The Closer Shuffle, Revisited
|Overused in Cincinnati, Jeff Shaw is struggling to close games for Los Angeles this season. |
Every week, about 25 percent of the questions I get revolve around closers, so it makes sense to keep coming back to the subject over the course of the season. This year, however, we haven't seen a lot of closer turnover yet, despite the high ERAs many ace closers boast right now.
One situation in flux right now is Los Angeles, where Jeff Shaw has temporarily lost the closer's job, but where the replacements have largely struggled, with only (ex-closer) Mike Fetters bearing any resemblance to a competent reliever. I've been predicting a breakdown for Shaw for years now, as he was heavily used in Cincinnati and has seen his numbers slowly deteriorate since his first season as a closer in '97. The sample we have is small, but it appears that the workload may have finally caught up to him: 39 baserunners and four home runs in his first 21.2 innings, with just 11 strikeouts. He'll probably get the job back this month, based on the ineptitude of his replacements, but his outlook isn't bright and there's a 50 percent chance he'll go down for the season with a major arm injury.
The great enigma among 2000 closers is Billy Wagner, who has already given up nearly as many hits this year as he did all of last year. There are reports that his fastball is down, but is still in the high 90s, which should be more than sufficient. He also doesn't have the history of arm trouble that would make us jump to the conclusion that this is all about a hidden injury. There's no easy explanation at hand, but if I had the chance to get Wagner now while his value is low, I'd do it. The Astros don't really have a ready replacement, and they're not as bad as their dismal W/L record indicates, so he should get more save opportunities going forward. I'm concerned, but I can't ignore how great he's been in the past.
John Wetteland's save total looks fine, but he's actually pitching terribly, allowing 42 baserunners in 26.1 innings with six homers allowed. His ERA should probably be closer to six, and will be soon if he keeps pitching this way. However, with Tim Crabtree starting to pitch better, Wetteland could see himself out of some save situations come August. Troy Percival isn't pitching as badly as Wetteland, but he's been similarly lucky in the ERA department and has no one of merit behind him to steal his job.
You probably don't need me to tell you that Antonio Alfonseca isn't long for the closer role in Florida. He's useful in a long relief role, but doesn't have the stuff that managers typically look for in a closer -- particularly, a pitch (or two) to generate strikeouts and minimize hits instead of walks. Alfonseca, however, has surrendered 40 hits in just 29.2 innings this year, which is commensurate with his history as a pretty mediocre pitcher. Braden Looper and Dan Miceli are both good bets for saves here, as could Armando Almanza if he brings his control back in line with his '99 numbers.
Byung-Hyun Kim is the closer in Arizona, and is pitching so well, Matt Mantei would probably be hard-pressed to get his job back if he was healthy -- which he isn't.
Bob Wickman has been a popular choice on "Most Likely to Lose the Closer Mantle" lists since he got the job in '98, but he started this season off with 12 scoreless innings and is still pitching well. With only Curtis Leskanic pitching well behind him, Wickman's a better-than-even bet to hold the job the rest of the season.
Armando Benitez got off to a rough start, but has finally stabilized himself and is now performing up to expectations. Benitez's save total never faltered, but his ERA reached 6.88 after he gave up a grand slam to Preston Wilson on May 6. He hasn't given up a run since then, covering 15 appearances; in those games, he has pitched 14.2 innings, surrendered just two hits, walked seven, and struck out 18. His 3.69 ERA seems fine, but the way he's pitching now, he's a good bet to be close to 2.00 the rest of the way.
Ugueth Urbina is on a rehab assignment after his elbow surgery, and if his performance as an injured pitcher is any indication, he could be dominant once he's back in shape. After struggling a bit in the season's first 10 days, Urbina struck out 16 men in his next 8.1 innings, giving up four hits, three walks, and a single run that scored on a strikeout/wild pitch. His overall numbers indicate a better ERA than his current 4.05, so now would be a great time to pick him up.
I wouldn't count on Jeff Brantley, Wayne Gomes, or anyone else in the Philadelphia pen right now. If you have one of those guys and he has a good week, trade him. The same goes for Kansas City's Jerry Spradlin, who is now returning to earth after a hot month.
As for the Braves, perhaps the biggest closer mess around, manager Bobby Cox and perpetual-motion machine Leo Mazzone seem content to use a committee of Mike Remlinger, Rudy Seanez, and Kerry Ligtenberg. I don't see any of the three running away with the job, particularly not Seanez, who can't pitch reliably on consecutive days.
Around the majors
Jose Offerman's back, but is he really? On the one hand, his average has nowhere to go but up, and everyone knows that he's a much better hitter than his .230ish average indicates. However, some of his value derived from the 15-20 steals we all expected him to get, but right now he's stuck at zero and not likely to get into double digits. Jimy Williams' disinclination to send his baserunners off is one problem, and Offerman's injury (a strained groin) is the type that can linger and that a player can easily reaggravate. Both factors combined mean we shouldn't expect too many steals here.
Adrian Brown is hot enough to merit a pickup in most NL fantasy leagues. His 4-for-6 performance on Sunday brought his average over .300, and he's now 5-for-5 in stolen base attempts. Most importantly, he's the only real centerfielder on the Pirates' roster, and putting Brown in center every day would return Brian Giles to the more comfortable confines of rightfield. Brown still probably won't play every day, and he needs to recapture the adequate plate discipline he showed last year, but he has a great chance to steal 10-15 more bases between now and the end of the year.
Since his recall from the minors on May 27th, Julio Lugo is hitting .370/.452/.444, going 10-for-27 with three steals, five RBI, and five runs scored. His defense has been shaky and Larry Dierker would clearly prefer to see Bill Spiers seize the shortstop job, even though Spiers' defense isn't any better than Lugo's. In deep leagues, Lugo's a nice pickup who could easily be the Astros' shortstop in the second half of the year.
Jay Payton's recent hot streak should help the Mets move him, preferably to an AL team so he can DH part-time and rest his chronically injured throwing elbow. With Darryl Hamilton, the team's only centerfielder with Jon Nunnally sold to Japan, on the mend, the Mets will have to either trade Payton or option Jason Tyner to Norfolk.
The good news: Ray Durham has stolen two bases already in June after not stealing any in all of May. The better news: In his last seven games (through Sunday, the 11th), Durham was 14-for-30 with four walks. Is he breaking out of the slump that saw him lose 60 points off his average and draw just five walks in all of May? Maybe, but regardless, you're not likely to get the 40 steals you paid for when you bought or drafted Durham this spring. Now that he's active again, it's time to shop him and his double-play partner, Jose Valentin, whose average has returned to its usual levels but whose HR/SB totals should make him attractive in trade.
Those silly trades
The outfielder shuffle that took place this week shook up a few teams and probably sent some of you into the free agent market to pick up the new players. However, despite some of the talk around the Fox-Bautista and Martinez-Brown-Chuck Smith deals, most of the players involved didn't see any uptick in value.
Danny Bautista finds himself in a crowded outfield situation, fighting for one spot with Bernard Gilkey, Turner Ward, and effectively Greg Colbrunn (who could play first, shifting Travis Lee to rightfield). And when Erubiel Durazo returns, Lee will go back to right permanently and one of Bautista, Gilkey, and Ward will end up on waivers.
Brant Brown professed to be thrilled to return to Chicago, and while the ballpark will help him, he's not going to displace Henry Rodriguez, who is both a better hitter and is on the block. Brown can't play center, which is what the Cubbies really need, and he's not going to bump Grace or Sosa.
Dave Martinez will get some playing time in Texas with Ruben Mateo out for the year and Chad Curtis really incapable of playing centerfield. However, the Rangers are too close to the top to punt the season, and they're likely to dip into the trade market for an outfielder who can really hit, letting Gabe Kapler play centerfield for the duration of the season. It will probably happen in the next few weeks.
The real beneficiary here is Andy Fox, who steps into a great, messy infield situation. Luis Castillo is hitting well but is as injury-prone as ever, so Fox will get some playing time at second here and there. But he could land a full-time job if the Fish demote the struggling Alex Gonzalez, whose lack of plate discipline has really caught up to him. Fox is no great shakes at shortstop, but managers seem to love him and he has played more time at short than his glove ever merited.
Andy Ashby was once of the majors' most reliable starters, posting ERAs under 4.00 five times in his six full seasons in San Diego. However, rumors of an arm injury surfaced this spring, a tale borne out by the lack of life on his fastball and slider. Ashby's strikeout rate is down quite a bit this year, to barely a K every two innings, and he hasn't been this hittable since he left Colorado.
Terry Francona, meanwhile, has shown his work in slowing shredding Curt Schilling's arm was no fluke. Francona has seen no reason to take it easy on Ashby's arm, working him 124 pitches in a complete-game win on April 21, and 113 pitches (thus blowing a lead) in last week's loss to Tampa Bay. So it's a double-edged sword: if Ashby pitches poorly, his arm will get some rest, but if he pitches well, he'll pitch too much and further any damage already built up in his shoulder. Ashby owners lose either way, and a trade to the AL or to a contender won't help much.