Mining for the next surprise closer

Will Ohman is officially a closer.

I'll give you a moment to let that sink in.

Ohman, who for the past half-decade almost literally has fit the LOOGY (Left-handed One Out GuY) definition thanks to an average of 0.70 innings per appearance and 47.6 percent of his total batters faced being left-handed, is officially the last man standing in the beleaguered Baltimore Orioles bullpen. No, he has yet to notch a save or even taste a ninth-inning save opportunity in his new role, but judging by all accounts, as well as his ninth-inning appearance on Tuesday, Ohman is apparently "the guy."


Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 75 relief pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that already have been accrued.

I'd say Ohman is about the least likely candidate ever to occupy the closer role, but it wouldn't be accurate. (That honor might belong to Mark Leiter, who somehow saved 23 games for the 1998 Philadelphia Phillies, one year after he had lost 17 games and surrendered 132 runs as a starter.)

Not to suggest Ohman doesn't deserve the opportunity. Although historically a LOOGY, and one who has limited lefties to career .203/.293/.345 (AVG/OBP/SLG) numbers, the 32-year-old left-hander has been by far the Orioles' most effective reliever to date. He hasn't allowed a run in 15 2/3 innings, has allowed only four of 18 inherited runners to score (22.2 percent) and has been every bit as successful versus righties (.190 batting average/.292 on-base percentage/.238 slugging percentage) as lefties (.188/.289/.219), albeit in 14 fewer plate appearances. Ohman might be a smarter choice reserved for tough, late-inning lefty assignments -- those Joe Mauer-in-the-eighth-with-the-bases-loaded situations -- but so far his statistics hint at an ability to pitch full innings if needed.

In short, Ohman is an excellent example why we so casually toss about the phrase, "Hey, saves are saves." Although his Orioles have a major league-low 15 wins, Ohman might yet sneak in a few saves at the low, low cost of a free-agent pickup/dirt-cheap FAAB bid, at least until either Mike Gonzalez or Alfredo Simon is healthy. You can't argue with Ohman's numbers, and if he can maintain that pace while pitching to many more righty hitters, he might yet be of short-term help.

But with news that Ohman would take over the ninth-inning chores in Baltimore, I wondered: Who else fits the description "least likely to close," yet by all rights might not be as far away from the role as you'd think?

Frank Mata, Orioles: Admit it, you had never heard of him before the Orioles promoted him to assume the injured Simon's roster spot on Tuesday. Acquired as a minor league free agent in November, Mata adapted well to the closer's role for the Orioles' Triple-A affiliate in Norfolk, with eight saves, a 1.86 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in 18 appearances. As you might have seen during his debut, he throws in the mid-90s with his fastball and dabbles with a splitter, exactly the kind of package you'd expect would earn him a career assignment as a reliever. Left-handers have historically given him problems -- for instance, they batted .296 against him in the minors this year, compared with .133 by righties -- but he's capable of inducing a healthy number of ground balls. Sounds a lot like another Orioles righty, Cla Meredith, except without the experience, right? AL-only owners won't want to pounce, but the way this bullpen is shaping up, you just never know.

John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers: He now has two save opportunities in his young major league career and has converted both of them successfully, even though in 110 career minor league appearances, he totaled seven saves. His most recent came the day after Trevor Hoffman's supposed stand-in, Carlos Villanueva, blew a save opportunity and threw 44 pitches in the process, so it's still no guarantee that the closer role is Axford's. But with the way the Brewers' bullpen is shaping up, would anyone be surprised if it's Axford, not Hoffman, LaTroy Hawkins, Todd Coffey, Villanueva, Chris Smith or Bernie Brewer who leads the team in saves come season's end? What Axford has going for him is his power arm, which is capable of hitting the high-90s on the radar gun and is evidenced in his career 11.2 strikeouts per nine between Double-A, Triple-A and the majors combined. What he has working against him is that he's not always sure where the ball is going; he has averaged 6.1 walks per nine in his professional career. Axford is a stronger NL-only pickup than Mata is in AL-only, but neither one rates quite as valuable as Ohman.

Zach Braddock, Brewers: Many regard this 22-year-old as the Brewers' closer of the future, after he transformed himself into a lights-out reliever following his permanent conversion to the bullpen last season. Take a look at Braddock's eye-popping strikeout numbers: 14.4 per nine between this and last year in the minors. And unlike Axford, Braddock does have good command, averaging 2.6 walks per nine during that span. Braddock has only one major league appearance to his credit, so any possible save chances might not come until 2011 or later, but if Axford was rushed into the role so quickly, why not try it if Axford struggles? NL-only owners -- especially those in keeper leagues -- might want to stash this lefty away.

Aaron Heilman, Arizona Diamondbacks: Any fantasy owner might have predicted that an ex-Chicago Cubs right-hander would be a sleeper for saves in the desert this season, but if you asked him to name that reliever, surely almost everyone would have said Bobby Howry, not Heilman. Although Howry pitched so poorly that the Diamondbacks eventually cut him, leading him to return to Chicago, Heilman has been one of the team's most effective relievers. He has a 0.73 ERA, 0.73 WHIP and .163 batting average against in his past 13 appearances, and although closer Chad Qualls seems to be improving of late, in the event that Qualls cools or gets hurt, it'd probably be Heilman, not Juan Gutierrez, who would get the next chance to step in.

Middle-reliever spotlight: Joaquin Benoit, Tampa Bay Rays

"Whatever happened to …" might be every bit as appropriate a title for this section, as some fantasy owners might remember Benoit as the onetime, short-term Texas Rangers closer back in 2007. Armed with a mid-90s fastball and filthy changeup, he parlayed a full-season 2.85 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and .225 batting average allowed in 70 games into a late-season ninth-inning gig, albeit one in which he struggled. In 14 appearances in the final five weeks of that year, Benoit converted five of eight chances with a 4.73 ERA and eight walks in 13 1/3 innings.

It was partly for that reason that Benoit failed to retain the closer role heading into 2008, but the other might have been his hefty workload, which led to shoulder problems. His ERA rose to 5.00, and he had considerable issues throwing strikes; he allowed 35 free passes in 45 innings. The following January he had rotator-cuff surgery, which cost him the entire 2009 season.

Since signing a minor league contract with the Rays in February, however, Benoit's comeback has seen nothing but positives. He managed a 2.79 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 17 K's in 9 2/3 innings in eight appearances for Triple-A Durham before being recalled by the Rays on April 29, and has stepped up his performance further with the Rays, boasting nine shutout innings, a 0.44 WHIP and .071 BAA. In fact, Benoit has recorded 21 consecutive outs without allowing a hit, 11 of those being strikeouts, to quickly rise in the team's late-inning ranks.

Benoit has been clocked as high as 97 mph with his fastball since his recall, according to the St. Petersburg Times, and FanGraphs reveals that he has averaged 94 mph with the pitch this year, a significant improvement from his 91.6 mph career average. But it's the work of his changeup that has made every bit as much of a difference; according to the Rays' official site, he recorded six of a recent streak of nine consecutive strikeouts on that pitch. He's currently maintaining a near-10 mph difference between the two offerings, making it especially tough on opposing hitters.

Not that Rafael Soriano, the Rays' closer, is going anywhere, but Benoit is suddenly a sleeper in the holds category, and in the event Soriano gets hurt at any point, the Rays certainly would have to consider Benoit a possible replacement. AL-only owners, meanwhile, should enjoy Benoit's contributions in terms of ERA, WHIP and K's. The way he's throwing, this is a hot streak well worth exploiting.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.