Who'll be the next Jordan Walden?
Six days, Fernando Rodney.
If you had that number of days or that name in your "which closer is going to lose his job first" office pool, congratulations, you're a winner! Of course, Rodney probably had short odds, so don't expect much of a payout.
That is, unless you're the fantasy owner who smartly snatched up Jordan Walden, either as a draft-day handcuff or first-few-days pickup. Walden, advertised as the Los Angeles Angels' closer of the future since his big league debut last Aug. 22, has done nothing but miss bats in his 21 appearances since then.
You've probably heard us singing Walden's praises for a while now (both Eric Karabell and Jason Grey were advising the rookie right-hander as a prime pickup earlier in the week). But I'll give you the numbers nevertheless: Walden has pitched 19⅔ innings thus far in the big leagues, struck out 30 batters, held opponents to a .194 batting average and generated swinging strikes 12.2 percent of the time. Thanks to his lethal combination of high-90s heat and slider, he has quickly emerged as one of the more unhittable late-inning relievers.
Walden remains available in 47.6 percent of ESPN leagues -- just under half -- so perhaps he's still out there in yours. But in the most competitive leagues, he's surely claimed, and that leads to the inevitable follow-up question:
Which closer is going to lose his job next?
Ah, that perpetual question, one frequently asked by a multitude of fantasy owners who choose to piece together the saves category via in-season waiver pickups. We're always scouting the next big-name closer, and in those uber-competitive leagues, knowing who they are before they grab the gig is key.
I published my list of preseason sleepers for saves in early March, and such a task needs be revisited often, quickly as things change in big league bullpens. So, today, let's first examine whether anything has changed from that preseason list, while expanding the list to include a few new candidates.
A look back
These are the eight saves sleepers I picked in the preseason:
Zach Braddock, Milwaukee Brewers: My stance remains unchanged. Everyone might flock to Takashi Saito as the natural replacement should John Axford continue to struggle as he did on Opening Day. However, Braddock, let's remember, is almost 18 years younger and a much more sensible long-term replacement.
Joba Chamberlain, New York Yankees: He's the Yankees' newly anointed seventh-inning man, the eighth-inning man (Rafael Soriano) is already suffering from diminished velocity and the ninth-inning man (Mariano Rivera) is 41 years old. I still say Chamberlain is an extreme long shot, but it's not completely crazy.
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. Prev rank is our final preseason ranking in the Draft Kit.
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers: He has one ugly outing and one solid one under his belt thus far, but Jonathan Broxton's stuff doesn't look quite as sharp as it did one calendar year ago. There's still a (long-term) chance here.
Bobby Parnell, New York Mets: Francisco Rodriguez already has a blown save to his credit, and setup man Parnell has two scoreless appearances. A switch isn't imminent, but he's another for whom I'd say, "stance unchanged."
Jordan Walden, Los Angeles Angels: Now a closer.
Joel Peralta, Tampa Bay Rays: The Rays need to actually win a game for us to get a read on their closer-by-committee, but Peralta is clearly in that mix. He was lights-out this spring, with a 0.70 WHIP and 11 K's in 10 innings, and hasn't been scored upon in his first three regular-season outings, totaling 4 K's in 2⅔ frames. If he gets the Rays' first save chance, don't be at all surprised.
Two of my eight picks listed above have "graduated," one to a closer's role and one into a starting rotation. But instead of making it easy, picking two replacements, why not increase the challenge and select four (for an even 10)? Here are my four additions, each of them a member of an Opening Day roster:
Tim Collins, Kansas City Royals: A smallish figure at 5-foot-7, 170 pounds, Collins might not strike you as the kind of physical specimen you'd expect to see in the ninth inning. He sure has the stuff for it, however. Between his 12-to-6 curveball and low- to mid-90s fastball, Collins has two above-average big league pitches, and his changeup is at least a decent third offering, the combination probably good enough to succeed even against tough right-handers. He has long been a strikeout artist; he averaged 13.28 K's per nine during his minor league career, whiffed 14 batters in 11⅓ spring innings and already has six whiffs in 4⅓ shutout innings in his first three big league appearances. Command is the question; he averaged 3.87 walks per nine in the minors and 3.45 per nine between spring training and his three regular-season appearances. It's not that Collins could overtake Joakim Soria, it's that Soria has been a subject of trade rumors for a while now, and if the Royals look to trade him, they'll need to look hard for a replacement. AL-only owners might find Collins' ratios and K's helpful, and who knows, maybe he'll be next in line.
Aaron Crow, Royals: You might remember him as the first-round pick of the Washington Nationals in 2008 who didn't sign, then became the Royals' first-round selection a summer later. Crow struggled as a starter in Double-A ball last summer (5.66 ERA, 1.58 WHIP in 22 starts), but converted to relief this spring he excelled in his new role, with a 2.03 ERA and 1.05 WHIP in nine appearances. As a reliever, he can rely on his mid-90s fastball and high-80s slider, the latter looking like an improved offering, though he might yet lack the out pitch he'd need to handle lefties. Crow should be murder for righties, though, and that could be enough to make him meaningful in AL-only formats. And as noted with Collins, if Soria is indeed dealt, this team will need to be creative at closer.
Chad Qualls, San Diego Padres: Hey, remember him? The Diamondbacks' closer a year ago at this time, Qualls suffered through a miserable 2010, though some of that can be attributed to some horribly bad luck. Consider this: He had a .386 BABIP despite a 16.8 percent line-drive rate, a 53.0 percent strand rate and FIP (4.13) and xFIP (3.82) numbers that belied his ERA (7.32)/WHIP (1.80) numbers. The Padres, historically a smart organization when it comes to scooping up talented, reclamation-project relievers, added Qualls to their already deep bullpen corps. Reports on his power sinker were positive this spring, and he had a 2.70 ERA and 1.30 WHIP in 10 exhibition appearances. Both Mike Adams and Luke Gregerson should get shots to close before Qualls if Heath Bell is traded or gets hurt, but remember that Qualls does have one key ingredient they don't: experience.
Tony Sipp, Cleveland Indians: I said they'd be sleepers -- in other words pitchers you'd probably least expect to succeed -- and like the three men listed above him, Sipp has a rock-solid closer ahead of him on the depth chart, and unlike with the Royals or Padres, there hasn't been a whisper of trade rumors surrounding incumbent Chris Perez. Still, Perez has a half-season's experience, and injuries and poor performance are always possible, so it's smart to know the men behind him in the bullpen. Sipp is one of the most attractive candidates despite his left-handedness (so many managers tend to rely on right-handers to close). He has always had closer stuff: a low-90s fastball and slider that has helped him generate swinging strikes 11.7 percent of the time during his big league career. Sipp also lacks any discernable platoon split -- righties have a .698 lifetime OPS against him, lefties .743 -- the primary knock on him inconsistent command, as he has averaged 5.43 walks per nine in his career. His command seemed excellent during the spring, however, walking only two batters in 9⅔ innings en route to a 0.93 ERA and 0.52 WHIP. If he starts similarly hot, he'd be a wise Perez handcuff.
These three pitchers failed to make their teams' Opening Day rosters, but profile as potential closers someday, even if it's 2012 or beyond. Keep tabs on their progress in the minors, and consider them for ERA/WHIP help if they're recalled in 2010:
Rex Brothers, Colorado Rockies: He almost made the team out of camp thanks to a 2.25 ERA, 1.25 WHIP and 11 strikeouts in eight innings during the spring, his mid-90s fastball and filthy slider sure to prove a lethal combination in the late innings sometime down the road. Brothers will begin the year in Triple-A ball, but the Rockies have long been willing to test young relievers in their bullpen; we're almost assuredly going to see him up with the big club sometime in 2010.
Louis Coleman, Royals: Another pitcher who narrowly missed out on a roster spot, Coleman might have been tabbed in the spots that either Collins or Crow was above, had he broken camp with the Royals. He's actually the "closer prospect" of the three, so a hot start in Triple-A could earn him a midseason call-up, and it's not unthinkable he could still outpitch either Collins or Crow to quickly become next in line in the event of a Soria trade. I'm usually wary of relief-pitching prospects, as they so often fail and so many of the game's elite closers actually began their pro careers as starters, but in Coleman's case I'll make an exception. Look at those career minor league command numbers: 4.31 K's per walk and 9.90 K's per nine!
Cole Kimball, Washington Nationals: It's difficult to imagine any pitcher overtaking Drew Storen for the honor of "Nationals closer of the future," but let's point out that, thanks to Storen's spring struggles, Sean Burnett might actually be the team's go-to guy in the ninth inning for now. Kimball also outpitched Storen in the spring; he had a 1.13 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and eight strikeouts in as many innings. His low-90s fastball, curveball and splitter is a combination that might make him more of a workhorse reliever, in the Tyler Clippard mold, and that means potentially enough innings to make his ERA and WHIP count in fantasy.
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.
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