Booms and busts: relievers
By Jay Jaffe
It’s closing time! Over the past two weeks, I’ve rolled out a new position-by-position series, offering my personal picks for hitters I expect to break out (“Booms”) or decline (“Busts”) in 2013. Having gone all the way around the diamond and through the starting pitchers, it’s time to finish off with the relievers, and naturally, my attention is mostly (but not entirely) focused on those who will see at least a share of the ninth-inning duties.
As with the hitters, I don’t have hard-and-fast criteria for including these relievers on my lists, and I won’t promise that they’ll help you rule your fantasy league — or conversely, that they’ll lead you to the league’s basement. These aren’t particularly fantasy-targeted assessments, though my focus on strikeout rates and whether these hurlers can hold onto their ninth-inning jobs lends itself to the format better than most of my other entries in this series.
These are established players whom I’ve studied and have reasons for earmarking for better or worse. Particularly favorable or unfavorable projections, ERA estimators pointing in the wrong direction, changed circumstances such as trades, new roles and recoveries from injury may all come into play. The players here are listed alphabetically within each category.
Sean Doolittle, A’s: A 2007 supplemental first round pick — the compensation for the Giants signing Barry Zito, in fact — Doolittle stalled in the minors as a first baseman due to knee and wrist woes, but the A’s began converting him to the mound in 2011, and after just 26 innings in the minors, the 25-year-old lefty emerged as a key weapon out of Oakland’s bullpen. In 47 1/3 major league innings, he stuck out 11.4 per nine while walking just 2.1, and he did so while showing a substantial reverse platoon split that helped him avoid the lefty specialist pigeonhole. Via a mid-90s fastball, curve and changeup, righties hit just .195/.244/.265 in 124 plate appearances against him, while lefties hit .286/.318/.476 in 67 PA. Those are both small sample sizes which may well converge — particularly as he hones his secondary arsenal after throwing the heater 87 percent of the time — but even so, he’ll be a key setup reliever against hitters from both sides, and Grant Balfour’s knee injury may afford him some ninth inning opportunities.
Jason Grilli, Pirates: Who would have thought that the end of Italy’s impressive run in the World Baseball Classic hinged on their failure to deploy a 10-year major league veteran with a career 4.34 ERA? That was the case on Wednesday night, as the Italians squandered a late three-run lead using less experienced relievers because manager Marco Mazzieri was reluctant to bring Grilli into the game to pitch more than three outs, something he used to do with regularity when he was merely a journeyman.
The fourth overall pick of the 1997 draft by the Giants, Grilli was something of a bust up until he missed the entire 2010 season due to knee surgery, but since returning, he has dramatically improved his control and ability to miss bats. In 91 1/3 innings with the Pirates over the last season and a half, he’s whiffed 12.5 per nine, up from 6.6 per nine from 2000-2009, with both his fastball and slider getting swings and misses on at least 15 percent of his pitches in 2012; meanwhile, he’s trimmed his unintentional walk rate from 3.7 per nine to 2.8.
The Pirates re-signed Grilli to a two-year, $6.75 million deal this winter, and after trading Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox a couple weeks later, anointed him as their closer despite the fact that he has just five career saves. It’s an unconventional move, but the 36-year-old righty’s recent work suggests he’s more than up to the task.
Greg Holland, Royals: An undersized righty (5-foot-10) who can pump it at 96 mph — and get swings and misses on his slider well above 20 percent of the time — with a max-effort delivery, Holland emerged as an effective setup man in 2011, whiffing 11.1 per nine en route to a 1.80 ERA. After pitching through a rib injury that left him with a double-digit ERA in April and eventually sent him to the disabled list, he put up a 2.08 ERA over his final 60 2/3 innings upon returning in mid-May. Following the deadline trade of Jonathan Broxton, he was promoted to closer duty, and converted 16 out of 18 save opportunities down the stretch. Overall, he allowed just two homers in 67 innings while striking out 12.2 per nine, and while his overall walk rate was inflated by seven intentional passes, he still finished with a 3.4 strikeout-to-unintentional walk ratio. He’ll be the closer from the outset in 2013, and while the Royals may not have as many save opportunities as Dayton Moore expects, Holland should be particularly effective at shutting the door when called upon.
Joel Hanrahan, Red Sox: Hanrahan earned All-Star honors twice while notching 76 saves over the past two seasons, but both his home run rate (1.2 per nine) and unintentional walk rate (5.4 per nine) rose into the danger zone in 2012 after uncharacteristically sterling rates (0.1 and 1.8 per nine, respectively) the year before. When the Pirates traded him to Boston over the winter, former pitching coach Ray Searage suggested that Hanrahan’s control problems stemmed from pitching through an ankle injury, which compromised his mechanics and his fastball command, and that Pittsburgh’s late-season nosedive afforded him fewer save opportunities and left him rusty. The Red Sox traded for him with the intention of using him as their closer, but between the need to iron out his mechanics, the added pressure of working under the microscope in Boston and the presence of Andrew Bailey — healthy for the moment, at least — as a ninth-inning alternative, I’m skeptical that Hanrahan lasts the season in his designated role.
Carlos Marmol, Cubs: Though he has notched 107 saves over the past four seasons while whiffing 12.9 per nine in that span, Marmol has pitched his way out of the closer role more than once due to an obscenely high unintentional walk rate of 6.4 per nine. Last year, his strikeout and walk rates converged such that his ratio was just 1.6, his worst since 2009; that he finished with 20 saves reflected both a recovery from a dreadful start (16 walks in his first 11 1/3 innings before going on the disabled list with a hamstring strain) and the Cubs’ lack of credible alternatives. They’ve got one now in Japanese import Kyuji Fujikawa, and have already told Marmol’s agent to expect a trade, which should be no surprise given both his salary ($9.8 million) and the team’s attempt to deal him to the Angels back in November. It will take either a particularly patient or desperate team to acquire him, which may be far more trouble than it’s worth.
Chris Perez, Indians: Perez has saved 98 games over the past three seasons and earned All-Star honors in each of the last two. While he’s trimmed his walk rate substantially in that time, his home run rate and ERA have been on the rise; among closers with at least 30 saves, his 2012 ERA of 3.59 was the fourth-highest. A shoulder strain bumped him out of the World Baseball Classic this spring, and he isn’t likely to return to game action until the final week of the exhibition season, which could mean he starts out on the disabled list. Given his high salary ($7.3 million, with one more year of arbitration eligibility), his penchant for finding controversy, the arrival of new manager Terry Francona and the emergence of Vinnie Pestano, Perez appears to have several routes out of Cleveland, and the bet here is that at the very least, he isn’t long for the closer’s job.