals at some point, and it's because both the team wants him to be its future finisher and he has pitched effectively enough to justify a chance in the coming weeks. Storen was one of fantasy's best closers in 2011, and in 11 games since his return from surgery to remove a small bone fragment from his elbow, the only significant statistical difference from last season has been his walk rate: He has averaged 6.43 per nine innings, after averaging 2.39 in 2011.
Current closer Tyler Clippard, meanwhile, has blown 3 of 12 save chances since the All-Star break, his ERA 6.00 and WHIP 1.47 during that span. He has been anything but rock-solid in the role; the Nationals, a contending team, need to get their bullpen in order before playoff time; and they might not even be maximizing his usage in his ninth-inning role. To that end: Clippard threw more than an inning in 27 of his 72 appearances in 2011 but hasn't done so once all year. There's a reason manager Davey Johnson said back in March, when Storen was initially ailing, that he preferred Clippard in a setup role; it's because he could deploy him at any time in the game for any length of outing desired.
This isn't to say that a change is imminent. Johnson, in fact, recently said that there won't be a change in the near future. Based on recent returns, though, one might not be far off. Why not acquire Storen now, when his price might be a back-of-your-roster part, speculating that he might be the team's closer for all of September?
Rafael Betancourt, Colorado Rockies: This one has everything to do with his team and nothing to do with his individual performance. It's also a recommendation to shop him, not give him away, during a time in which his owners might think that the passing of the July 31 trade deadline assures him the role through year's end. The truth is that Betancourt, of any of the top-20-ranked closers, is the one most likely to suffer a Jonathan Broxton-like instant drop in value.
Betancourt is owed more than $5 million through the end of next season, making him a candidate to sneak through waivers, and if he does and news of it breaks, he's not going to fetch the price that he might right now. He'd be a useful setup man, à la Broxton, for another contender, but just like Broxton, the loss of save chances would rob him almost entirely of his fantasy value. Here's the other concern: The Rockies, at 40-69 the second-worst team in the National League, might like to take a longer look at closer of the future Rex Brothers. Even if Betancourt remains in Colorado, Brothers might steal a couple of save chances come September.
Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers: He's as shaky as a closer comes this season, and despite plenty of job security, he'll likely be a headache to own the remainder of the year. Among closers with at least 10 saves in 2012, Valverde's 3.94 ERA and 1.27 WHIP are both seventh worst, and his 1.62 K's-per-walk ratio is second worst only to Carlos Marmol (1.38). Valverde, a strikeout pitcher for most of his career, has suddenly stopped missing bats.
Valverde has averaged 6.70 K's per nine innings, a 17.3 percent K rate (calculated as a percentage of total batters faced) and generated misses on 20 percent of opponents' swings. The average major league reliever, by comparison, has an 8.30 K's per nine ratio, a 21.7 percent K rate and 24 percent miss rate. What's worse, Valverde's well-hit average allowed is .214, considerably higher than the .183 league average for a relief pitcher. He's not missing bats, and when opponents make contact, they're hitting the ball with authority.
Saves are saves, but understand that if you're a Valverde owner, that's all the contribution you should be expecting. Talk up his track record -- three seasons in the past five he led his respective league in saves, and his ERA since 2007 is 2.88 -- and see if you can get anything ranked higher than him in this week's column. Or, if it's starting pitching help you seek, send over a move straight up for Matt Moore, ranked 28th in this week's "60 Feet 6 Inches."
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.
When it comes to trading for or trading away saves, however, it's all about judging who will keep getting them. With the exception of the truly elite -- top-three closers Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen -- navigating the saves market is as simple as addressing pickups: It's the pitchers occupying the closer role on any given day who matter; all the rest, for the most part, do not.
For that reason, in addition to the four players profiled above, I'm grading the 30 current closers in terms of their "job security," in other words, how likely they are to lead in the saves category alone between now and year's end. As a suggestion, if your team needs saves and saves alone, target a player as highly graded below as you can. You want volume at this stage of the season.
And what of those two bullpens that received "F" grades?
The San Francisco Giants, due to a combination of Santiago Casilla's poor performance and blister issues, have reverted to a true closer-by-committee approach. This is not unlike what they said they would do at the time Brian Wilson succumbed to Tommy John surgery; they just mean it this time.
That means that on any given night, the Giants could deploy anyone from a group of Jeremy Affeldt, Sergio Romo, Javier Lopez or even Casilla to cover individual outs in the late innings, including the all-important final out (which brings with it the save, if it applies given the situation).
Allow Affeldt's save this past Tuesday to illustrate: Right-handed Romo began the eighth inning. Two of the first three hitters he faced were right-handed and the other a switch-hitter (Carlos Beltran). Then left-handed Affeldt came on to face lefty Jon Jay, the inning's final batter. Affeldt was then held over to pitch the ninth, during which time the Cardinals had due up a switch-hitter (Rafael Furcal) and two left-handed hitters (Matt Carpenter and Daniel Descalso).
For now, expect Romo and Affeldt to dominate the save chances. Romo has an edge because of the greater percentage of right-handed hitters in baseball, while Affeldt will have his opportunities because he's one of the few pitchers the Giants appear comfortable leaving in against hitters from either side. An astonishing 75 percent of hitters Romo has faced this season have been right-handed, and on 18 of 44 occasions this season, he faced three or fewer hitters, showing the team's specialist approach with him.
Perhaps Romo should be given the next full-time opportunity to close, but that doesn't mean he will. Again, this seems like a true committee, yet one of the rare valuable ones, as both can make positive contributions to your ERA and WHIP even if they're evenly splitting the saves.
As for the Milwaukee Brewers, a new wrinkle was tossed into their closer-by-committee approach when Jim Henderson saved Wednesday's game, giving him saves on back-to-back days. Henderson's is quite a story (and you can hear more about it on Wednesday's "Fantasy Focus" podcast): He's 29 years old, was a 26th-round pick of the Montreal Expos in 2003, has spent time in three organizations as well as parts of six seasons in the Double-A and Triple-A levels and has only eight career big league appearances on his résumé.
The reason it was a telling move to have him close was that John Axford, the team's closer to begin the season, their closer this past Monday and a pitcher whom the team expressed a desire to quickly restore to the role full time, pitched the eighth inning of a game the Brewers trailed at the time. Axford emerged with the win, but that he got the call in that situation, while the team held back Henderson, at least signals that the two are in some sort of partnership in the role.
Henderson's minor league track record doesn't speak to him being the greatest of pickups -- he has a 3.96 career ERA -- but in his defense he had 15 saves, a 1.69 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 10.50 K's per nine in 35 appearances for Triple-A Nashville. With all the Brewers' late-inning troubles, they're desperate enough to audition a journeyman minor league closer. Henderson averages 95 mph with his fastball to go with a good slider; opponents are 1-for-12 with six of his 10 K's and a 47 percent swing-and-miss rate on the slider in his eight appearances.
If you're in an NL-only or deep mixed league, consider stashing Henderson, at least at the expense of a bench piece you weren't likely to use. After all, sometimes success in the saves market is grabbing those five to eight cheap saves that appear out of nowhere on the free-agent list in the season's waning weeks.