Four teams switch closers already
Orioles, Blue Jays, Rangers, Angels all changed ninth-inning options in past week
So just 10 days into the season, we already have the answer to the question, "Which closer will be the first to lose his job?" (That'd be Mike Gonzalez.)
Get this: We also have the answer to the question, "Which closer will be the second to lose his job? (That'd be Frank Francisco.)
And, incredibly, we have the answer to the question, "Which closers will be the third and fourth to lose their jobs? (That'd be Brian Fuentes and Jason Frasor, though in fairness to Fuentes, it was an injury and not necessarily poor performance that cost him his job.)
Yes, it was that kind of opening week-plus for big league bullpens, after a spring training during which five other teams' closers changed hands. All told, nine teams already employ different closers today than the ones projected to occupy that role at the onset of spring training. That's three-tenths of the major leagues.
But one man's loss is another man's gain, and that's not just referring to the individuals shuffled into and out of the closer role, but also their fantasy owners. Going alphabetically by team, let's take a look at the pitcher on the outs, the reason he's on the outs, the fellow tabbed to replace him and the replacement's value:
Out goes: Mike Gonzalez, despite the $12 million the Orioles owe him between this and next season. That's a lot of money, and it's not as if the Orioles are serious contenders in a top-heavy division with the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays (listed in order of 2009 finish), so you'd think he'd have gotten a longer leash. Concerns about Gonzalez's velocity, however -- with reports dating back to as late as mid-March that he was throwing in the mid-80s -- forced the Orioles' hand, and they placed him on the disabled list Wednesday. What's good about the money is that it greatly enhances the chance he'll recapture the role at some point. To do that, he'll need to prove his shoulder is sound first, which might mean a two-week DL stint followed by two weeks of active duty toiling in middle relief, and that's probably the best-case scenario. If you play in a standard ESPN league, you might have smarter uses for your DL spot.
In comes: Jim Johnson, though that's more from a "who else is there?" angle than an endorsement of the former setup man by manager Dave Trembley. Johnson has been a talented reliever for a couple of years, but his splits between setup and closer roles the past two seasons are troubling:
Setup (2008 through July 30, 2009): 33 holds, 2.62 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, .230 BAA
Closing (Aug. 1 through end of 2009): 8-for-11 in save chances, 6.23 ERA, 1.66 WHIP, .319 BAA
Maybe that's entirely a fluke, and certainly fantasy owners in any league should scoop up Johnson on the chance he grabs the role and thrives, given a second chance. That doesn't mean you shouldn't keep an eye on other sleepers in the Baltimore bullpen, as the worst-case scenario for Gonzalez has the veteran not returning at full strength at any point this season. Matt Albers, Koji Uehara (when he's healthy) and Kam Mickolio, likely in that order, might get the next chance to close if Johnson can't handle it. If you're ranking these four teams' new closers in terms of pickups, however, this one ranks a clear dead last.
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.
Out goes: Brian Fuentes, the 2009 American League leader in saves (48) who is owed $9 million this season. It's a sizable chunk of change, but the Angels might actually benefit financially from his putting him on the DL on Wednesday, in that it almost guarantees he'll be unable to finish the 55 games required for his $9 million option for 2011 to vest. Besides, if you examine Fuentes' 2009 closely, you might notice that the Angels could justify using him in a lefty-specialist/LOOGY (Left-handed One-Out GuY) role upon his healthy return if they wanted to. They tossed $11 million at Fernando Rodney, a closer himself in 2009, during the winter, so there's an obvious natural replacement on the roster. Fuentes might have already sniffed his final save opportunity of 2010, or at least he's the one of these four (now) ex-closers with the greatest probability of that happening.
In comes: The aforementioned Fernando Rodney; it's not unreasonable to think he might have been in the Angels' ninth-inning plans all along. Rodney's numbers aren't always pretty, as he had a 4.48 ERA and 1.45 WHIP from 2007-09 combined, but the man did have 37 saves last year and a 2.79 ERA and 1.24 WHIP in save chances, per Baseball-Reference.com. He also punched out the New York Yankees in 1-2-3 fashion in his first save opportunity of 2010 on Wednesday, and as we've said many times on these pages, a closer's ERA/WHIP don't always have to be pretty. Rodney could (gulp) wind up the top save-getter of any of the four newbies.
Out goes: Frank Francisco, who has a decision in each of his four appearances so far this season, thanks to two wins in games he entered with the score tied, and two losses in save chances he promptly blew (bad ones at that). Francisco has the capability to thoroughly dominate hitters at times, with a mid-90s fastball, curve and filthy splitter, but he's also a fly-ball pitcher, which means he needs impeccable command of each pitch at all times to avoid painfully costly mistakes. Case in point: Vernon Wells taking an ill-placed Francisco splitter deep into the left-field bleachers April 8. Fortunately, faulty command is correctable, which means Francisco's time as closer in 2010 probably hasn't fully passed. In fact, he might be the quickest of today's "out goes" bunch to get back there.
In comes: Neftali Feliz, who might have something to say about the speed with which Francisco recaptures his old job. Feliz has filthy stuff, capable of touching 100 mph on the radar gun, and he already has two saves in as many chances since taking over the role. But experience isn't something he can boast, and in 51 relief appearances in his professional career he has pitched on back-to-back days only once. The Rangers might not yet fully trust a soon-to-be-22-year-old newly anointed closer, and that could be just the opening Francisco needs to sneak back into his old gig during one of Feliz's off days. In terms of upside, Feliz is about as exciting as closers come, and certainly more so than any of these other three, but his arrival in the role might not yet be permanent.
Out goes: Jason Frasor, who -- after serving as the Opening Day closer and saving three games in the season's opening week -- had to stand on the sidelines and watch as Kevin Gregg notched three saves himself in the past six days. Manager Cito Gaston initially suggested Frasor's missing out on save chances was only a matter of his needing the night off on those days that is, until Wednesday, when Gaston declared the move a full-out swap of their roles. That Frasor allowed the leadoff man to reach base in all five of his appearances didn't help his cause, nor did the fact that he blew two of those save chances while surrendering a .381 opponents' batting average. Maybe a couple of weeks off might help him recapture the magic that had him turn in a 2.50 ERA and 1.02 WHIP last season, numbers that rival any good reliever's, so keep close tabs on how he fares in his new setup role.
In comes: Kevin Gregg, who in comparison to Frasor has retired three of four first batters and has six strikeouts and zero walks in 4 1/3 innings so far. Gregg is that infamous "experienced closer," with 84 saves the past three seasons combined, 13th-most in baseball, and it's at least somewhat surprising that Gaston didn't turn to him upon the conclusion of spring training in the first place. Like the aforementioned Rodney, Gregg's ratios aren't always pretty, but he's capable of some hot streaks during which his contributions might rival that of any closer. Fantasy owners would be foolish not to hop aboard this bandwagon, knowing full well that in the event he cools, there's a perfectly adequate fallback option in Frasor. In fact, would anyone be shocked if each of them saved 18-20 games?
Hold your horses
Closer shuffling often has an impact on the setup duties, and in the case of the Angels' and Orioles' bullpens, holds seekers might want to examine the fallout in the seventh and eighth innings, not just the ninth. In Baltimore, Johnson's promotion from setup to closing leaves precious few alternatives for the eighth, but Will Ohman might see a dramatic increase in work. Ohman, a classic LOOGY, is just two years removed from an 83-game, 23-hold campaign, and if the Orioles are forced to mix and match in the long term, he'll be heavily used exploiting matchups. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Kevin Jepsen takes over as Rodney's primary setup man while Fuentes is out, and the right-hander did notch his third hold Wednesday. Jepsen has 18 holds and a 2.95 ERA since last year's All-Star break.
The Milwaukee Brewers' bullpen also warrants some attention, not only because a fierce battle is brewing (pun unintended) between Todd Coffey and LaTroy Hawkins in the setup ranks, but also because closer Trevor Hoffman is off to a sluggish start himself. While Hawkins has been working the eighth with Coffey saved for earlier frames thus far, Hawkins' Wednesday implosion, coupled with Coffey's five shutout innings, might soon have the Brewers contemplating a change in the ranks. Coffey, who has 31 holds since the beginning of last season, remains an underrated choice in the category, and in the unlikely event that Hoffman is indeed done, Coffey might even get a chance at some saves later in the year.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.