Paging Doctor Death: The Brian Wilson Edition

New this evening on Twitter is that Brian Wilson’s MRI on his elbow showed structural damage.  He is in the process of getting a second opinion, but the outlook is bleak.  If he undergoes Tommy John sugery, the likely outcome, he’ll miss the remainder of the 2012 season.  Who will take over closing duties in San Francisco?

The natural first thought is that they’ll turn to primay setup-man Sergio Romo.  Romo made his major league debut in 2008, and has been amongst the best relievers in all of baseball in the 180 innings pitched since then.  His career ERA is 2.30, and supported by 2.34 FIP and 2.98 xFIP. He strikes out batters in bunches, 10.75 K/9 in his career, and rarely awards free passes, 1.50 BB/9.  He was at his mind boggling best last season.  He pitched 48 innings to the tune of a 1.50 ERA and 0.71 WHIP with a dental floss thin walk rate of 0.94 BB/9 and a juicy strikeout rate of 13.13 K/9.  Seems like a no brainer that he should be closing in Wilson’s absence, right? 

Well, not so fast.  The first “negative,” working against Romo is his lack of closing experience.  While the sabermetric community groans, it is possible that Romo’s three career saves will provide manager Bruce Bochy an excuse to keep Romo out of save situations.  That may not be a bad thing from a reality perspective, as that same groaning sabermetric community has long advocated using the best reliever in high leverage situations, regardless of the inning.  Unfortunately, even if that is the best usage of Romo, it won’t help his fantasy value if he’s continuing to record holds instead of saves.  The experienced closer stigma isn’t the only factor working against Romo.  He pitched only 48 innings last year because of elbow trouble of his own.  He spent time on the disabled list in August with elbow inflammation.  Romo’s best pitch is his slider, a pitch that has come under scrutiny as being tough on elbows.  For his career, he has thrown his slider 44.5 percent of the time according to FanGraphs.  That rate of usage balllooned to 54.5 percent of time last season.  He has continued to lean heavily on his frisby slider this season, and there is a health risk attached to Romo because of his past elbow trouble and pitch mix.  Additionally, the slider has a significant platoon split, and Romo is much better versus right-handed hitters than versus left-handed pitchers.  That’s something the Giants may have recognized, as the bulk of his work last year came against right-handed batters.  He hasn’t been a mess against lefties, but with extra exposure, it remains to be seen how he’ll do.  One thing is likely, opposing managers would test his ability against left-handed bats in the ninth with pinch hitters.  All things considered, a healthy Romo is the Giants best reliever, and he should probably get a crack at closing games.

The most likely candidate to get the first crack at closing games is Santiago Casilla.  Casilla saved six games for the Giants last year in Wilson’s absence.  In two season’s with the Giants, Casilla has amassed 107 innings and recorded a 1.85 ERA and 1.16 WHIP.  He hasn’t been nearly as dominant as Romo, though, and has been a bit lucky.  In that time span he has an 8.50 K/9 and 4.29 BB/9.  The strikeout rate is solid, but the walk rate is on the fine line of moving from effectively wild to bad.  Casilla uses a three pitch mix to attack opposing hitters.  He features a mid-to-high-90s fastball, a slider, and a curveball.  In addition to missing bats with his repertoire, Casilla induces tons of ground balls.  He has a ground ball rate of better than 50 percent over the last three seasons.

In the event the Giants face a left-handed heavy ninth inning, they have two southpaws in the pen that Bochy can turn to.  The first is Jeremy Affeldt.  Affeldt is a ground ball specialist, but lacks the type of strikeout rate that gets fantasy owners hearts racing.  He is much better against left-handed hitters than right-handed hitters, but is passable enough against righties that he could be tasked with facing one flanked by left-handed boppers in a save situation.  The other southpaw Bochy could turn to is Javier Lopez.  Lopez is a more extreme version of Affeldt in many ways.  He strikes out fewer batters than Affeldt, but induces more groundballs as well.  He also has a much more pronounced split, and is a liability against right-handed hitters. 

There is a dark horse save options for the summer months.  The mystery candidate is Heath Hembree.  Hembree is currently pitching for the Giants Triple-A affiliate in Fresno.  I wrote about Hembree as part of the Giants 5×5 article here.  I went on to talk about Hembree at the Fantasy Baseball Cafe as part of a Future Rookies article.  Hembree was the minor league leader in saves last year, and he is off to a good start for Fresno this year.  He has two saves in two chances.  He has made three relief appearances this year that total three innings.  He has allowed zero runs on two hits and one walk with four strikeouts.  Keep tabs on how the Giants handle him, and file his name away in the event he receives an early season promotion.

Owners in need of saves should grab Casilla first, followed closely by Romo.  Romo’s value in helping ERA, WHIP, and strikeouts made him a rosterable option before the injury Wilson sustained, and he’s now a must own in large mixed-leagues and NL-only formats he wasn’t already rostered in.  Affeldt and Lopez can be ignored in all but the largest mixed-leagues and NL-only formats, as both are unlikely to crack double digits in saves.  Hembree is the sleeper here, but he doesn’t need to be stashed in most leagues.  Put him on watch lists, and see how things shake out.