StrategyJuly 24, 2009

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Closer Complex: Always Be Prepared

By Matthew Robertson

With only one week left until the July 31 MLB trade deadline, I thought it would be nice to focus on some trade possibilities. I think this is going to be a very active trade deadline, because non-contending teams will attempt to cut payroll during this lackluster economy and build towards the future. In contrast, I believe larger market teams that are still contending will see this as a buying opportunity for potential contributing players. Another trend I see diminishing this year is the one where small market teams hold on to pending free agents with hopes of receiving compensatory draft picks to avoid numerous high-cost signing bonuses. I think we’re going to see a lot of legit major-leaguers dealt for prospects whose futures are controllable. We could see as many as twelve to fifteen trades take place over the next seven days, and I expect many of those trades to include valuable relievers and possibly a few closers.

The most valuable pending-FA reliever on the market is Houston’s Jose Valverde. In a previous article, I mentioned that Valverde has expressed his desire to test the free agent market, and this means the Astros are not likely to reacquire his services on the open market. The highly gifted but sometimes inconsistent Valverde is only 31 years old and would net a nice bounty from a contending team in search of a closer or valuable setup man. It was initially rumored that Tampa Bay was thought to be interested, but the emergence of J.P. Howell as a dependable closer and the fact that the Rays are searching for an inning-eating starting pitcher may force their resources elsewhere. The contending Cardinals and Tigers could use an infusion at closer if Ryan Franklin or Fernando Rodney come back down to earth. Teams such as the Yankees, Angels, Dodgers, and Rangers could all use Jose’s skills. The Astros are currently surging within the NL Central, but I think they’re pretenders rather than contenders due to their lack of consistency and depth in their rotation. In my fantasy world, I would love to see Valverde go to a team whose relief corps is depleted, like the Angels to tandem with lefty-closer Brian Fuentes. A deal involving Angels prospects Brandon Wood and Sean Rodriguez for Valverde seems reasonable when considering the Angels’ constant stifling of the infield duo and would cement the Angels’ place atop the AL West.

The next best reliever for teams to inquire about would be Colorado’s Huston Street. Whether the Rockies know they aren’t good enough to catch up to the Dodgers is anybody’s guess, but even including the recent Rafael Betancourt acquisition, they’re not. Street has done a fine job of reclaiming the closer’s role in Colorado after experiencing a few hiccups, and I’m sure the sidelining of his main competition, Manny Corpas, helped Street build back his confidence. Along with Corpas, Taylor Buchholtz is out for the year and potential closer-of-the-future Casey Weathers still hasn’t completely recovered from Tommy John surgery. According to reports, top pitching prospect Jhoulys Chacin will be called up to help relieve Colorado’s struggling bullpen. This lack of bullpen help could counteract any move the Rockies might have considered in the past and force them to keep the increasingly expensive Street. The Rockies currently lead the wild card chase in the National League, but I don’t believe they will be able to hang on to that lead for the rest of the season. Many teams are looking at Street, and he would be cheaper than Valverde, but most contending teams would look for him to set up elite closers like Rivera, Papelbon, and Broxton. Again, team like the Rays, Cardinals, and Tigers could find him attractive as a closer. At 25 years of age, the talented Street could also net a deal from a non-contender planning for the future. Next year, it would be a shame for Street to not be closing somewhere, whether he’s arbitration eligible or not. I’m leaning towards the Rockies keeping Street, but if I had to guess a different destination, I would say he goes to an up and coming team in need of a young closer like the Brewers, Nationals, or maybe even a return to Texas for the former Longhorn star as an Astro replacement for Valverde.

As the deadline gets closer, Baltimore has a few decisions to make. Do they trade valuable lefty and current acting closer George Sherrill or not? I say yes — the Orioles missed the boat last year on trading Sherrill at his peak value and he rewarded them and fantasy owners by wearing down and getting hammered in the second half of the season. This season has started similarly for Sherrill, and Baltimore would do well to remember the last three months of last year. It remains a fact that Sherrill does not possess the prototypical arsenal of most closers. He’s not truly a closer, but he does possess extremely valuable left-handed versatility for a contending team. Unlike Street and Valverde, Sherrill would assuredly set up exclusively and would lose virtually all fantasy value if dealt. His current replacement in Baltimore would be Jim Johnson, but Chris Ray, who is on the disabled list, is the closer of the future. However, that future may not be until next year, so if you have the room, pick up Johnson and monitor Ray’s recovery because he’s pitching well during his rehab.

According to continued rumors, Arizona closer Chad Qualls is being shopped. He has been good but not great this year which could be somewhat due to forearm tightness that has hindered his mechanics. Qualls himself thinks his forearm pain will remain, and with the trade of Tony Pena, he figures to have more of a workload going forward. Like Sherrill, Qualls would likely be traded for setup duty, a role he’s thrived in throughout his career. The Diamondbacks have seemingly given up on the season, and Qualls might welcome the possibility of contending. If he’s dealt, and any possible postseason team would welcome his skills, Juan Gutierrez and Jon Rauch (if he isn’t also traded) should be the likely inheritors to the role. Both have been fairly hittable this season, with Rauch having the slightly better season thus far. Unfortunately, Rauch has apparently forgotten the art of the strikeout as evidenced by his 5.47 K/9 ratio unlike his counterpart Gutierrez‘s much more appealing 9.37 K/9 ratio. Therefore, Gutierrez’s K-rate and the fact that he has a tendency to not give up the long-ball may make him the better investment.

As mentioned before, trades can often times include prospects and possibly closing prospects at that. It is always a good idea to be aware of possible closer prospects that might soon make an impact. A few prospects are worthy of some attention should they or their respective teams make a deal. Oakland’s Henry Rodriguez is currently in Triple-A and will likely get a late season call-up. Boston’s Daniel Bard and his dynamite arm is currently blocked by Papelbon but may be a great bargaining chip for the Red Sox. Arizona’s Daniel Schlereth could be recalled to late inning work following a trade, the Yankees’ Mark Melancon is viewed by many to be the internal heir to Rivera. Detroit flamethrower Ryan Perry was recently recalled, and Cardinal reliever Jess Todd should be recalled soon. Also pay attention to the Twins’ Double-A relief prospect Anthony Slama and his impressive 12.8 K/9 rate, Colorado’s aforementioned Jhoulys Chacin, and San Francisco’s Henry Sosa, whom I feel could get called up in September.

Matthew Robertson is one of a growing number of fantasy experts who write for the Cafe. You can catch up with Matthew in the Cafe's forums where he posts under the name of Havok1517.
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