The cool thing about writing the relief pitcher profiles for the 2014 MLB.com Player Preview, which will launch on the site in early-February, is that it nudges me to get a head start on my draft prep. The not so cool thing about writing the relief pitcher profiles is that with so many free agents still on the board, many of these profiles will be very much subject to change based on what happens in the coming weeks, or maybe even the coming months, and going back and re-working my already carefully crafted sentences can get kind of annoying.
Over the past few off-seasons, there seems to be a movement away from spending big bucks on free agent closers. The elite ones, like Joe Nathan, are still scoring in the marketplace. But what about Fernando Rodney? Or, Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit, or Chris Perez? All four remain unsigned, and I have a feeling that they won’t be too happy with their eventual contracts. The reality is that teams are tired of purchasing “proven” closers and would rather go the cheaper route and hand the job to someone within their own organization. As in, remember the four-year, $48 million deal that Francisco Cordero signed with the Reds prior to the 2008 season? Those are a thing of the past.
For fantasy owners planning on emulating this trend of closer frugality, here are some names to remember on draft day. Again, a lot can change between now and then, but keep a close eye on these guys.
Rex Brothers (Rockies)
The Rockies’ decision to sign LaTroy Hawkins to serve as their new closer just doesn’t make any sense. In Brothers, they have a potential elite stopper who did a fine job in place of an injured Rafael Betancourt last year, converting 19 of his 21 save chances while striking out well over a batter per inning and posting a sub-2.00 ERA. What’s not to like about that? This reminds me of the Dodgers’ situation last year, when Brandon League inexplicably opened the season as the closer instead of Kenley Jansen, who had already proved that he could thrive in the role. And we all know how that turned out. Brothers will be closing by June 1st, at the latest.
Cody Allen (Indians)
After getting an abbreviated taste of the Majors in 2012, Allen pitched his first full big league season last year, and the results were exceptional. In addition to a 2.43 ERA and 1.25 WHIP, the young righty registered a gaudy 11.26 K/9 rate. As of now, the Tribe’s closer job is there for the taking, and a strong spring could result in Allen opening 2014 as the club’s stopper. That said, there’s a decent chance that Cleveland will sign a veteran closer by the time pitchers and catchers report, so we’ll just have to wait and see on this one. Regardless, I still like Allen as an AL-only flier at the very least.
Pedro Strop (Cubs)
I think Strop will get first crack at the Cubs’ closing gig, and he deserves it. Following his mid-season trade to Chicago last year, the previously control-challenged righty saw his BB/9 rate go from 6.05 prior to the deal to 2.83 with the North Siders, this to go along with a 2.83 ERA, 0.94 WHIP and 42 punchouts in 35 innings. Strop’s strikeout ability is unquestioned, so if he can continue to pound the zone with regularity, we can be looking at a nice No. 3 closer in mixed leagues who has the upside to graduate to No. 2 status.
Heath Bell (Rays)
Before you start laughing uncontrollably, hear me out. Yeah, Bell was an absolute disaster in 2012 and had some home run issues last year, but he did show improvement in both the strikeout and walk rate departments. Plus, the Rays organization has been fairly successful when it comes to bargain bin closers (Fernando Rodney, Kyle Farnsworth, J.P. Howell). I wouldn’t be surprised if Bell gets a shot to close sooner rather than later and would feel comfortable drafting him for a buck in AL-only leagues or even deeper mixed formats.
But if you think I’m nuts to recommend a player who was the main reason why one of your 2012 teams finished in last place, I totally understand.