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Position/Role Battles: The Dodgers' Closer

Poor Javy Guerra. On most other teams, Guerra's rise to prominence would be a Cinderella story; a fairly unheralded minor league starter who battled injuries and a switch to the bullpen, rising through the ranks to finally make his Major League debut in his eighth pro season. And Guerra didn't just debut, he bailed the Dodgers out by taking over from Jonathan Broxton as closer and posting a 2.31 ERA and a 2.11 K/BB over 46 2/3 innings, racking up 21 saves.

So why is it 'poor Javy' and not 'viva Javy'?  Because rather than regard Guerra as a closer on the rise, it seems that everyone has already looked past him to his understudy, who has an even more remarkable story and a ceiling as high as any young reliever in baseball.

Signed as a 17-year-old catching prospect out of Curacao in 2004, Kenley Jansen was converted to relief pitching in 2009 and has been blowing away hitters ever since. Jansen recorded a whopping 110 strikeouts in 64 2/3 minor league innings, earning himself a callup in 2010 and a full-time bullpen job in 2011. All Jansen did last season was post a Major League record 16.1 K/9 (96 strikeouts in 53 2/3 innings), along with a 2.85 ERA.  Jansen even finished seventh in Rookie Of The Year voting last season, quite the sign of respect from voters given that relievers rarely get awards attention without saves.

Don Mattingly has said that the closer's job is Guerra's to lose, a fair decision by the manager given that Guerra didn't do anything to warrant a demotion.  With a weapon like Jansen in reserve, however, you wonder how much leeway Mattingly will give Guerra the first time he has back-to-back blown saves, or even a few shaky outings in a row.

Let's look at both pitchers' 2011 numbers...

Guerra: 46 2/3 IP, 2.31 ERA (3.30 FIP, 4.07 xFIP), 38 K, 7.3 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, 7.1 H/9, 42.9% GBR

Jansen: 53 2/3 IP, 2.85 ERA (1.74 FIP, 2.09 xFIP), 96 K, 16.1 K/9, 4.4 BB/9, 5.0 H/9, 26.9% GBR

While Guerra is better at keeping the ball on the ground, that massive gap in strikeouts is hard to overlook.  Equally as interesting are the wildly divergent FIP and xFIP numbers; judging by these advanced metrics, Jansen was unlucky to post his 2.85 ERA while Guerra may have been very fortunate to have such a low real-world ERA.

There are a few areas that will give Jansen owners pause, however.  He has just been pitching for less than four years, he has averaged 4.6 BB/9 over his two seasons (so there's at least a possibility of him transforming from 2010's Carlos Marmol to the 2011 Marmol) and, most disturbingly, Jansen recently visited a hospital with heart palpitations.  He received medical clearance to continue playing, but it's a warning sign given his stint on the DL last year due to cardiac arrythmia.  These are the type of health issues that go beyond the field and make you hope that Jansen will be able to live his life without any difficulties, let alone pitch effectively.

Fantasy outlook: Jansen's peripherals are so eye-popping that his fantasy value is comparable to Guerra's even if he doesn't win the closer's job.  In his recent fantasy rankings of relievers, Roto Authority's Mike Axisa focused on saves first and foremost given that they're the most important fantasy stat for relief pitchers.  Mike ranked Guerra 29th and Jansen 33rd --- or, Guerra near the bottom among closers and Jansen near the top of the non-closers (or, "holds guys"). It's a fair ranking since frankly, if Guerra didn't have the closer's job, he wouldn't be on the list at all.  He is a quality pitcher but, had the situation been reversed and Jansen gotten the first chance to close last year, we wouldn't be calling this a position/role battle.  The job would be Jansen's from start to finish this season, barring a major blowup or an injury.

Non-closers are somewhat of a roster luxury in a standard 5x5 league, but a reliever delivering nearly two strikeouts per inning and keeping a low ERA is hard to ignore. Try to find two full-time closers if you can for your two RP spots, but for an open P spot, picking up Jansen has more relative upside than filling it with a middling starter who will have higher counting stats but at the cost of a much higher ERA and WHIP.

For your fantasy draft, the best way to approach the Dodgers' closing situation is, of course, to draft both pitchers.  If you can't pull off the handcuff strategy, however, I'd take the risk and pick Jansen if both he and Guerra are still on the board.  Jansen has at least a 50% shot of becoming closer eventually and even if Guerra does keep the job all year, Jansen is still worth owning because of his strikeouts (and he will be a beast if your league tracks holds). If you draft Guerra first, you'll spend the entire season crossing your fingers that he can stay in front of the Jansen Express.



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