2010 Sleepers, Comebacks and Busts: Closers

Death, taxes and closer turnover.  It happens every year.  It has happened already this year (see: Nathan, Joe).  The closer carousel goes round and round.  A number of things happen during the course of a season that cause closer turnover.  What makes closers (all relievers for that matter) so volatile from year-to-year is the small sample size in which there numbers are derived from.  We wouldn’t judge a starting pitcher based on 50 innings, but sometimes relievers only throw 50-75 innings per season.  That means a few bad outings or one really bad outing can throw the numbers all out of whack.  To sort of simplify the equation, I base most of my closer rankings on two simple factors: Strikeouts and walks.  Since there aren’t really any “sleepers” in today’s closers world, I’ll use the term sleeper to suggest closers who might shoot up the rankings for next year (i.e. Jonathan Broxton last season).
 

The Sleepers

 
Carlos Marmol – Based on his overuse in 2008 and the fact that he had to prepare for the WBC before last season, Marmol’s lack of command in 2009 may be excused a bit.  Last season Marmol had the eighth best K/9 of all Major League relievers and the twentieth best whiff rate.  His control should be better in 2010, which could lead to a huge season given his ability to miss bats and rack up the strikeouts. 
 
Rafael Soriano – Health has been the main issue for Soriano over his career.  Last season Soriano ranked second behind only Jonathan Broxton in K/9.  He ranked fifteenth in the league in whiff rate as well.  He’ll be the Rays go-to-guy in the ninth and last season Rays relievers combined for 41 saves.
 
Chad Qualls – While Chad Qualls will never be an elite closer, he’ll bring his good command and decent strikeout potential to the table.  He missed the end of the season with a freak knee injury, keeping him shy of 30 saves, but he should be 100 percent by opening day, giving him a good chance at 30 saves and an ERA and WHIP that won’t hurt you.
 
The Comeback
 
Brad Lidge – 2009 was amazingly bad considering that Lidge was arguably baseball’s best closer in 2008.  However, Lidge pitched through pain in his elbow and knee for most of the season, which explains the almost complete loss of command.  He had offseason surgery to help with both injuries and should be ready to go on opening day, which should help his command and bring his numbers back a little.  Given his extremely low stock, he might just prove to be one of the more valuable closer picks on draft day.
 
The Busts
 
Francisco Rodriguez – The public seems to not be worried about the fact that “K”-Rod’s K rate has declined every season since 2004 and his walk rate last season was the highest of his career.  Also, there are some major question marks about the defense behind him, especially if Jose Reyes misses any significant time.  It seems like people are still paying for the save totals he accumulated while in the best bullpen system in baseball with the Angels. 
 
Ryan Franklin – Franklin posted a superb 1.92 ERA last season to go along with 38 saves, but look past the counting stats and you’ll find essentially a middle reliever who is sure to regress. A 6.5 K/9 is nothing to write home about if you are a relief pitcher especially along side a mediocre walk rate of 3.5 per nine innings. With a strand rate of 85.7% and a BABIP against of .269 and line drive percentage of 20%, Franklin got away with a lot in 2009. To count on that happening again is ill advised. Look for his ERA to jump into the 3.50 and higher range and for the strikeouts to remain low, if not lower.
 
David Aardsma – Aardsma has had control issues throughout his entire career and his 4.29 BB/9 last season was not only unimpressive, but it was his career best.  Regression seems likely given his track record.  That would lead to some problems in Seattle, where they expect to content.  The Mariners have some nice options to replace Aardsma should he falter.  I would not be surprised one bit to see either Brandon League or Shawn Kelley taking away save chances in 2010.
 
Billy Wagner – Not that I think Wagner won’t pitch well when healthy, but I’m not convinced that a 39-year-old coming off of major arm surgery will hold up or throw enough innings to make a significant contribution to fantasy teams in 2010. 
 
Frank Francisco – Like Wagner, Francisco should be fairly good when he does pitch, but there are some reasons that he could lose the closers job in 2010.  He was only able to throw 49.1 innings last season due to some bicep tendinitis and names like C.J. Wilson, Chris Ray and Neftali Feliz will be waiting in the wings to make the job their own.