Cardinals, Twins shuffle closers
Ryan Franklin out; is Mitchell Boggs next in line? Matt Capps supplants Joe Nathan
The Cardinals announced on Tuesday that they've removed Franklin from the role he has held since 2008, after he blew four of five save chances to begin the season. Per ESPN Stats & Information, he's only the third pitcher since saves became official in 1969 to blow four saves in his team's first 16 games -- Mike Marshall (1973) and Matt Thornton (this season) are the other two. So in a way, the Cardinals might actually have been too patient with him. For now, he'll work through his struggles in a lower-pressure, middle-relief role.
Franklin's problem has been completely ineffectual stuff, particularly his off-speed offerings. Per Inside Edge, he has surrendered a .160 well-hit average on off-speed strikes, 16th-worst among pitchers who have thrown 50-plus pitches. ESPN Stats & Information also notes that Franklin generated only four misses on 45 swings through Tuesday (8.9 percent), the third-worst rate among relievers who have faced at least 25 batters. Sure enough, he has been scored on in six of his seven outings to date, so clearly there's something amiss, something that's probably going to take longer than an outing or two to correct.
NL-only owners can feel free to hang onto Franklin in hopes he could quickly turn his season around, but the strongest case to be made -- outside of those deeper formats or ones with extensive benches -- is that the Cardinals lack a proven replacement. It'll be an open competition for saves in St. Louis for the foreseeable future, and a streak of even four-to-five scoreless appearances might be all it will take for anyone to stake a claim to the role. That even goes for Franklin, if he manages such a hot streak in middle relief.
Though manager Tony La Russa didn't officially name Franklin's replacement, he seemed to tip his hand during the second game of Wednesday's doubleheader toward red-hot Mitchell Boggs as the team's first post-Franklin save chance.
Boggs, naturally, converted it, allowing only a hit in what was his sixth consecutive scoreless outing (0.57 WHIP during that stretch).
For those unfamiliar with him, Boggs used to get a bad rap for being a mediocre starting-pitching prospect. After moving to the bullpen full time last season and scrapping his curveball and changeup, both of which were so-so offerings, he finally took off. He managed a 3.61 ERA and 1.29 WHIP in 61 appearances in 2010 and was another La Russa/Dave Duncan ground ball machine, turning in a 52.8 percent rate.
So far this season, Boggs seems even more comfortable in his new role, with 13 strikeouts in 10 innings and a 9.7 percent swinging-strike rate. On performance alone, he was the most deserving of the bunch, but he also had two weaknesses the others didn't: He had the least closer experience (Wednesday's save being the first of his professional career) and he was seemingly too valuable a multiple-innings/deploy-in-high-leverage setup man to be locked into a mere one-inning closer gig. Nevertheless, La Russa appears to have picked talent over experience, and if you're speculating on the top save-getter in St. Louis for the foreseeable future Boggs is your man. Certainly, he's the smartest pick.
But as La Russa did seem to leave his closer plans vague, we'd be amiss if we didn't at least mention the other three relievers potentially in the picture.
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.
Miguel Batista: Admit it, when La Russa hinted a week ago that Batista's name would be on a short list to step in should Franklin be demoted, you were shocked. Miguel Batista?! The guy with the highest ERA (4.49) and lowest strikeout rate (5.77 per nine innings) of the four proposed candidates? Believe it, even if much of the rationale is "experience." Batista also leads the way with 41 career saves, most of those (31) accrued when he last held a full-time closer's job with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2005. That alone is often enough for a manager, and in Batista's defense he did put forth a decent 2010 in relief for the Washington Nationals (3.70 ERA, 1.33 WHIP), not to mention he has the kind of ground ball rate -- over 50 percent in five of his past nine seasons and 49.2 percent since 2002 -- La Russa and Duncan tend to love. Besides, it's not like Franklin struck you as a prototypical closer when he took over, right?
From a long-term perspective, Batista doesn't seem like a smart choice, but if Boggs runs into any trouble La Russa might be tempted to lean on experience. In NL-only leagues, it's worth stashing Batista on a bench, but make sure not to activate him. He's not elite enough in ERA/WHIP to be helpful if he's not getting save chances.
Trever Miller: If there's to be a "situational-saves" candidate -- such as a Sean Burnett or Matt Thornton at times in 2010 -- Miller is it. In a La Russa bullpen, doesn't it always feel as if there's a situational-saves candidate? Miller is as classic a LOOGY (Left-handed One Out GuY) as they come; he has limited left-handed hitters to .221/.311/.352 lifetime rates, compared to .293/.378/.448 for righties. If this truly winds up a closer-by-committee (initial indications were that it might), Miller could score a handful of saves (think no more than five) when the matchup calls. Those of you in uber-deep NL-only leagues should monitor things closely, but as with Batista, Miller won't help you in ERA/WHIP, not because he's not good enough but because he doesn't pitch enough innings.
Jason Motte: He's the guy you assumed should have been next in line but he never got an endorsement by his manager or pitching coach. Motte's numbers all scream "future closer." He has a 3.21 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 9.00 K's-per-nine ratio during his big league career, not to mention 33 holds and a 10.4 percent swinging-strike rate. La Russa hinted a lack of experience was the reason Motte wasn't his pick, yet he seemingly picked the comparably inexperienced Boggs. If this job remains up for grabs deep into the season, the right-handed flamethrower could put himself in line for saves by midsummer. Motte is a reliever who bears watching but shouldn't be your first pickup.
How about the deep sleeper of the bunch, Eduardo Sanchez? Thanks to his mid-90s fastball and wicked slider, Sanchez has struck out 10 batters in five innings and generated swing and misses 19.7 percent of the time during his first two big league appearances, numbers that surely have NL-only owners considering a pickup. Like Motte, inexperience is an obstacle for Sanchez, but this is a pitcher who has future-closer makeup and could move himself into a potential committee, given a few more weeks' production. Feel free to speculate if you're in an uber-deep NL-only league, but don't expect saves for the foreseeable future.
Joe Nathan out as Twins closer
Franklin wasn't the only closer to lose his job during the past week. The Minnesota Twins demoted Joe Nathan because of his comparably poor start to 2011.
Nathan, who missed the entire 2010 season because of Tommy John surgery, has yet to recapture the velocity he had before surgery, his fastball averaging 91.1 mph, down from 93.6 mph in his last full season in 2009. As a result, he has been far more hittable -- his 4.26 K's-per-nine ratio would represent a career low, as would his 5.3 percent swinging-strike rate. Nathan also has six walks in 6 1/3 innings and has been outpitched by Matt Capps, the Twins' closer to conclude 2010, since the beginning of spring training, so a demotion to middle relief makes a lot of sense.
There is a primary difference between the shake-up in the Twins' and Cardinals' bullpens: The Twins, unlike the Cardinals, have a clear, quality, temporary replacement in Capps.
Capps' performance to date has been solid enough that this might hardly be temporary. After converting 16 of 18 save chances with a 2.00 ERA and 1.19 WHIP following a late-season trade from the Washington Nationals in 2010, Capps breezed through spring training with 10 shutout innings, a 0.80 WHIP and a .205 batting average allowed, numbers that probably should've earned him the job outright on Opening Day. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire instead described the job a "committee" but gave only Nathan the save chances initially. Capps, meanwhile, managed a 4.50 ERA but 0.80 WHIP in his first nine appearances of the season.
Nathan's closer career might not yet be over. His six seasons with a 1.87 ERA, 0.93 WHIP and 41-save average before surgery should keep him in Gardenhire's thoughts all year. For that reason, don't cut the veteran yet, but at the same time don't expect him to reclaim the role in the immediate future.
Capps, still available in just under half of ESPN leagues (49.8 percent, to be exact), is a must-add. He did save 42 games in a bounce-back 2010 and has sharp enough command -- 4.04 K's per walk in his career -- to keep the role for an extended period. He and Nathan, however, represent two of the few relievers who should be handcuffed across the board; both have second-tier closer potential (Nathan top-tier when healthy) when in the role.
So here's the grand question: Who is the smarter pickup, Boggs or Capps?
Look at it as an upside versus safe pick decision; Boggs is the upside play, Capps the "safe" selection. Capps has a longer track record but is replacing a closer more likely to recapture his former role, while Boggs has more recently emerged on the scene but has a clearer path to long-term saves. If you're only adding saves depth, Capps is probably the smarter play. If you're trying to fill the category with a pitcher capable of exploding with a 30-save season, Boggs might be your man.
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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