StrategyAugust 28, 2009

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Closer Complex: From Starting to Closing

By Matthew Robertson

What makes one pitcher a starter and the other a reliever? Well, often times there isn’t much of a difference. Current stud closers Jonathan Papelbon, Mariano Rivera, and Joe Nathan were all starters early in their career while starters such as Derek Lowe, Johan Santana, and John Smoltz have all pitched in relief. Sometimes health, arsenal, opportunity, and need can influence where a pitcher pitches. Pitching in relief can also change how a pitcher pitches. A starter with an average fastball of say 92 mph through six innings can see around a two-to-three mph increase in relief due to there not being a need to pace themselves. John Smoltz regularly threw around 100 mph as the Braves closer but usually sat at around 95 mph as his high while starting during his prime. Smoltz was closing as he recovered from injury and many other former starters were moved to relief because of injury history. Here are some pitchers that I think will make the move from starting to relief as they go through their MLB career.

The Milwaukee Brewers are going to have to make a decision on Carlos Villanueva. Villanueva has predominantly pitched in relief this season while setting up for Trevor Hoffman. But he was recently moved into the rotation as the Brewers search for answers in their rotation. Villanueva has been very inconsistent this year, as he’s shown much promise but also has been shelled at times, and I have to believe that his role changes are having an effect on him. Villanueva features a low 90s fastball but is able to utilize his changeup, curveball, and slider to keep batters off balance. This enables him to get good strikeout totals, and a permanent move to the pen could boost his velocity slightly. His potential is very close to that of Joakim Soria. Hoffman is signed through the season and has likely earned a contract extension but at 42 years of age next year, Hoffman will only last so long. The Brewers have been a team reluctant to make free-agent splashes, and you got to think that Hoffman’s replacement would come from within.

Fireballer Neftali Feliz remains very high on prospect lists around baseball and it’s very easy to see why. The young right-hander effortlessly hits triple digits and has been a bright spot on the Texas Rangers since his call-up. One thing that may hold the youngster down is his control. Sure, he can throw the ball through a barn door but he regularly misses his spots, and the majors have a tough learning curve. He reminds me of Joel Zumaya, even though his mechanics are sounder than most flamethrowers. That should help his cause to remain in the rotation, but the body can only take so much of that kind of torque. I foresee him overtaking Frank Francisco.

It’s no secret that I envision Tampa Bay pitching prospect Jake McGee as the future closer for the Rays. The pitcher oozes potential, and I believe as he recovers from Tommy John surgery the Rays will start to protect him by moving him to the pen. He’s currently starting in Single-A but has been regulated to outings no longer than three innings. The emergence of J.P. Howell makes an interesting argument as to who should be the future closer, but McGee has more talent and potential of the two pitchers. I look for McGee to come up next year, quickly find himself a fixture in the Tampa Bay pen, and eventually ascend to the closer role as his arm is just too good when he’s healthy. McGee is currently in the Yahoo database and might be a great investment for teams looking ahead.

I personally think that Giants prospect Henry Sosa is one of the most talented pitchers in baseball, but he is another hard thrower that I think will eventually be relegated to the bullpen to limit chance of injury. Unlike Feliz, Sosa does not have very smooth mechanics and has seen his share of injuries during his young career. Along with his high 90s fastball, Sosa features a curve and a changeup that need improvement. He’s currently starting in the minors, but I see the switch to the bullpen only a matter of time. He has more potential than current Giants closer Brian Wilson, but injury and consistency might be Sosa’s biggest question mark. Still, an effective Sosa would provide a stellar ninth-inning anchor for San Francisco for many years to come.

Like Villanueva, Felipe Paulino has been switched from the rotation to the pen and has been sent down and called up multiple times from the minors. His constant movement, like Villanueva, has likely hurt his consistency. The problem is that the Astros need starting pitching, as they are organizationally thin. Incumbent closer Jose Valverde and setup man LeTroy Hawkins will both likely be relieving on another team next year, and I believe Paulino is the best internal candidate for the job, but needs elsewhere might determine where the right-hander pitchers. For those speculating as to who will close next year for the Astros, think twice on Paulino as we near the 2010 season.

Wynn Pelzer has been someone I’ve interestingly followed since the Padres drafted him out of the University of South Carolina in 2007. The former USC closer has been starting in the minors with good results. He features a high 90s fastball to go along with a knee-buckling changeup and improving splitter. He still walks a good number of hitters and that may force him into a relief role in the majors, but the arm and talent is there in spades. Already averaging more than a K per inning, if Pelzer does move to a relief role, his strikeout totals will be very impressive, which is a very attractive component for any potential closer.

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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