The first two weeks of December settled the landing spots for two of fantasy's best hitters, Robinson Cano and Jacoby Ellsbury. The third week, meanwhile, has taken us for a spin on the closer carousel.
Five teams have made changes in the past three days that impact their closer pictures; and if we exclude free agent-eligibles from the mix, 10 of the 30 teams have made some type of closer-related move already this offseason. And it's almost certain that we'll see at least a few more, with Joaquin Benoit, Chris Perez and Fernando Rodney still on the free-agent market, and the Philadelphia Phillies trying to trade Jonathan Papelbon. In other words, we may see more changes to our closer chart soon.
To get you caught up on this closer news, let's take an alphabetic, team-by-team stroll through the five who made moves:
Only six days after completing a three-team trade that included the Chicago White Sox, the Diamondbacks and White Sox hooked up on another deal on Monday, this time a two-teamer that brought closer Addison Reed to the desert and shipped prospect Matt Davidson, both the Futures Game MVP and the Triple-A Home Run Derby champion in 2013, to Chicago. This was no coincidence; White Sox general manager Rick Hahn had inquired previously about Davidson at the time of the teams' Dec. 10 swap.
Reed's arrival in Arizona might cause him to absorb more criticism in our format than he deserves due to the ever-present debate of on-field reliever value -- the move is obviously smart for the rebuilding White Sox -- but the fantasy baseball truth is that he was the No. 12 pure reliever on our 2013 Player Rater, and he might not finish 2014 ranked any lower.
If Reed warrants any barbs, it's for just two things: One is that his fastball velocity, a key component to his game, declined in 2013, dropping from 94.5 mph on average in 2012 to 92.8 mph. The other is that he's a fly-ball pitcher, as his 43.9 percent rate was the fourth highest among the 23 pitchers with at least 25 saves in 2013, and was 21st highest among the 128 relievers with at least 50 innings pitched; that's not going to translate any better in Arizona's Chase Field than it did in Chicago. That said, consider how similar the numbers were at those venues from 2011 to 2013:
U.S. Cellular Field: 11.4 HR/FB%, .153 ISO, .291 BABIP, 4.5 R/G
Chase Field: 10.6 HR/FB%, .160 ISO, .302 BABIP, 4.4 R/G
Reed's deception, however, improved in 2013, and that's the primary reason he deserves little knock in the 2014 rankings. A pitcher who peppered the strike zone in 2012 -- no reliever threw a higher rate of pitches in the strike zone that year -- he threw fastballs in the strike zone 8 percent less often, yet managed to shave 92 points off his batting average with that pitch, while getting better numbers with his slider -- his other primary offering -- during the second half. He's now my No. 8 relief pitcher, losing a few spots following the trade, though some of the reason for that is general manager Kevin Towers' post-deal proclamation that Reed isn't guaranteed the closer role.
Regardless, all signs point to Reed closing, if he's not subsequently spun to another team for starting-pitching help, and that's bad news for Diamondbacks relievers with closing experience such as J.J. Putz and Brad Ziegler. Putz's $7 million 2014 salary coupled with said experience makes him an NL-only late-rounder/handcuff, but Ziegler, more specialist than the true closer he showed late in 2013, loses considerable value following the trade.
The Orioles began the offseason with the second pitcher in baseball history to manage back-to-back 50-save seasons at closer (Jim Johnson). But due to concerns that Johnson might command $10 million-plus in arbitration, the Orioles dealt him to the Oakland Athletics on Dec. 3. Two weeks to the day later, the Orioles agreed to terms on a two-year, $14 million contract with ex-Athletics closer Grant Balfour, according to ESPN's Tim Kurkjian. In effect, it's as if the two teams swapped closers, except that the Orioles wound up saving approximately $3 million off their 2014 payroll while acquiring Jemile Weeks and David Freitas in the process.
They got the weaker fit of the two closers to their ballpark, however, as well as the pitcher who finished eight spots lower at the position on our 2013 Player Rater (among pure relievers only). And that is the takeaway; a seemingly smart move on the diamond might not be quite so wise in fantasy.
Like the aforementioned Reed, Balfour is a fly-ball pitcher, his 42.0 percent rate during his three seasons in Oakland 22nd highest of 83 relievers with at least 150 innings pitched. Johnson, for comparison, had the fifth-lowest fly-ball rate (23.1 percent). A high fly-ball rate is a concern for a pitcher who calls Camden Yards his home, as during the past three seasons that venue has a 13.4 home run/fly ball percentage and .179 isolated power.
Balfour's skills are certainly at or near the peak of his career, but his ERA is unlikely to be lower than 2.59 in Baltimore, and there's a chance that enough bad outings could earn him a temporary demotion to middle relief. He's simply less "safe" with the Orioles, and that is the reason he's only 17th in my relief pitcher rankings.
At least Balfour benefits in one regard: The Orioles' setup crew remains outstanding, with Tommy Hunter and Darren O'Day still on board to set him up, Ryan Webb recently added and Brian Matusz potentially back in the bullpen if his spring starting experiment fails. Balfour's number of save opportunities might improve; the Orioles led the majors in that metric from 2012-13 (157).
Just as the Houston Astros did a winter ago, the Cubs signed a low-cost, placeholder type in Jose Veras on Tuesday, agreeing to a one-year, $4 million deal with the right-hander, per ESPNdeportes.com's Enrique Rojas. It's good news for Veras, who is now the favorite to close in an inexperienced bullpen, but bad news for sleeper-seekers who liked Pedro Strop or Hector Rondon.
Though Veras placed just 36th among pure relievers on our 2013 Player Rater, bear in mind that he was moved to setup relief following his July 29 trade to the Detroit Tigers. At the time of the deal, he ranked 21th in saves (19), and 21st in WHIP (1.00) among the 93 pitchers with at least 40 innings pitched, making him a serviceable option even in mixed leagues. And considering that the Astros had just 35 wins and generated just 37 save opportunities during that time, while Veras' 2014 Cubs should be at least a little more successful, there's potential for top-20 closer value here. Or, well, at least there might be for a half-season, before Veras becomes a midseason trade-related-demotion candidate.
Chicago White Sox
Reed's departure opens up the White Sox's closer role to a bevy of candidates: Hahn nominated Nate Jones, Matt Lindstrom and Daniel Webb as spring combatants immediately following the trade, and hinted that Ronald Belisario, reportedly soon to sign, might also join that mix.
Jones is the most intriguing and most deserving of the bunch, having managed team highs in appearances (135) and relief innings (149 2/3) the past two seasons combined, so pending other moves the job should be his to lose when camps open. He has a filthy slider, responsible for 93 of his 154 career K's, and has a good ground-ball rate for a U.S. Cellular Field pitcher (48.8 percent career), but merely needs to improve his offerings against left-handers to be a true bust-out candidate. Jones might warrant a final-round mixed-league pick, but until things become more settled in March, no White Sox reliever should crack my top 30.
This is the bullpen that did change but arguably shouldn't have, as intriguing sleepers Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw appeared ticketed for a spring competition to close, with Allen in particular one of my favorite early 2014 value picks. Now it appears the Indians have made their closer decision, signing John Axford on Monday, pending a physical.
Though Axford saved a National League-high 46 games in 2011, he has struggled since, blowing more saves than anyone the past two seasons combined (16) and posting the fourth-worst ERA (4.35) and fifth-worst WHIP (1.48) among relievers with at least 100 innings pitched from 2012-13. A major reason for this was his 10.8 percent walk rate, ninth highest using the same criteria. Axford did improve following a trade to the St. Louis Cardinals last Aug. 30, posting a 1.69 ERA and 1.25 WHIP in 19 appearances for them (postseason included) and enjoying better results with his fastball than he had previously experienced in 2012-13. In his defense, we should at least consider the possibility that Axford made some sort of mechanical tweak that he'll be able to extend into a somewhat successful 2014.
Axford is now my No. 35 relief pitcher, partly due to his WHIP risk, but also because Allen, and his 2.43 ERA and 29.2 percent strikeout rate of 2013, might eventually push him for saves. This looks like one of the most obvious handcuff situations entering the 2014 draft season.