by Ray Lin
Investing heavily in closers is a dangerous game to play in fantasy baseball. Those who handle the ninth inning are relied upon for basically one category, and yet they have the poorest job security of any position.
Look at it this way: if a hitter goes hitless for an entire week, most times he’s not at risk of losing his full-time job. If a closer blows a week’s worth of save opportunities? Next! Of the 30 pitchers who were their team’s closer on Opening Day, a staggering 10 of them are no longer holding that same job (either due to injury or incompetence) as of this writing. That’s one-third of all closers that were taken on draft day!
The 5th most expensive reliever in the preseason according to ESPN rankings (Joe Nathan) is currently sporting an ERA north of 7.00. The 7th-ranked reliever missed nearly a month and a half due to injury (Aroldis Chapman). Jim Johnson, ranked 13th coming into the year and making $10 million in real life, has a WHIP approaching 2.00 and has been replaced by Sean Doolittle, who is now a Top-20 reliever on the ESPN Player Rater thanks to a 0.69 WHIP and insane 42/1 K/BB ratio.
To really put things in perspective, the best fantasy reliever according to the ESPN Player Rater is currently Francisco Rodriguez, who was barely trusted as a setup man and was the 54th-ranked reliever in the preseason.
This leads us to Detroit, Tampa and Chicago — three teams with some of the most tumultuous closing situations at the moment. Let’s take a quick look at where each of them are as of today:
Rookie manager Brad Ausmus has had anything but fun dealing with his bullpen this year. The veteran 39-year-old Nathan had been enjoying a career revival since he signed with Texas in 2012, but this year has been a car wreck. He’s already blown more saves in 25 games than he did in 67 games all of last year.
Nathan is actually inducing more ground balls than he did last season and is still striking out a decent amount of batters (8.22 K/9). However, the red flags lie in the 10.7% walk rate — his highest since 2000 — and his failure to get out of jams (a career-worst 59.2% LOB rate so far). Ausmus is still sticking with Nathan for now, but the leash is wearing razor-thin. Joba Chamberlain (3.29 ERA, 1.21 WHIP) is next in line and sporting a very nice 3.75 K/BB ratio, making him a good stash in all leagues.
Tampa Bay Rays
Things have gotten so bad for the team with the worst record in baseball, manager Joe Maddon hired a medicine man. Too bad Bobby Henry can’t close, because they could sure use somebody who can right now. There are plenty of reasons for fantasy owners to curse back at Grant Balfour, who is rocking a Nathan-esque line of a 6.46 ERA and 1.65 WHIP. He’s still striking out close to a batter an inning and is actually inducing ground balls at a career-best 49.2% rate. The glaring hole is eerily similar to Nathan’s, wild control that hasn’t been this bad since early in their careers. Balfour is walking batters at an 18.5% clip, the highest since his rookie season in 2001.
So, armed with a medicine man but not a functioning closer, Maddon has instituted the dreaded closer-by-committee consisting of Jake McGee, Joel Peralta and Juan Carlos Oviedo. McGee is having the best year of the bunch, compiling a sparkling 1.53 ERA and 0.78 WHIP in 29.1 IP. He’s also exhibited excellent control as evidenced by his 4.85 K/BB ratio. The former highly-regarded prospect should be owned in all leagues, although Peralta (4.08 ERA, 1.26 WHIP in 28.2 IP) and Oviedo (2.25 ERA, 1.20 WHIP in 20 IP) are good stashes in deeper leagues as well.
Chicago White Sox
Ronald Belisario was given a golden opportunity with the closing job, but has been rocky of late. He’s been scored upon in 5 of his last 8 appearances, during which he’s put up an ugly 7.87 ERA and 1.87 WHIP. He’s still recorded 6 saves over that span, however, so it seems manager Robin Ventura is going to stick with Belisario for the time being.
Waiting in the wings, however, is Daniel Webb and Jake Petricka. Webb only allowed 8 hits in 13.1 IP in May to go with a 1.35 ERA, but walked nearly a batter an inning. Petricka similarly struggled with his control (8 free passes in his past 9 appearances), but has put up a sterling 0.68 ERA since May 11th. The abysmal control will keep the two young guns in the earlier relief innings, so Belisario owners can keep milking their waiver wire saves for now.