In this space a few weeks ago, I extolled the upside of Rockies pitcher Adam Ottavino, who had inherited the closing role from one of the lowest-rated fantasy closers in the game, LaTroy Hawkins. Two weeks later, he's on the disabled list with a triceps and/or elbow injury that the team has yet to been able to pin down, as he's still collecting multiple opinions from specialists.
With Ottavino out of the picture for the foreseeable future, Colorado saves now fall to John Axford, the former Brewers closer who led the NL in saves in 2011 while finishing ninth in Cy Young voting that year. He immediately started having issues after that impressive season, posting ERAs above 4.00 for two straight years before delivering a 3.95 ERA in 2014.
During his peak in 2011, he ramped his fastball velocity up to the 96-mph range. He was able to keep that velocity the following season, so why did he stop having success?
A big part of it was his first-pitch strike rate, which plummeted from 61.6 percent in 2011 to 54.2 percent in 2012 and fell even further the next season. He issued 25 walks during his peak season but 39 the following year in roughly the same number of innings, as hitters were content to either take a free base or wait until Axford had to throw a strike before swinging. He saw his HR/FB rate leap from 6.0 percent to 19.2 percent in 2012, and it has yet to come all the way back down yet.
It's hard to gauge Axford's progress this season, as he has thrown just five innings. His velocity has been fine, if not quite as good as his peak years, but I worry about his home-run tendencies in Colorado, especially if he doesn't conquer his control issues. Anyone racking up saves should be owned in most leagues, but I put his value more at that of Hawkins than Ottavino when both players were healthy. Axford owners should be hoping for a nice two-week start as the closer before flipping him for a more-talented closer.
What else is going on around the league?
I slotted Brett Cecil third in my "Pick Him Up" rankings last week; turns out, I should have had him higher. From the moment of Cecil's removal from the closer role, I posited that he was still the long-term option at closer for the Blue Jays. A protracted spring training meant Cecil wasn't quite ready for regular-season action, and the tea m wisely backed off to give him a chance to finish his preparation in a lower-pressure role. Lo and behold, Cecil made his return to closing Tuesday, earning his first save of the season against the Red Sox. Miguel Castro now has little value in standard leagues and can be dropped.
Joel Peralta was placed on the disabled list as he's been dealing with a dead arm and no shoulder strength. That left the team needing a new fill-in option and closer, and it appears they've wisely turned to Yimi Garcia, who earned his first save of the season last Friday. The velocity on his fastball has been up, and he mixes in a slider enough to be effective while occasionally pulling out a changeup. The results have been stunning: 19 strikeouts in 11 2/3 innings while giving up just one earned run on four hits and three walks. He's probably not going to pitch like Kenley Jansen over the long haul, but he's certainly worth owning while he's producing those types of numbers, whether he's closing or not.
Mark Melancon may have gotten a handle on things, as he's delivered four straight scoreless appearances while racking up three saves. The strikeouts haven't been there, though he was able to record two punchouts in his most recent appearance. His velocity has yet to return, however, so I wouldn't necessarily feel he's the safest of closers with which to move forward. I'd be looking to sell relatively high based on his work in recent games. Tony Watson remains a solid stash candidate for save chasers.
April has come and gone and Jonathan Papelbon is still on the team. Logic would dictate that they'll trade him at some point for prospects and roll with Ken Giles at closer, but it takes two to tango. His market will likely start to pick up in mid-June, and the odds are much better than he's traded in late July than early in the season. Giles has had a surprising issue with walks despite not giving up an earned run in his 10 appearances; while he issued just 11 free passes in 45 2/3 innings last season, he's already walked five batters in 9 2/3 innings this year. The wildness makes him harder to use in fantasy, especially in no-bench leagues, as he might not start earning saves until August, if at all.
Pick Him Up? Rankings
Brett Cecil, TOR
Yimi Garcia, LAD
Jake McGee, TB
John Axford, COL
Tony Watson, PIT
A.J. Ramos, MIA
Ken Giles, PHI
Shawn Tolleson, TEX
Sergio Romo, SF
Jonathan Broxton, MIL
Bobby Parnell, NYM
Brad Ziegler, ARI