Commentary

Handicapping Dodgers' closer gig

Updated: June 23, 2011, 12:30 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Picture this: One hat, five names.

Relief Efforts

The question -- Who will lead the Los Angeles Dodgers in saves? -- has been asked many times this season, and the answer is usually the same: Put five names in a hat, pick one from it and that's as good a guess as any.

Fantasy owners expect -- and are entitled to -- deeper analysis than that, however; in NL-only leagues, multiple members of their bullpen are relevant. With the Dodgers' bullpen as a whole suddenly on the mend, it's prime time to re-examine their pecking order for saves. Let's take a look at the five individuals' names tossed into the proverbial hat, noting upfront that there's a lot of guesswork involved. It's the probability of saves production, though, that we'll closely examine.

(Names are listed alphabetically, not in order of projected value.)

Jonathan Broxton: It was a Wednesday afternoon report by the Dodgers' official website that most put the answer to the saves question into clouded territory; manager Don Mattingly told the site that he thinks a healthy Broxton will eventually reclaim the closer's role. Broxton, who has been out since May 3 with a bone bruise in his elbow, began a rehabilitation assignment with Triple-A Albuquerque on Tuesday, allowing one run on one hit and one walk while striking out two in an inning's work. Mattingly, however, told the team's website that he was less interested in the run Broxton allowed than that the right-hander was throwing in the mid-90s with his fastball, according to the reports he received.

Mattingly has good reason to feel that way, because since 2009, here are his statistics broken down by average fastball velocity during his outings:

Under 94 mph: 5.54 ERA, 1.77 WHIP, .280 BAA
Between 94-96 mph: 3.54 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, .263 BAA
Greater than 96 mph: 3.08 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, .182 BAA

Remember, it was just two short seasons ago that Broxton was one of fantasy baseball's most dominant closers, and in that 2009 campaign his fastball averaged 97.6 mph. It's a complete hit-or-miss game with him, as the harder he's throwing, the more likely he'll return to the closer role and perhaps contend for top-10 status. He'd be the unquestioned No. 1 option in this bullpen if he's completely healthy. But with only one rehab outing under his belt, he's also as risky as they come.

Javy Guerra: He has the Dodgers' most recent save, that coming this past Sunday, and has a 2.45 ERA in June. If you're taking the "right-now" approach to saves speculation, Guerra is your man. But at the same time, he has almost as many questions as the rest of these candidates. First and foremost, he has a 1.40 WHIP and .291 BAA, both of those numbers unsavory for a closer, and his 5.02 strikeouts per nine innings suggests he has been more smoke-and-mirrors than skills. Point out his 8.81 K's-per-nine mark during his minor league career if you wish; I'll respond with the 1.68 K's-per-walk ratio that shows faulty command. Guerra also lacks an ideal out pitch for lefties, so this could be a total mirage. Yes, there's value in the "right now." But if someone came back through time from October, and told you that Guerra wouldn't have a single save in the second half of the season, would you be surprised?

Matt Guerrier: It's actually Guerrier, not Guerra, who is most likely to finish with the fewest saves of the bunch, but at the same time he could actually prove the most valuable overall reliever to the Dodgers the remainder of the year. It's as simple as this: He was signed primarily to set up, and set up is what Mattingly would prefer for the veteran right-hander. Since 2009, Guerrier has limited opposing hitters to .231/.293/.352 rates from the seventh inning on, numbers far too valuable to lock into the modern closer definition rather than deploy whenever the game situation dictates. He's probably capable of handling the job if asked, having converted his only ninth-inning save opportunity granted all year (on May 17), but if the Dodgers were going to rely on Guerrier in that role, with all their recent injury issues, don't you think they would have already?

Kenley Jansen: Ah, the sleeper of the bunch, and I'll admit, I was not as much of a Jansen fan until taking a closer look at him recently. Here's what I noticed: He now sports a cutter, having thrown it 24.5 percent of the time, and he's using it the old Mariano Rivera way, in an attempt to neutralize left-handers. Altogether, lefties have .237/.356/.368 numbers in their 45 plate appearances against Jansen this season, and right-handers (.222/.344/.352) aren't faring well, either, thanks to his lethal low-to-mid-90s heat and cutter combo. If there's a knock on Jansen, it's that his command is spotty, evidenced by his 5.51 walks per nine so far as a big leaguer. Still, he's now healthy, he threw well in his return outing from the DL this past Saturday and he might actually be the "safest" option in this bullpen, that is if any Dodgers reliever can truly be termed "safe."

Hong-Chih Kuo: He arguably has the filthiest stuff of the bunch -- though peak-form Broxton has something to say about that -- but also the most checkered injury history of the bunch. Since 2007, Kuo has made six trips to the disabled list: Two apiece for elbow and shoulder injuries, one each for back problems and this most recent stint due to an anxiety disorder. He has only one complete big league season in seven years, and the Dodgers have openly worried about overusing him. Still, since 2008, his numbers speak volumes: 2.20 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 10.76 K's per nine, 3.62 K's per walk. Those numbers scream "closer," but Kuo's brittle nature at the same time screams, "Noooooo!" He's the guy you'd like to see close, but might simply never be pushed into the role.

Vicente Padilla: Kidding, kidding. Besides the fact that he's now the sixth man on what was advertised as a five-man list, he's likely out for the season following June 16 neck surgery. He's the one member of the list for whom there is some certainty: You can safely cut him in all fantasy leagues.

You'll notice in my rankings this week, I've gone Broxton, Kuo, Jansen, Guerra, Guerrier -- but remember, that accounts for all fantasy value, not simply saves. ERA, WHIP and K's matter, especially in Kuo's case.

Let's take an educated guess at the Dodgers' save leaders from today forward: Broxton, Jansen, Guerra, Kuo, Guerrier. But the leader gets only 10-11.

Let the controversy resume in Minnesota …

Broxton might have been one of the best closers in fantasy in 2009, but he wasn't the best; it was actually Joe Nathan who topped all relief pitchers on our Player Rater in that season. Like Broxton, Nathan is also on the mend, with the Minnesota Twins expected to activate him from the DL on Friday. Nathan made his third rehabilitation appearance for Triple-A Rochester on Wednesday, and while he surrendered a run in the outing, he also recorded strikeouts for all three outs.

In those three rehab outings, Nathan allowed only the one run -- it was unearned -- on two hits and one walk, striking out five.

Rehab-outing statistics are hardly ideal measures of a pitcher's future big league prospects, but they can be encouraging nevertheless, especially when coupled with reports like one in Sunday's Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, which noted that he was clocked at 93 mph on the radar gun. Velocity was a problem in Nathan's initial return from Tommy John surgery earlier this year; he averaged 91.3 mph with his fastball, down from 93.5 before surgery in 2009. If his velocity is truly back, then his chances of returning to pre-surgery form increase dramatically.

Expect Nathan to have to earn another shot to close in a setup role, especially with Matt Capps 4-for-5 in save chances with a 1.29 ERA in June. Capps, however, has had his share of meltdowns, blowing four of his past 10 opportunities with a 5.17 ERA in 14 games since May 11, so the shaky version could return at a moment's notice. Capps' leash is short; remember that in addition to years more experience as a closer, Nathan also has the advantage of spending many of those years as closer for his current manager, Ron Gardenhire, earning his trust.

Stay tuned …

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.

ALSO SEE