StrategyMay 22, 2009

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Closer Complex: A Maddon-ing Mess

By R.J. White

Last night, the Tampa Bay Rays entered the ninth inning tied 3-3 with the Oakland A’s. Troy Percival was called upon to deliver a scoreless inning. After inducing a pop-out, he walked back-to-back batters before giving up a single to Jason Giambi that loaded the bases. Manager Joe Maddon had seen enough; he brought Joe Nelson to the mound. Nelson has already notched two saves this year on days that Percival was unavailable, looking great in the process, so it was easy to see why Maddon went to the well yet again. Unfortunately, the third time was not a charm, as Nelson stayed true to his 1.82 WHIP and allowed a single and a walk to plate two runners. The Rays came back to win the game in the bottom of the ninth (thanks to the heroics of Ben Zobrist), but it’s very likely that last night’s pitching debacle was the last straw.

After being credited with those two earned runs, Percival joins Nelson, Grant Balfour, and Dan Wheeler as Rays relievers that sport an ERA north of 5.00. Three of these four guys comprised the heart of the bullpen last year, a unit that turned out to be one of the Rays’ biggest strengths. The relief corps has now turned into the Rays’ biggest weakness, and it isn’t unreasonable to expect a change at the top any day now. So, who is the right speculative add? Unfortunately, it’s really anyone’s guess as to how that question should be answered. There are no less than five credible candidates to overtake Percival as the Rays’ closer:

Grant Balfour: Balfour appears next-in-line for the closer role in the 2009 Closer Thread, due in large part to a phenomenal 2008. Last year, Balfour racked up 82 Ks in 58.1 innings, while posting a sparkling 1.54 ERA and 0.89 WHIP. He was clearly the most effective reliever in the pen for the Rays and deserves much of the credit for turning the bullpen around. He’s done another complete 180 though, with an ERA over 5.00 and a K/BB ratio of 18/13. Some of the blame for the poor ERA goes to a week-long stretch in the middle of May where Maddon asked Balfour to pitch two innings or more three different times. In two of those three outings, Balfour allowed two ERs. He’ll need to reign in the walks, but Balfour has pitched a little better than the numbers would indicate.

J.P. Howell: The man who has had the most bullpen success in 2009, Howell has accrued a 2.21 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in 20 innings this season, striking out 22 batters while only walking six. His last seven outings have produced 10 scoreless innings, two holds, and a save. In the game where Howell scored the save, Percival allowed the following in succession: double, home run, home run, fly out, double. With the tying run coming to the plate, Maddon gave Percival the hook and turned to the pen. Wheeler had already pitched in the eighth, so Howell was called upon. After allowing a single, which let the runner on second score and bring the lead down to one run, Howell induced two ground outs to end the game. Considering he had a 1.13 WHIP last year and that he must have earned some confidence from Maddon in the outing, Howell looks like a great gamble for deep leaguers hunting for saves. However, he is a lefty in a place that has several solid righties available to close.

Jason Isringhausen: Guess who’s back? Isringhausen held his own in the minors this year, proving he had the endurance and flexibility to come back to the majors and be inserted into key late-inning situations. With nearly 300 saves, Izzy definitely has the experience edge on any of these closing candidates, and Maddon has obviously shown a preference in giving the closing job to older veterans with past experience in the role. While I wouldn’t expect Izzy to be handed the closing job without first proving himself at the major league level, he fits the Tampa closer profile too well to be ignored. He’s had two scoreless appearances thus far, but neither were in high-pressure situations. If Maddon isn’t intent on making an immediate change at closer, I would expect to see Isringhausen start to get some chances in close games in the seventh and eight innings. If he excels in those appearances, he will probably become the first option at closer, should Percival be replaced.

Joe Nelson: Nelson would appear at first glance to be the first guy Maddon would turn to as the new de facto closer. Nelson has already locked down two save opportunities on days that Percival was unavailable to close. He does have a few things working against him though. For starters, he has the worst numbers of anyone in the Tampa Bay bullpen (save for Percival), with his 5.60 ERA and 1.87 WHIP placing him behind all other contenders. Another drawback is his status as the new guy in the pen; having pitched for Florida last year, Nelson is really still a new commodity in a bullpen that did fantastically last year. Who would you go with long-term: the guy with a near-6.00 ERA in 17.2 innings this year or one of the guys with top-notch numbers over the course of an entire season in 2008? Unlike Isringhausen, Nelson doesn’t have 300 career saves to fall back on. Even though he’s the guy with multiple saves under his belt, I would be hesitant to rely on him long-term. When you make a switch at closer, you do so in the hopes that you won’t have to make another switch a couple weeks down the line. Nothing in Nelson’s performance thus far has shown that he might give Maddon peace of mind in the closer role.

Dan Wheeler: Wheeler’s 5.40 ERA is due in large part to his propensity to allow HRs, with the righty giving up four already in 15 innings this season. He’s really had an excellent May for the most part though as he has allowed runs in only one appearance, a game in New York two weeks ago in which he gave up a two-run HR to Johnny Damon. Wheeler also suffered a recent loss by facing one batter in an extra innings-game and allowing a walk, which led to an unearned run being charged to Wheeler. The rest of Wheeler’s May has been scoreless, and the righty has racked up four holds and a win since the start of the month. For the season, Wheeler has only allowed earned runs in three of the 17 games in which he has appeared. Because all three of those outings involved Wheeler giving up multiple runs, his ERA is inflated to its current point in the mid-fives. Add those 13 quality appearances (I’ve subtracted that one-walk loss) to the fact that Wheeler excelled in the closer role last season, earning 13 saves while maintaining a sub-1.00 WHIP, and it’s clear to me that he’s the best option to close games at this point.

However, I can see Maddon preferring to keep Wheeler in the eighth-inning slot and trying one or two of the other guys out first at closer. The reason for that is simple: if Wheeler moves to closer, Maddon still has to fill the ever-important eighth-inning role, which can at times be just as nerve-racking as closing. If I’m in a league where all five of the above guys are available, I’ll likely snag Wheeler and/or Isringhausen for the speculative saves. I’d rank the current likelihood of each candidate becoming a permanent closer as follows:

Dan Wheeler
Jason Isringhausen
Grant Balfour
Joe Nelson
J.P. Howell

At this point though, all we can safely assume is that it won’t be Brian Shouse. Thanks for taking the time to read another edition of Closer Complex. Please send us your thoughts and questions on all things fantasy baseball: you can e-mail us at or post your thoughts in the Article Discussion (link located below) or Havok’s Leftovers Closer thread (located earlier). Good luck chasing those saves!

R.J. White (or daullaz) has been actively involved in fantasy sports for over 14 years, making him an addict at this point. He loves writing, the Atlanta Braves, music, the Buffalo Bills, theatre, the Philadelphia Eagles, his family, and the number 42, though not in that order.
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