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“65 Mustangs” Building a better bullpen: Closer 2014

We can debate the relative value of closers’ contributions as they apply to our final fantasy scores and outcomes, but few would disagree that the closer position, or more specifically, the pursuit of SAVES consumes far more of our time, effort, and stress level than any other fantasy commodity.  It is the most volatile of all fantasy positions, and enjoys an average annual turnover rate of about 33%.  But, what is most troublesome is in a standard 5 X 5 league, the saves cat still accounts for 10% of your final score, while being manned by players who typically play no more than 3-4 games per week and for no more than an inning each time. Add to that the fact that closers are basically the only players that can contribute to the saves cat, there are seldom more than 30 at any time, and they play so sparingly that other than the elite few, they barely contribute to any other cat. They are the placekickers of fantasybullpen2 baseball, but while placekickers get very little fantasy respect, Elite closers can be some of the most sexy players for many fantasy owners. But, as cliché as it is, the mantra “DON’T PAY FOR SAVES” has a lot of validity to it.

The bad news: There is always a revolving door of closers.  The good news: There is always a revolving door of closers. The key is finding a strategy that best sets you up to have several horses in the race at all times so you can accumulate those necessary but evil saves. We can talk about all these strategies, and we will over the course of my next three articles; but mainly, when I talk strategy, it will be based on my own which has developed over a decade of Fantasy Baseball. My strategy is simply called “Building and Managing a Bullpen” for a long season.bullpen

Anyone who has played our game for a few seasons knows that closer is not a draft and forget position. People who try that strategy find themselves trading hitters and starters for closers after the All Star Break, which helps a few contenders get better more than it helps the guy who needs the saves. If you think about it, a good closer nets between 35 and 45 saves in a season. There are 6 months in a baseball season, which means that same closer averages about 6-7 saves a month. If you were to trade Jay Bruce in late July, before the trade deadline, for Joe Nathan, you might expect to get about 12-14 saves the rest of the way. How far up the standings will those 12-14 saves bring you in the last 2 months of the season? Right, rhetorical.

There are a few strategies to combat that:

There is the “AOL Cowboy” who takes pride in always being the first to the wire to grab the next 0041-0705-1306-2335_illustration_cellphone_cowboyrumored closer for team X. In his left holster is a smart phone connected to every fantasy news site, with alerts texted or piped into his ear buds 24/7. In his right holster is another “connected” device that is always on the “players” tab of each of his leagues so that in one sweeping motion he can read/hear the alert and perform the add/drop before anyone else even has a chance to get online. Trying to race that guy to the wire is fruitless as he will continuously upgrade his connectivity at any cost and arrange his life so that all other responsibilities can wait while he quick-draws his closers so he can lead the league in saves and boast that he can always find saves on the wire. It is the AOL Cowboy who pushed me to start playing in FAAB Leagues or leagues with weekly limits on add/drops. I’ve grown to love FAAB for many other reasons since, and at my age, I want research, forecasting, planning and budgeting to be a far more important fantasy skill then owning and mastering the latest gadgets so I can always get there first, thus not ever even having to do any homework. Life is a race, no? No.

Then there is the “Kamikaze Closer Hoarder”. You know him, he is the guy who starts the closer run by drafting Kimbrel in the 4th round and doesn’t stop until he has no less than 6 closers after the draft. Then he is the guy who posts on the league board or in a league-wide email that he has the closers you need. He wants top players for these closers figuring he will corner the market and then build his team through trades with owners who he shut out at the draft board for closers. The only problem is that if we wanted closers that early we would have drafted them instead of the hitters and SP that he wants us to trade for them. We don’t pay for saves! He wins the league saves cat for the season, but is near the bottom in everything else for a lower tier finish every time.

There is the “Closer Punter”, not to be confused with a football punter. He boldly states that he is tired of the closer merry-go-round, won’t draft them early or participate in “closer runs” and has decided to punt the whole saves category. Just by accident he finishes the season in the middle of the pack in saves and realizes that with one or two more mediocre closers he may have won the league. The converse is the “Anxiously Deliberate Closer Hoarder”.  He is worried that he’ll never keep up with the AOL Cowboy, would never punt a category, never trades closers, and never feels safe with the ones he has. He is the guy who will go on the forum after Jason Grilli gives up his first blown save in July asking “Does anyone know when they will replace him and who will be the guy?, Oh, and who can trade me a closer for Jay Bruce?” He is not bold enough to start a closer run in the draft, but the minute it starts he clears his queue and loads it up with every breathing probable closer in the league. He won’t stop till he has 4 or 5, though at least 3 of them will be the ones who have a tenuous grip on the role. Finally, there are the league managers who had the bright idea to combine Saves & Holds (S/H) into one cat, thus making far more relievers have value then just the closers, and also not having to add another hitting cat to counter balance the scoring which would be too much thinking. All this succeeds in doing is greatly devaluing closers and no one in the league takes relievers seriously at all once the secret is out. This will effectively wipe out all the stress related to the closer role, but anyone who has played in a S/H league can attest to the futility of this strategy in the long run. There are many more strategies to manage the Saves Cat, probably as many as there are active closers at any given time, but these are the ones I’ve seen the most. While I certainly was having some fun and exaggerating a bit while describing the aforementioned closer strategies, it is true that I have seen every one of those strategies in play over the years. Other then the AOL Cowboy, I can attest that all the other strategies are season failures waiting to happen.

So, what is the answer? The answer is to “Build and Manage a Deep Bullpen for a Long Season”. As is the case in most areas of life, things become clearer and easier to deal with if you can learn to accept the realities and then insulate yourself against them.

The realities:

A. Life is not fair.life is not fair

B. Saves are a category too, and must be accumulated.

C. There will be turnover and injury in the closer ranks, so if you drafted 3 of them, you need to start looking for replacements for at least one if not two starting the day after the draft, if not sooner.

D. You don’t need to pay too much for saves and yes, you can find saves during the season.

E. Quit worrying already and do something about it. You have a long season ahead of you.

F. Life is not fair.

Building and managing a bullpen requires four basic human skills, and these are the same four skills that you need to win a six month season anyway. The four basic skills, or the four P’s are: Patience, Planning, Projecting, and Patience. Develop a plan and stick to it. It is probably a good plan. It is probably a better plan than most of the guys at your draft table have. Don’t over-react to in-season developments or let them force you off the plan. Draft as many relievers as you can fit on your roster. Read and study and project out what may probably be coming down the road on any given MLB team and then make a pre-emptive strike way ahead of time. (What is better than watching the AOL Cowboy slam down his smart phone when he gets to the wire and finds that YOU already have the new closer for Team X, and have had him now for a few weeks? Right, nothing is better) Draft a solid base of established closers without reaching for the sexy ones, and then fill in the rest of your roster and bench with middle relievers and set-up men who have closer skills or experience on their resume, or even better yet, a clear path to the role behind a shaky incumbent. If there is a 33% chance that any closer will be replaced, you can bet there is a 75% or better likelihood that a shaky incumbent will be replaced, especially if there is a flame throwing bulldog just waiting in the wings for his opportunity, which will come soon enough. (Think League/Jansen LAD 2013) Yes, in top quality competitive leagues, these can be the hottest commodities on draft or FAAB days once all your slots are filled, the famed “Closer-en-Waiting”. (CLEW) Not only are these guys potential closers, but if they are quality arms they will add K’s and contribute positively to your ratios if you slot them into spots where you normally have SP on their off days. But, if you want to “get a CLEW”, how do you know which ones to snag of the hundreds of MR’s out there on MLB and AAA rosters?

One way would be to read this and my next few articles. Another way would be to do actual research, which should not be a problem for you now that you have accepted that life is not fair and that yes, you do need to accumulate some saves to win your league without having to start a closer run, get all the newest gadgets, sit by your computer worrying, or trading your best assets away. A little bit of research will help you to “Get a CLEW” or two. Most Fantasy Baseball websites offer a Closer or Bullpen Depth Chart” (ESPN’s) of one sort or another. It will show you, on all thirty teams, who the projected closer is, who is likely next in line, and perhaps the next one or two after that. Then read up on both the closers and as many of the CLEW’s as possible before the draft. It will not be hard to figure out which closers are on the ropes and, therefore, which CLEW’s have the best shot at the job.  Even better is if you can draft both the incumbent and the CLEW giving you a handcuff that almost guarantees you that team’s closer for the season. If you can only get one, sometimes it is actually smarter to draft the CLEW before the incumbent as counter-intuitive that may sound. He probably has better stuff, and with the odds stacked against the incumbent keeping his job, it is only a matter of time before the CLEW is accruing you saves. (Again, think Janson, LAD, 2013)

Let’s start with the incumbents. I’m not going to do a straight ranking, but more of a tiered approach. We’ll start with the Elite Closers, guys who will give you a guaranteed ton of saves and K’s and help your ratios at the same time. It is almost like having another SP. It just depends on how costly it will be to have such a luxury. Then there are the established closers that are only here for the saves. They have one important thing in common, and that is job security, which may be the most important quality in a closer for fantasy, as even the most average closer on the worst team in MLB will snag you 30 Saves. Then we have the more tenuous group of incumbent closers. They may not have a long track record, may be recently converted from other roles, may be nearing the end or coming off injury, but, alas, are the team’s closer.  Finally we’ll talk about the handcuffs. These are the duo’s who are most likely heading for a role swap at some point. Next week we’ll look at some of the best CLEW’s and other relievers who I believe have the stuff, skill set, mentality, and possible path to the closer role.

The Elite: Yeah, it is great to own one of these guys. You are guaranteed 40-50 saves from the start, kimbrel120 k’s, maybe some W’s and ERA’s/Whip’s that contain a lot of zeros and ones before and after the decimal place. Each has a (potential flaw), but until proven otherwise, 1. Craig Kimbrel, Atl should be the first closer off the board. Only an injury, or a comeback by Mariano Rivera would stop him from being considered the best closer in the game today. For the last couple of years there have been (hints of potential arm trouble), but until I see the DL next to his name he is the top dog.  Not very far behind are 2. Aroldis Chapman, Cin (potential move to the rotation), 3. Kenley Jansen, LAD (only has one pitch) and 4. Greg Holland, KC (Only one full closing season under his belt, heck, that is all I got….) I could not fault anyone for picking any of those three before Kimbrel. Some other elite RP’s Greg+Holland+Kansas+City+Royals+v+Tampa+Bay+OCUTZ8SCnWklbased on their 2013 numbers are 5. Koji Uehara, Bos ((freakishly dominant(144k to 12BB in two years) but his only closing season and now is 39)), 6. Joe Nathan, Det(Also 39), 7. Sergio Romo, SF (hardly K dominant but has a career WHIP of .92) and 8. Jim Johnson, Oak (Average stuff, but over 100 saves in last two seasons). Rounding out the top 10 will be two closers entering their first full seasons with the gig and truly dominant stuff like the guys ahead of them. 9. Trevor Rosenthal, ST L (short track record but 97 mph Mofast ball) and 10. David Robertson, NYY who has the unenviable position of having to replace Mo Rivera in the pressure cooker of NY, as well as trying to sport the hottest bullpen wife in baseball (Well, he does). I think most of us would feel good if we came out of the 10th round with any one of these guys, or the blonde, but there is a chance, in some leagues, that they would all be gone already. How soon is too soon? Kimbrel tends to go in the 4th. robertsonUnless my first three picks are Kershaw, Cano and Hanley or Tulo I can’t take a closer in the 4th. If the Kimbrel choice starts a run, I might snag one of these guys in the 5th or 6th, but no higher than that. If that run goes through all 10 of these guys, and this is important, I’m NOT going to feel like I have to take one of the next closers just because I don’t have one yet. The gap is too great, so it can wait.

Don’t stand on your head trying to land one of them.chapman

Tier Two: Job Security = Save Security.  These next guys have some measure of job security and should be ok to anchor your bullpen if you missed out on the top 10. 11. Jason Grilli, Pit (dominant stuff, arm trouble, became a closer at 36, now 37, try to draft Melancon too), 12. Glen Perkins, Min (Elite stuff, and someone has to close for the Twins) 13. Addison Reed, Ari (Hasn’t quite reached his minors #’s, and may feel Putz’ breath on his neck, but should be fine in the desert), 14. Rafael Soriano, Was, (The contract says he closes, sorry Storen, Clippard, et al.) 15. Jon Papelbon, Phi (Contract/no competition), 16. Steve Cishek, Mia (No contract/no competition, not sexy, could be a bargain on draft day), 17. Casey Janssen, Tor (Whip under 1.0 for two years, averaging 12 walks each year, another bargain), 18. Ernesto Frieri, LAA, (Still looking over his shoulder, still K’ing nearly 2 per inning)  and 19. Jim Henderson, Mil (Someone has to close for them too) If you can get one of the elite and one of these, or even two of these, you have a good base for saves. Now, grab some from the handcuff grab bag below and then stuff the rest of your available roster spots with CLEW’sromo

Now, lets handcuff some closers and CLEW’s. (Yes, that is Sergio Romo going out in cuffs, but we think he has enough job security to remain in the mid tier) But these guys have far more tenuous holds on their jobs. The format is (Incumbent/CLEW). This is where the men are separated from the boys in a draft.

20. Fernando Rodney/Danny Farquhar, Sea (Farquhar ended 2013 as the closer and did ok. Rodney is always seemingly on the verge of an implosion. Even if Farq does not get the gig he can fill up the box with a  lot of k’s) 21. Bobby Parnell/Vic Black NYM,(Who is Vic Black? Who is Bobby Parnell for that matter?) 22. Grant Balfour/Jake McGee/Heath Bell, TB, (Another team that has plenty of in-house options goes ahead and spends cash on a closer, one that failed his Baltimore physical. It’s only a matter of time) 23.Huston Street/Joaquin Benoit, SD (I invested in Benoit last season and was rewarded for it nicely, with holds the first half and then he closed for the Tigers in the 2nd half. Now, he is the inevitable Huston Street injury away from the gig.) 24. LaTroy Hawkins/Rex Brothers, COL (This is the closest thing we have this season to the League/Jansen handcuff of 2013. I’m all in on Brothers in 2014, I meanrex Latroy Hawkins, puhleese. Besides, if Brothers fails as a closer it appears he has a future as a drag queen, and no, that is not the hottest Bullpen Girlfriend next to him, that is Jordan Pacheco),  25. Neftali Feliz/Joakim Soria/Tanner Scheppers, Tex  (Feliz and Soria have closed successfully in the past, to put it mildly, but both are coming off injury, Scheppers is healthy but probably more suited to set-up duties at this stage.) 26. Jose Veras/Pedro Strop, CHC (Hey, someone has to close for the Cubs, no? Whatever happened to Carlos Marmol? Actually, Veras did a good enough job closing for the Stros and then setting up for the Tigers. 2014 may be the same if the Cubs can get something for him once they are eliminated (in May, tee hee). 27. Nate Jones, Matt Lindstrom, Ryan Webb, CWS (Jones can bring it but has control problems, Lindstrom is veteran insurance but not closer material, who is Webb?), 28. Cody Allen/John Axford, Cle, (Interesting battle, and I like them both.) 29. Jessie Crain/Matt Albers, Houston (Not so interesting battle. Look, I know someone has to close for the Stros, but I’m not touching this one. I’ll let the AOL Cowboy get him as soon as one of them gets the first save.) and finally 30. Tommy Hunter/Darren O’Day, Bal (What do you get when you combine two really good set up men? I don’t know either, but this is a perfect example of an end-game handcuff pick. If you get both, you’ll have the O’s closer and a pretty good set up man to boot.)

As I’ve said in all my articles so far this season, one needs to begin the draft with the end (your roster) in sight. Your stable of relievers is no different. Owners whose plan is just to draft 6 SP and 3 Closers are in for a long season, or at least a busy one. Before a draft I envision my 3 Closers and then a stable of at least 3 or 4 more relievers, usually of the CLEW variety. We’ll talk about specific CLEWs in the next article, but my bullpens tend to be very fluid. Some of my CLEWs will become Closers, some for the rest of the season, others on a temp basis, but all saves count. Some of my closers may lose their job and become set up men, either temp or perm as well. We have not talked about Holds much, as we will in the next article, but this strategy is especially good in leagues that reward both Saves and Holds (separately of course). If you had the League/Jansen handcuff duo last season for instance, you got 42 Saves and 18 Holds from those two guys. My point is that I will zero in on some relievers that I think will help me in both cats. Two years ago I owned the A’s Ryan Cook. At the end of the season he was 2nd or 3rd on my team in both Saves and Holds. Last season my designated swing man was Joaquin Benoit who gave me 24 and 9. I expected more holds and less saves, but he ended up closing for two separate stretches last season. And I didn’t have to go hunting the wire for those saves or trading Jay Bruce for them. They were already locked and loaded sitting in my bullpen accruing holds and K’s. You know you’ve done a good job if you have trouble getting holds because all the CLEW’s you drafted ended up as closers. See you soon when I’ll decide who my designated CLEW is for 2014.

I'm an accountant and an amateur writer of fiction and sports commentary, mostly baseball. I've been a student of the game of baseball since the Dinosaurs roamed the earth, or at least since a few years before the world knew what a designated hitter was. Otherwise, I like "antique" cars of the 60's and 70's and have been a fantasy baseball fanatic since my first draft many years ago. I live in CT with my wife Megan of 25 years, our daughter Caitlin and their (their) cats. I'm also the better looking of the two guys in the the photo.

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