Fallout of potential closer trades
Predicting who's next in line is no sure thing
Saves, you fickle, fickle market, you.
It's bad enough that closers, just on performance, can so quickly and unexpectedly lose their jobs. Look at Carlos Marmol. From June 8 to July 7, he enjoyed a 13-game stretch during which he was 8-for-9 converting saves, had 13 2/3 scoreless innings and held opponents to a .188 batting average. Then in a matter of three games, during which time he threw only 52.0 percent of his pitches for strikes, blew two of three save chances and allowed seven runs on three hits and five walks in 1 1/3 innings, he was out as Chicago Cubs closer.
But now, as the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline approaches -- after that date teams must sneak players through waivers to deal them -- there's yet another way closers can be demoted: They can be traded to a team where there's already a more preferred ninth-inning option.
Rodriguez -- owner of the single-season record for saves (62 in 2008) and the No. 4 active player and No. 24 player overall in career saves (291) -- overnight went from top-20 fantasy closer to mixed-league nonfactor. At the time of the deal he had the eighth-most saves (23), and that matters for our purposes. But also at the time of the deal, his 3.16 ERA ranked 26th out of 52 relievers with 40-plus innings and his 1.41 WHIP ranked 44th out of 52, meaning neither mattered much to us.
It's a fair debate to question who deserves to close in Milwaukee, Rodriguez or the incumbent, John Axford, but the Brewers' plan appears clear: Both this past Saturday and Sunday, Rodriguez pitched the eighth and Axford the ninth, saving both games. Their numbers since the beginning of last season, too, defend the move:
Rodriguez at the bare minimum has handcuff value, but the result in standard mixed leagues is clear: He's a drop candidate, evidenced by his 2.3 percent ownership drop in ESPN leagues in the past week. And he's probably not the final such closer destined to suffer an instant drop in value. His transformation is complete; the goal of today's column, however, is to caution you about future such changes.
These trade candidates are listed in Player Rater order, and each is followed by a quick glance at the potential fallout on his team if he was indeed to be moved:
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.
1. Heath Bell: Though he has stressed in the past that he would love to remain with the San Diego Padres, Bell makes $7.5 million this season and is a free agent come November, so a trade makes a heck of a lot of sense and there are strong suggestions that such a move might happen. Unfortunately, that's terrible news to Bell's fantasy owners; he's the No. 8 reliever on the Player Rater, finished third in 2010 and fifth in 2009, so this is one of the few "reliable" options for our purposes when it comes to saves. The problem is that many of the teams rumored to be interested in Bell already have closers, meaning he might be the next to become the Rodriguez to another squad's Axford. I'm guessing writing this, but as I look at the trade candidates, I don't see Bell supplanting the New York Yankees' Mariano Rivera, the Pittsburgh Pirates' Joel Hanrahan or the Texas Rangers' Neftali Feliz as closer if he winds up in one of those places. Meanwhile, it's open to debate whether he'd close for the Cincinnati Reds (Francisco Cordero), Los Angeles Angels (Jordan Walden) or Philadelphia Phillies (Ryan Madson, once the team judges him 100 percent), and he likely would with the Chicago White Sox or St. Louis Cardinals. By all rights, I would prefer him closing over anyone above but Rivera. But I don't make those decisions, and teams don't always pick the "right" guy.
Bell's ratios (2.52 ERA, 1.19 WHIP) might look more attractive than Rodriguez's, but there's a lot of reason to believe his fantasy value would plummet even further if the resolution is the same. Yes, he has a 2.14 ERA and 1.11 WHIP in road games since 2009 (1.76/0.98 in 2011), so he's not a total ballpark creation, but two of his 2011 trends are troublesome: He has averaged 6.41 strikeouts per nine innings, after back-to-back seasons of 10-plus; and has allowed a 25.7 percent line-drive rate, up from 12.7 in 2009-10 combined. Now imagine Bell as a setup man in Texas; do you really want a pitcher who is putting the ball in play a lot more frequently this season to wind up in a hitters' heaven like Rangers Ballpark?
That's not to say fantasy owners should race to deal Bell, not considering the chances he either stays put or ends up a closer elsewhere. But for the first time since he took over as Padres closer in 2009, there's a clear downside to owning him.
Padres bullpen fallout: The "next in line" to close in the event of a Heath Bell trade is an obvious one, Mike Adams, except for the prospect that he, like Bell, is a candidate to be moved. Since the beginning of last season, Adams leads all relievers (80-plus innings) in ERA (1.55) and holds (58), is third in batting average allowed (.177) and sixth in WHIP (0.93), all of those numbers better than Bell's, which hint that he could be a top-10 potential fantasy closer if he gets a chance in the final two months of the season. Adams' path to the role, however, appears tied entirely to his remaining in San Diego. He's a definite pickup if you have the bench space to speculate on saves, and he's good enough in ERA/WHIP/K's to help in larger leagues, but he'll likely set up on any other team.
So who, then, might close in the event the Padres trade both Bell and Adams? Luke Gregerson, the former elite setup man, is a popular guess, but former closer Chad Qualls might get the first crack assuming he, like Bell and Adams, isn't also traded. (Speaking of which, do the Padres even intend to have a bullpen come Aug. 1?) Qualls, who saved 36 games for the Arizona Diamondbacks from 2009-10, has rebounded with a 2.66 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in 47 games for the Padres, his sinker a primary reason for his return to form. He has thrown it 54.9 percent of the time, helping his ground ball rate rise to 58.4 percent, and has limited opponents to .281/.326/.303 rates in 99 plate appearances that have ended with one. Petco Park also minimizes any potential mistakes -- untimely home runs have been a past problem -- so Qualls could be a sneaky second-tier closer given the chance.
Gregerson might be the future at closer for the Padres, but two things stand out as worries: His diminished strikeout rate (career-low 6.21 per nine) and the return of his struggles against lefties (.352/.397/.370). NL-only owners can speculate, but a look in the role come 2012 seems more likely at this point.
2. Leo Nunez: He's on the market presumably because he stands to earn a lot more through arbitration next season than he has in 2011, and outside of a 22-game stretch from April 6 to May 24 during which time he was 18-for-18 in save chances with a 2.53 ERA and 9.28 K's per nine, he really hasn't qualified as an "elite" closer in any of his three seasons in the role. That said, Nunez does have a 3.65 ERA, 1.25 WHIP and 8.73 K's per nine since 2009, so he does have value just not that of a certain closer if he winds up on a different team. There hasn't been a whisper that another team is targeting him to close; even the Phillies, his most popular rumored landing spot, would use him to set up.
Nunez's ratios, unfortunately, wouldn't warrant much fantasy consideration outside of NL-only leagues if he's not getting saves. He's a fly-ball pitcher, his 48.8 percent placing in the top 20 percent among relievers, and that could spell disaster in the wrong venue. Sure enough, he has a 4.37 ERA and 1.41 WHIP on the road this season, so his fantasy value would surely plummet elsewhere.
Florida Marlins bullpen fallout: This bullpen has all the makings of a committee once Nunez is gone, as the old "obvious" pick, Clay Hensley, is now in the rotation. Both the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post have reported this week that Edward Mujica would be next in line, and statistically speaking that makes sense; Mujica has a 2.98 ERA, 0.88 WHIP and eight holds, his 0.4 WAR per FanGraphs rating him the third-best reliever on the staff (after Steve Cishek and Nunez). But Mujica has been valuable to the Marlins being deployed at any point in games and/or for multiple innings, and locking him in solely in the ninth might not be an automatic. In deeper mixed and NL-only leagues, he's well worth stashing if your bench is extensive. Don't be surprised, however, if left-handers Randy Choate and Mike Dunn or the right-handed Cishek is also involved in an initial committee.
3. Brandon League: Like Nunez, he's under team control for 2012 albeit eligible for arbitration, but unlike Nunez, he might fetch a lower price due to less experience in the role. It's for that reason there are as many reports that he won't be traded as that he will, but if any more closers are to be moved, League is certainly one of the three most likely to. Since 2008, he has a 3.61 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 27 holds and 30 saves, and he has shown with the Seattle Mariners the past two seasons that he's as capable of working in a setup role as closing. Like Nunez, however, League is another trade candidate who hasn't been hailed a closer target by other teams; he'd presumably set up anywhere else.
That could be a problem for League's fantasy owners, though perhaps not as much as Nunez's. Unlike Nunez, League is an extreme groundballer; his 57.3 percent ground-ball rate ranks among the top 20 percent of relievers. Still, Safeco Field has helped him, as he has a 2.39 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in his Mariners career in home games, compared to 4.47/1.30 numbers on the road. Between the loss of saves and the potential his ratios would increase, he'd be an instant cut as a setup man almost anywhere else.
Mariners bullpen fallout: Wow, must there be a replacement for League? Chris Ray has closed before, but his ERA is 5.20. Danny Cortes might have once been hailed the team's future in the ninth, but he's now with Triple-A Tacoma and has a 5.66 ERA there. Jamey Wright is, well, Jamey Wright. So that leaves only David Pauley, the team's next-best reliever to League in WAR with 0.5, and one of the team's most pleasant surprises in 2011. He has a 1.75 ERA and 0.92 WHIP to quickly capture the primary setup role to League, but at the same time his 5.61 K's per nine rate is ordinary and his .214 BABIP and 85.1 percent strand rate show that he has enjoyed good fortune. Pauley's 53.7 percent ground-ball rate might keep him from being a huge ratio risk in the role, but there's little doubt he's not as good a pitcher as his year-to-date stats have shown. That he's the only reasonable replacement, however, makes him worth a look in AL-only formats.
4. Jason Isringhausen: Wait, didn't he just take over the closer role for the Mets? Yes, but like Rodriguez before him, Isringhausen's name has been floated on the market, and it's possible that the only reason he got the job in the first place was to showcase him for interested teams. Despite his 38 years of age and extensive injury history, Isringhausen has pitched well lately, with a 2.40 ERA and 1.20 WHIP in 16 appearances since June 1, and perhaps most importantly, his velocity has risen as the year has progressed, his fastball averaging 90.1, 90.0, 90.3 and 90.8 mph by month. He's still as much of an injury risk as they come, and few teams would look at him as their No. 1 option to close, so Isringhausen's fantasy owners -- the majority of those having scooped him up in the past week -- are rooting for him to stay put. His value would return to practically nil if he's moved.
Mets bullpen fallout: Fortunately for those brand-new Isringhausen owners, there's another option you could quickly grab in the event of the deal, Bobby Parnell. Initial indications following the Francisco Rodriguez trade were that the two might split the chores, and if Isringhausen's installation as closer is indeed a showcasing move, Parnell might yet factor in by August even if Isringhausen remains. While Isringhausen might have made recent improvements, perhaps the most-improved Mets reliever has actually been Parnell: His strikeout rate has soared to a career-best 11.06 per nine, and since June 1 he has a sparkling 1.83 ERA and .236 BAA in 17 appearances. ESPNNewYork.com's Mark Simon recently took a closer look at what's behind Parnell's breakthrough, and at this stage, terming the right-hander the Mets' ninth-inning future seems fair. By all rights, he probably should be the one closing for them come Aug. 1.
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.