Welcome back to the 2 Up, 2 Down series where today we cover the one position you dare not reach a few rounds for nor spend one dollar too many on, but you dare not ignore: relievers, namely closers. Few will argue that saves is the most volatile category to cover each season because of a good deal of turnover due to poor performance or injury. Even before the first pitch of the year is to be thrown, an elite closer in Joe Nathan, with a not-so-decorated injury history was forced to shut up shop for the season with an injured elbow. So far, it has been an eventful Spring Training for a few other incumbent closers, which makes closer values more volatile than usual. Today, we’ll talk about the cheapest plus ratios you could find from any closer in the later rounds and a middle reliever who could be a prime candidate to be this season’s David Aardsma, who should be valued a bit higher. On the other side of the ledger, we’ll discuss two closers who happen to ply their trades on different sides of the same city they call home that you should consider moving down.
Chad Qualls – Arizona Diamondbacks
Flying under the radar in a number of drafts to a certain extent is Diamondbacks closer, Chad Qualls, who converted 24 saves out of 29 opportunities last season, only to call it a year in early September because of a torn tendon in his left knee which was surgically repaired. Because of his knee surgery, most fantasy managers have been cautious in taking him a tad too early, given that his MDP has him pegged as an early 15th round pick in standard 12-team leagues (169.35 MDP, 167.2 Cafe MDP). In most drafts, Qualls has been taken before the likes of Frank Francisco, Leo Nunez, Mike Gonzalez, Brad Lidge, and Matt Capps, and with good reason.
Usually, acquiring cheap saves entails having to live with a medley of mediocre ratios, closing job insecurity, and some sort of injury history (especially in terms of arm and shoulder problems). While Qualls’ knee could prove to be an issue any time during the season, he presents the best value in the late rounds among stoppers for efficient ratios and staying power to lock down the closer job. In his six-year Major League career, Qualls has averaged a sensational 58.1% groundball rate and has posted respectable strikeout ratios on the side in the last three years. The former Astros reliever’s ERA was undone by an unlucky .321 BABIP despite a rather stingy walk rate and solid control. If Qualls’ health holds up, he could very well have the best job security among the late-round closer tier. Journeyman reliever Bobby Howry and in-house setup man Juan Gutierrez have late-inning roles, but it’s Qualls’ recent closing experience and his solid command that will give him enough of a hold as the Snakes’ surefire stopper. Given that Qualls’ injury did not have to do with an arm and/or shoulder issue, he’s somewhat less of an injury risk compared to his late-round peers and thus far, there has been pitching this Spring with little to no ill effects on his mechanics and/or to his health.
Mike Adams – San Diego Padres
With Heath Bell remaining a strong trade candidate, one can expect the rumors to intensify further about a Bell trade now that the Twins’ Joe Nathan is on the shelf for the season. In case Bell is dealt to Minnesota or elsewhere, one can expect either Mike Adams or Luke Gregerson to assume the Padres’ closing job. In his first full big league season, Gregerson posted an impressive 93 strikeouts in 75 innings of work, but the edge would likely go to the more seasoned veteran Mike Adams, who has posted truly outstanding ratios in his first two seasons in San Diego. In 2008, Adams posted 74 punchouts, a 2.48 ERA and a 1.04 WHIP in a career-high 65.1 innings, only to follow that performance up in 2009 with a paper-thin 0.73 ERA, a 0.59 WHIP, and an equally gawk-worthy 7.4% line drive rate to go with a 50%+ groundball rate and a 10.95 K/9. One thing to consider with Adams is his lack of durability and his incredible numbers last season were achieved on just 37 innings, due to a bothersome shoulder. Given his diverse mix of pitches, Adams possesses a better pitch arsenal relative to Gregerson and because of that arsenal coupled with an incredible cumulative 102 innings as a top-flight reliever (at least on paper), Adams could have a leg up in the closing duties battle should Bell be traded. Adams is a relative unknown on the MDP report, as he did not even crack the top 450 MDP, but given recent developments, Adams is worth the roster spot, especially if your league counts holds as his stuff should surely merit being featured in the late innings. There’s also a chance that the 31 year-old Adams turns out to be the winning lottery ticket, in much of the same vein of Andrew Bailey and David Aardsma last season.
Bobby Jenks – Chicago White Sox
When one normally thinks of Bobby Jenks, it’s his reputation of Ozzie Guillen’s secret weapon from the bullpen in the 2005 postseason and the idea that his fastball could push 100 MPH at times. In truth, Jenks has been the poster child of unpredictability since that magical 2005 run. In his first full big league season in 2006, Jenks posted a terrific 10.33 K/9, which was offset some with a rather high walk rate and a 4.00 ERA. In 2007 and 2008, Jenks’ strikeout rate dipped considerably and with it, his fastball velocity, but managed to lower his ERA in the mid-to-high 2’s, due to an extremely low BABIP and improved command in both of those seasons. Last season resembled a teeter-totter effect in that Jenks’ fastball velocity gained a tick and so did his strikeout rate. However, his ERA went up by more than a run from 2008 to 2009 (2.63 ERA in 2008 to 3.71 in 2009), as his BABIP normalized. Interestingly enough, Jenks had averaged an infield flyball percentage of 11% from 2006-08, but that dwindled to just under 6% in 2009 and conversely, he surrendered a career-high 17% HR/FB rate (9 HR in 53.1 IP). To be fair, the Pale Hose stopper was hindered some by health issues, namely kidney stones, back issues, and a calf injury which sidelined him for the last couple of weeks last season.
Although Jenks carries no apparent history of arm and shoulder problems, the burly closers carries some risk to run into nagging injuries. This Spring, Jenks has been held back because of irritation in his right calf, the same calf he pulled late last September. In one outing this Spring, Jenks was shelled for five runs against the Angels and did not finish the inning. It’s possible the calf has been the culprit for a forgettable Spring, as reportedly his velocity is a bit down from where it was last season. On top of his inconsistency issue and the risk to harbor a couple of nagging injuries, the White Sox could have a closer in waiting, in the form of Matt Thornton, one of the better setup men in the big leagues today. Thornton raised his strikeout rate and lowered his walk rate to elite levels. At times last season, Thornton was brought on to lock down ballgames with Jenks either unavailable or rested from saving three straight outings in a row. In addition, given Jenks’ expected salary jump, the White Sox front office could feel compelled to trade Jenks by the trade deadline at optimal value. While Jenks’ MDP is rather reasonable (165.76), the chances are good that for his round price, he isn’t quite a steal, especially when he is normally drafted a few picks ahead of Chad Qualls.
Carlos Marmol – Chicago Cubs
Carlos Marmol has the stuff to be an elite fantasy closer: a devastating fastball/slider combo and an electric K/9. The only thing holding the 27 year-old Marmol back is suspect control, which took a gigantic step back with a ghastly 7.91 BB/9. That’s 65 walks in 74 innings, which practically means his walk rate was so severe to the point he was moving toward the unheard-of rate of handing out a free pass an inning. In addition, Marmol managed to hit a dozen batters with his wildness. Part of the reason could simply be attributed to big league hitters adjusting to Marmol’s wicked stuff. In 2007, the Cubs stopper drew a healthy 30.1% outside swing percentage, but in the last two seasons, that mark has declined (24.2% O-Swing in 2008, 21.5% in 2009). Marmol’s key pitch, a slider with a curveball movement that tails low out of the strike zone, gained a touch in velocity as well, which might have thrown off his control a bit. Furthermore, Marmol has displayed a predictable penchant for throwing that slider as his slider usage increased nearly 7% from 2007 to 2008 (31.5% SL in 2007 to 38.2% in 2008) and a 5% hike from 2008 to 2009 (43.3% in 2009). Because of Marmol’s predictability in his pitching approach, the Cubs’ young closer had wasted pitches which in turn had led to free passes in a good number of cases.
While Marmol’s K/9 is an enticing reason to draft him, the most important thing for any closer in fantasy terms is to nail down saves and in so doing, to post a respectable strikeout rate without doing as much damage to ERA and WHIP. In that sense, Marmol is being overvalued in drafts because of that gaudy strikeout rate, as his MDP (137.98) is higher than the likes of Rafael Soriano, who is coming off a season with a career-high K/9 and illustrated better command than Marmol. While Soriano, Billy Wagner, and Mike Gonzalez are injury risks having undergone elbow operations, regained arm strength can translate into an uptick in velocity and improved command. Unless Marmol can harness better control over his pitches and mix them up every now and then, Marmol’s command issues could persist and the lion’s share of his outings could have him walking a tightrope (no pun intended).
That will about do it for this edition of 2 Up, 2 Down. As the season draws near, stay tuned for our daily content during the fantasy season and until then, be champions.
True to his Cafe name as The Artful Dodger, Ray Flores is a Dodger fan who scours the Yahoo database looking for Peter Schmeichel and Andoni Zubizarreta in the pursuit of saves. While being artful doesn't best describe him, Ray is a web developer, consultant, and as a West Coaster, is resigned to losing out on the rat race to pick up the next MR to win a closing job.
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