Monday, March 13, 2006

FANTASY BASEBALL'S CLOSERS!

As draft day nears for many leagues, and has even passed us by in others, I have elected to write much smaller blurbs for "Fantasy Baseball's Closers!"
Nonetheless, I have provided you with all you'll need to make an informed Closer choice!

An owner will look for 40+ Saves from a #1 fantasy Closer. In addition, look for an athlete with a low WHP and ERA, playing for a club that can afford him with ample run support. Owners will be able to draw from a fairly deep crop of fantasy Closers this season, and assuming you draft wisely... there's no reason you shouldn't walk away from your fantasy draft with 2 solid, shut-the-door type Closers.
For those of you who belong to leagues that tally "holds," the pool is even deeper!

FANTASY BASEBALL'S TOP CLOSERS!

1. Los Angeles Angels of Northern and Sub-Saharan California; Francisco Rodriguez: K-Rod benefits from both strong run support and Anaheim's fair-sized stadium. Nonetheless, the Angel Closer has a knee-buckling breaking ball and after serving as a set-up man for 2 seasons, knows his oppositions strengths and weaknesses.
An elite Closer, K-Rod is just 24 and bolstered by the Angel O he could even improve upon his 4-5, 45 Save, 91 K, 2.67 ERA, 67.1 IP '05 campaign. While he might notch another Save or two, 47 is probably K-Rod's "Save ceiling." Look for those improvements to be in his ERA and WHP.

2. NY Yankees; Mariano Rivera: After exploding onto the Baseball scene as the set-up man for John Wetteland, Mo' became the full-fledged Yankee Closer in '97... and hasn't looked back. The Cooperstown-bound hurler should garner his 400th "S" this season, has mowed-down 728 batters over the span of his 11 season career, and has a lifetime ERA of 2.33. To put it succinctly, NY wouldn't be nearly so dominant without Rivera. Trotting to the mound in hallowed Yankee Stadium to the delicate strains of Metallica, "Sandman" has been putting foes "to sleep" as the exclusive Yankee Closer for 9 seasons now. Last year Mo' saved 43 games and allowed a total of 2 Homers' in 78.1 innings, and this year, with this reinvigorated offense at his back, another 45 Saves (give or take 3) should be added to his exhaustive resume by season's end.

3. Houston Astros; Brad Lidge: With a salary of just $500,000, Astro Closer Brad Lidge may be the best bargain in Baseball! Lidge can throw an array of pitches and rumor has it he added a nasty split-finger to the arsenal over the off-season. In terms of fantasy value? Dude blew just 4 Saves in 46 chances, notched an ERA of just 2.29, whiffed a ridiculous 103 batters in 70.2 IP, and recorded a microscopic WHIP of 1.15. In sum, Lidge is a multi-category "close-the-door" stud. Although he admittedly floundered in the playoffs by losing 3 games in 4 Post-C' appearances, that has no impact upon his fantasy value... and that's really all we're concerned with, isn't it.
A remarkably durable pitcher and strikeout machine, look for another 42 Save, 100+ K season.

4. NY Mets; Billy Wagner: To be fair, $43 Mill' would tempt virtually anyone. For Wagner, it was a no-brainer. Met manager Willie Randolph may have a creaky, aging, iffy starting rotation, but in former Phillie Billy... he has a no-doubt about it game-ender!
In his 2 seasons as a Phill', Wagner converted 59 of 66 chances with a sub-2.00 ERA (1.96 for you stat' geeks), including last year's ill 1.51 ERA over a whopping 77+ IP. Even more impressive? Over the past 3 seasons, Wagner has notched a remarkable ERA of 1.83 and recorded 103 Saves in 113 chances.
All of that aside, Billy Wagner isn't as sturdy as some of your other Closer options and it wouldn't be a stunner if Flushing's most significant off-season sign spends some of '06 on the DL. Also, the suspect Met rotation must be taken into consideration when mulling Wagner's po'. Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine and Steve Trachsel may all be eligible for AARP cards and "Senior Blue-Plate Specials" next year, and after that aging troika come incomparables Aaron Heilman and "Big" Vic' Zambrano. The Mets WILL rue their decision to deal promising Scott Kazmir.
Anyway, assuming Wags' can stay healthy 38-42 Saves and an ERA of 2.30 should be about right.

5. Los Angeles Dodgers of Los Angeles!; Eric Gagne: Although slotting Gagne here is certainly a bit of a risk, talk of his demise proved to be premature. A balky knee caused Gagne to alter his mechanics during spring training last season and that led to... well, a fantasy-tragedy.
On the morning of surgery, Gagne was under the impression that he was undergoing the Tommy John procedure. Fortunately, however, when the surgeon opened Gagne's elbow he found the extensive surgery, and its even lengthier recovery period, to be unnecessary. Instead, Gagne had a "simple" ligament reattachment. Now, the Dodger Closer who set a Major League record by banking 84 consecutive Saves is expected to be ready by Opening Day. He certainly looked good against the Orioles last Wednesday, retiring the side in the 5th on 5 pitches.
Coming off of a still-serious elbow surgery and at age 30 Gagne offers high risk and high reward. Nevertheless, the Dodgers should be good enough to put the ball in Gagne's mitt 50 or so times this season.
Again, the risk is high... but the reward might be as sweet as a 40 Save, 95 strikeout campaign.

6. Washington Nationals; Chad Cordero: Sports is rife with irony; "can't-miss" studs turn to "can't hit" duds, journeyman players find homes and become perennial All-Stars, and lousy teams develop an "us against them" mentality and become Post-Season darlings. Last spring, manager Frank Robinson was single-minded in his intent to go "Closer by committee." That is, until a virtual "who dat?" hurler broke-out and locked-up the Closer's job. Chad Cordero made Robinson look like a genius, posting an utterly brilliant 47 Save, 1.82 ERA, .97 WHP season. The only criticism one may have of Cordero's freshman Closer campaign was 7 Blown Saves. Even still, the Nationals have an elite level Closer earning a meager $346,000. Rest-assured, should "CC" enjoy another season such as he did last year it will result in a new contract that pays him a multiple of his current wage.
And that brings us to our next point, Cordero's season. In one of last season's positional reviews I stated that "the Nats' have far more talent than many realize..." Indeed they do, and although the starting rotation could go either way this season the 8th and 9th innings are in excellent hands. Look for another top-notch year; 41 Saves and an ERA of 2.29.

7. Minnesota Twins; Joe Nathan: Last year, Nathan's Save total fell by 1 (from '04) and his ERA rose by almost a full point. However, he also racked-up a 7-4 record, 94 Ks in just 70 innings pitched, blew a mere 5 Save opps', and his ERA of 2.70 wasn't exactly garish, ya' know?
This coming year Nathan's value should remain precisely where it is; top-10 material. A "steady-Eddy" fantasy Closer, look for another 2.85, 40 Save, 90 K year.

8. Chicago White Sox; Bobby Jenks What were the Angels thinking when they tried to sneak Jenks through waivers in December of '04? Sure, there were some in the organization who questioned his ability to remain healthy (Jenks was forced to shut it down 3 times during '03 and '04), but 6-3/240 Closers possessing the ability to throw a 3-digit Fastball are rare commodities indeed! The Sox promptly snatched him up and Jenks responded with an eye-opening late-season audition in which he locked-up the Closer job and blew-away all comers... and batters.
Owner of a mitt-popping fastball, when Jenks has his 12-6 curve working he's downright unhittable. Last year, the hulking Closer spun White Sock manager Ozzie Guillen's head clear around when, in just 39.1 innings pitched, he went 1-1 with 6 Saves, posted an ERA of 2.75, and "sat" 50 batters. Jenks was absolutely luminous during the post-season as well, earning 4 Saves in 5 chances with an ERA of 2.25, allowing just 4 hits and striking out 8 in 8 IP.
Although Bobby Jenks has an injury-checkered past he remains a rare talent, he's supported by a World Series winning club, and has 40+ Save, 100+ K potential. This coming season, though, look for a more humble 38 Saves, an ERA of around 3.10, and 80 or so Ks.

9. Oakland A's; Huston Street: The A's thought they had a legit' Closer in hard-throwing Octavio Dotel who, in '04, recorded 36 Saves and 122 Ks in just 85 IP. But after a poor outing against the mighty Red Sock bats in May of last season, Dotel began to complain of elbow pain and subsequently went on the DL.
Contrary to the opinions of no less than 4 surgeons, not to mention the wishes of his team, Dotel elected to undergo Tommy John surgery. The A's, understandably irked by the jerk, parted ways with Octavio (Dotel has expressed zero desire to return to a Closer's role and, now in the Yankee bullpen, looks to be a very solid middle reliever/7th-8th inning guy) and that uhm, "paved the way" for Huston Street! Street rolled with the opportunity, going on to a 5-1, 23 Save, 1.72 ERA, 1.01 WHP, 72 K, 78.1 IP campaign. A campaign, mind you, that won him "AL Rookie of the Year" honors. Perhaps more impressive is the fact that opposing teams hit just .194 off of him, with a scant 3 Home Runs.
Already one of the game's dominant Closers, Street doesn't blow-away batters. Rather, he relies upon location, guile, and a filthy Slider. Although the current A' rotation may not be as good as the Zito, Hudson, Mulder, and Harden staff of '04, the current cast of Harden, Zito, Haren, Loaiza, and Blanton, coupled with a solid core of position players, should put Street in position for a 40 Save, 2.25 ERA, 75 K '06.

10. Toronto Blue Jays; B.J Ryan: This past off-season saw several aging (see "veteran" according to they and their agents!) Closers (namely, Todd Jones and Billy Wagner) secure "mega-buck" contracts. Of that group, former Oriole B.J Ryan pocketed a cool $47 million for 5 seasons. Ryan is already 30, and I'd be stunned if the guy actually goes the distance of his deal. Nonetheless, Ryan has accrued only light mileage and went 1-4 with 36 Saves and an ERA of 2.43 in 70.1 IP last season. A multi-category Closer, Toronto's 9th inning man should record a low WHP, modest ERA, and should shake-out to be a solid #1-ish Closer. Pencil B.J in for a 38 Save, 95 K, 2.80 ERA season.


"On the Way Up!"

1. Bobby Jenks: One of the game's brightest lights, Jenks can really "bring it" and when his ill curve is working... the best batters haven't a chance against him. The sole concern is, of course, the Sox Closer's history of injury.
Owners must hope that Jenks' penchant for stress injuries is squarely in the rear-view mirror.

2. Baltimore Orioles; Chris Ray: Balty' was using 24 year old Chris Ray as a starter, but had him ear-marked for the Closer's job... one day. Alas, with B.J Ryan's defection to the land of "Baseball, Ay?" (Canada) comes unproven Chris Ray's ascension.
The O's had no intentions of giving the youngster so much responsibility so quickly, but when they were unable to land a proven arm during the off-season... well, ready or not here Chris comes! The hard truth is, the Orioles thoroughly mishandled their pursuit of a Closer and Chris Ray is almost a measure of last resort. Still, the former starter has command of 3 pitches; a high 90's fastball, a Splitter and a slider. An outstanding "sleeper" candidate, the erstwhile Oriole Closer has excelled in limited spring opportunities.
Although there is some chance that Baltimore acquires a more experienced hurler, Ray, who averages roughly 1K per inning, could turn into a super-sneaky fantasy Closer. Tentatively, as there's little to go on, I'm projecting 31 Saves, 80 Ks, and an ERA of 3.25.


"Sleepers"

1. Chris Ray: With Balty' unwisely ignoring the Closer spot until it was too late, Chris Ray gets the ball by default. Really, "de" GM's fault!

2. Kansas City Royals; Ambiorix Burgos: Should incumbent Mike MacDougal struggle, Burgos, who blew-away 65 batters in 63.1 innings will get the first look.

3. Florida Marlins; Travis Bowyer: The Marlins acquired the hard-throwing right-hander as part of the Luis Castillo deal. Bowyer, 24, does throw gas (he can touch 99 on the gun), but at this point that's about all he throws. In conjunction, he struggles with his location and needs to develop a complementary pitch.
As of today, Travis Bowyer is worth stashing away if you belong to a deep, DEEP league. Veteran Closer Joe Borowski will get the ball in the 9th, however, Bowyer should start the year as the primary set-up man, he'll get some "holds," and could even move into the Closer's role if his command and repetoire improve.

"On the Way Down!"

1. Boston Red Sox; Keith Foulke: A pair of knee injuries and a duo of surgeries later, Foulke has trouble standing let alone pitching. Unless he starts to unleash hell... an owner would be wise to stay away from Keith 'cause I think his career's "Foulked!"

2. Detroit Tigers; Todd Jones: the dude rediscovered his youth last season, but at 38... Jones could break down at virtually any moment. While he certainly rates a bench spot as he's the current starter, I'd look for another #1 and even #2 Closer elsewhere first.

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