We're 10-plus weeks into this craziest of crazy closer seasons, one that has seen 15 of 30 teams employ a change at the position since the conclusion of spring training. Change among closers has been somewhat overwhelming in 2012. It'd be understandable, then, should you have forgotten how this mess all got started.
It was around Opening Day that we learned of three highly regarded closers heading to the disabled list to begin the season: Drew Storen of the Washington Nationals, the No. 6 reliever selected on average in ESPN drafts; Andrew Bailey of the Boston Red Sox, selected 14th on average; and Kyle Farnsworth of the Tampa Bay Rays, selected 19th on average. They would all be lost for extended periods initially.
Now we're nearing the healthy returns of this trio. What better time, therefore, to revisit their fantasy values, the values of their fill-ins, and their teams' probable plans for them upon activation?
Let's proceed in probable order of activation:
Farnsworth, the Rays and Fernando Rodney: Farnsworth (shoulder) is the closest of the three to returning and the only one with an estimated date -- June 28 -- which coincides with the start of a three-game series versus the Detroit Tigers. He's currently on a rehabilitation assignment, having thrown a scoreless inning Monday for Class A Charlotte, one scheduled to last just shy of another two weeks. He is a pitcher who, thanks to the addition of a cutter in 2009, has a 3.21 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 8.68 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio, 25 saves and 14 holds. But Farnsworth might be scarcely more than an afterthought even following his return, simply because the man who replaced him, Rodney, has been outstanding in his absence.
Like Farnsworth before him, not to mention Rafael Soriano (2010 Rays), Rodney has been the catch of the year among closers. Long criticized for questionable control -- he had a 4.88 walks-per-nine ratio in his career through 2011, and 28 walks in 32 innings in 2011 alone -- Rodney has enjoyed a remarkable turnaround in that regard, his walks-per-nine 1.57 thus far. He has been consistently productive all year, going 9-for-10 in save chances with a 1.20 ERA and 0.87 WHIP in his past 15 appearances (after 9-for-9 with a 0.66 ERA and 0.66 WHIP in his first 15), and among pure relievers, ranks No. 1 at his position on our Player Rater.
Rodney's rebirth -- or should it simply be called birth? -- is largely the product of a two-seam fastball, which he has used to deepen his overall arsenal, improving the effectiveness of both his four-seamer and changeup. Look at his fastball stats: .246/.277/.295 triple-slash rates allowed, 20 percent Miss (percentage of swings that were misses), 53 percent Zone (pitches thrown in the strike zone), this season. From 2009-11, his stats in those categories were .268/.386/.362, 16 and 50, by comparison. Left-handers have an OPS against him 309 points lower this season (.425) than from 2009-11 combined (.734), so this, indeed, is a complete pitcher.
It is often said that managers don't allow injury fill-ins to Wally Pipp -- referencing the player Lou Gehrig once replaced -- their predecessors, but it does happen, and it should by all rights will happen here. Farnsworth might quickly move himself into the handcuff department with several promising setup outings, but his ultimate 2012 value might be as AL-only ratio helper and a Rodney injury fill-in.
Spin: Farnsworth isn't worth adding. It's Rodney's gig, and he's legit.
Storen, the Nationals and Tyler Clippard: Storen (elbow surgery) has progressed to the point where he has resumed throwing, and per the Washington Times, even threw off a mound Monday. Though there isn't a specific target date for his return to the Nationals, he's expected back right around the All-Star break. What is equally unclear is his role immediately upon activation; he's as likely to return to the ninth inning as he is to be required to earn back his job working in middle relief. That Storen was one of 2011's most productive closers, however -- he had 43 saves, a 2.75 ERA and 1.02 WHIP -- and has long been regarded the Nationals' long-term closer, makes him likely to recapture the role eventually.
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Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 75 relief pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
It wouldn't be a debate, however, if not for the performance of Clippard, who didn't initially serve as Storen's fill-in but always profiled as the smartest choice. Armed with one of the best combinations of fastball and changeup among big-league relievers, the split in velocity between the two greater than 10 mph on average, Clippard has managed a 2.49 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 10.65 K's-per-nine ratio, 10 saves and 74 holds since joining the Nationals' bullpen in 2009. Since 2010, he has had only one month of greater than a 3.50 ERA (April 2012, 5.40), and he's a perfect 9-for-9 with 9 1/3 shutout innings of one hit allowed in 10 appearances since taking over as the closer. On performance, Clippard has been effective enough for long enough that he should keep the role for so long as this continues.
But here's the long-term question for the Nationals and manager Davey Johnson: Is the team's bullpen deeper with Clippard in the ninth and Storen setting him up, or vice versa? Clippard's owners might remember Johnson's strategy in the season's early weeks, when he maintained that Clippard was too valuable in a setup capacity that a Brad Lidge-Henry Rodriguez combination was his closer choice, and a return to that arrangement with Storen in the ninth is possible. Performance, however, should ultimately decide the jobs during the season's second half.
Spin: Storen probably recaptures the role given time, but it might take 2-3 weeks after his activation to prove it. The dilemma for fantasy owners is whether they can wait through it with him riding their benches until it happens.
Bailey, the Red Sox, and Alfredo Aceves: Bailey (thumb surgery) began throwing at the end of May, but to date there is no update as to when he might resume throwing off a mound or go on a rehabilitation assignment. All indications are that, like Storen, Bailey should be back around the All-Star break, but it sounds like he's slightly behind the Nationals hurler, meaning fantasy owners should prepare for him being back no sooner than mid-July.
On skills, however, and considering the price the Red Sox paid to acquire Bailey, the right-hander profiles as once again a closer once he's healthy. Through three big-league seasons, granted years sprinkled with other injury issues, he has a 2.07 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 9.00 K's-per-nine ratio and 75 saves in 84 chances.
Fill-in Aceves, meanwhile, hasn't performed nearly as poorly during Bailey's absence as is the public perception. A disastrous April 21 blown save versus the New York Yankees, not to mention another bad outing at Detroit on April 8, obliterated Aceves' ERA and WHIP, making it seem as if he's completely untrustworthy. In his defense, Aceves is 13-for-14 in save chances with a 2.83 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 9.73 K's-per-nine ratio in 24 appearances since that April 21 game, and some of his more memorable missteps recently came in games that were tied.
Here's where the debate should rage: Aren't the Red Sox better off with Aceves back in the setup role, where he can be deployed at any point over multiple innings, than at closer? He's on pace for a healthy 80 2/3 innings, yes, but he threw 93 innings purely in relief in 2011, in addition to the four starts (of 21 innings) he made. In 2011, Aceves made 27 appearances of greater than three outs in 51 relief outings, 21 of which were two innings or more; this season he has six appearances of greater than three outs in 30 games, only three of which were two-plus frames. Dropping him back to a setup relief role seems like a smart move.
Spin: Bailey should take the longest period of time to return, but once he does, he's the most likely of the three to instantly become closer. If you can stash him, this is a good time to do so.
For good measure, let's not restrict this discussion to merely the injured closers placed on the DL around Opening Day. Here are two other bullpens that lost their closers in-season and how their future plans shape up:
New York Yankees -- Rafael Soriano/David Robertson: Some might say that Robertson was never the Yankees' closer, but that's not necessarily the truth. After Mariano Rivera was lost for the season due to a torn ACL, Robertson received the team's first two save chances in what manager Joe Girardi called a "committee" (albeit with Robertson hinted as his first choice), with Soriano setting him up both nights. Soriano is effectively the fill-in for the fill-in, with Robertson's tenure in the role making him the Dwight Schrute of this bullpen.
Soriano is not about to hand back this role, however, not the way he has been pitching. Extracting only games since Robertson landed on the DL, Soriano is 10-for-11 in save chances with a 0.87 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in 12 appearances during that time, his only misstep that June 10 Subway Series game in which Curtis Granderson's misplay began the unraveling. Soriano as closer might not rival Rivera, and it might lack the upside of a Robertson in the role. Soriano lacks a dominant pitch to use against lefties (.236/.311/.395 triple-slash rates allowed during his career, .250/.350/.404 in 2012) comparative to how his stuff annihilates righties (.168/.230/.283 career, .268/.302/.390 in 2012). But perhaps it's enough, and as there are more righties than lefties in the game, there should be enough righty-laden lineups facing Soriano on a nightly basis that he'll convert saves consistently enough to remain in the role.
That's not to say Robertson cannot reclaim the gig. The aforementioned Schrute did feverishly pursue his former role following his removal, just as Robertson's filthy stuff might always tempt Girardi and the Yankees, and at any point fantasy owners might wonder whether today is the day it happens.
Spin: The bottom line is that Robertson's ERA/WHIP/K's contributions matter even if he sets up the rest of the year. Soriano is the guy for now, though.
Toronto Blue Jays -- Casey Janssen/Sergio Santos: What's most intriguing about this bullpen is that, after the Francisco Cordero misstep, the Blue Jays made the correct decision about their fill-in closer, and the case can be made that Janssen deserves a longer stay in the role. Since May 9, the date of his first save of 2012, Janssen has a 1.35 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and is 5-for-5 in saves, and since boosting his cutter usage into the 30-plus-percent range beginning in 2011, he has a 2.50 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and 8.39 K's-per-nine ratio in 78 games. This is a remade reliever, and one to trust, which is much more than can be said for Cordero.
The news on Santos, too, extends the fill-in window for Janssen: Per the Blue Jays' official website, Santos felt discomfort in his right shoulder during a bullpen session last week, a setback that threatens to reset his rehab clock. We're now likely talking weeks, not days, until Santos' return, meaning Janssen might be safe in the role through the All-Star break, if not longer.
Spin: Janssen is one of the more underrated sources of saves available, and the longer Santos is sidelined, the more likely he Pipps his predecessor. Janssen remains available in 47.9 percent of ESPN leagues, a number that is too high, and Santos is safe to drop in leagues with limited DL/bench spots.