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Position/Role Battles: The Royals' Closer

Joakim Soria owners already suffered through a tough 2011 when the closer posted still-decent but disappointing numbers -- a 4.03 ERA, a 9.0 H/9 rate and a 1.27 WHIP, all career worsts.  Now, Soria owners have to go back to the drawing board for saves since Soria will undergo his second Tommy John surgery and miss the 2012 season.

If you're looking for a replacement for Soria or just want to find some cheap saves on the waiver wire, you may not need to look beyond the Royals' roster.  Here are the top candidates to take over as the stopper in Kansas City...

Jonathan Broxton: The former Dodgers closer was one of the game's top relievers from 2006 until July 2010, when his performance suddenly went off a cliff.  Broxton had a 2.11 ERA before the 2010 All-Star break and a 7.13 ERA after it, which cost him his closing job late in the season. Things didn't improve in 2011, as he only made 14 appearances before being shut down in May and undergoing arthroscopic elbow surgery in September. 

Broxton signed a one-year, $4MM contract with K.C. in November with the intention of proving that he was both healthy and once again effective, so as to earn a closer's job and a longer-term contract in the 2012-13 offseason. As it happens, Broxton could find his closing opportunity right now in the wake of Soria's injury. We sabermetric types may scoff at the idea of a "closer's mentality," but the fact that Broxton has experience finishing games (and excelled at the task as recently as two years ago) will surely factor into manager Ned Yost's decision. 

What could hurt Broxton's chances in the closing hunt, however, is that fact that the Royals were easing Broxton back into pitching, limiting his spring innings to make sure he was fully recovered from his elbow surgery.  The club might not want to risk taking Broxton from the kiddie pool right into the deep end of high-leverage closing situations until they're totally sure he's fit. 

Fantasy-wise, you should be thinking the same thing before picking Broxton for your roster.  He's worth a waiver pickup or a late draft pick now since the K.C. closer's job is still pending, but unless Yost comes out and declares Broxton is his man, you can safely leave him undrafted.  If he pitches well, however, pick him up in June or July; an in-form Broxton will draw heavy interest for closer-needy teams at the trade deadline, and you could be the early bird in getting an extra stopper for the second half of your season.

Greg Holland: The right-hander's first full Major League season saw him post a 1.80 ERA, a 44.9% ground ball rate, a 3.89 K/BB ratio and 74 strikeouts in 60 innings of work.  Holland may have flown under the radar of casual fans, but other teams certainly noticed, as the Blue Jays and other clubs showed trade interest in the 26-year-old.  It's safe to say that given Soria's injury situation, Holland isn't leaving Kansas City anytime soon. 

Holland was an unheralded draft pick (10th round selection in 2007) and while he's always racked up strikeouts in his pro career, 2011 was his only truly elite season at any level.  It may be too soon to anoint Holland as the next big thing amongst fantasy closers simply because we don't yet know if his 2011 self is his new norm, or if his true talent level is closer to his minor league career numbers --- a 3.48 ERA, a 2.35 K/BB, a 4.1 BB/9 and a 1.29 WHIP.  Holland certainly has a lot of upside and is worth a late draft pick regardless of Yost's decision, as if he replicates his 2011 numbers, he can help your staff ERA and strikeout totals even if he doesn't get saves. (And if your league tracks holds, he's a must-have.)

Aaron Crow: If Dan Quisenberry and Jeff Montgomery are the Washington and Lincoln of Kansas City bullpen lore, Crow is David Rice Atchison.  Technically, Crow is an ex-Royals closer.  He won the job last May after Soria was demoted, but Soria pitched well in his next couple of outings and regained the job before Crow had even gotten one save opportunity.

Taken ninth overall in the 2008 draft by the Nationals, Crow didn't sign and re-entered the draft pool the next year, this time going to the Royals with the 12th overall pick.  His first year in the Royals' system went poorly, as Crow posted a combined 5.73 ERA in 29 starts at high-A ball and Double-A.  The Royals' solution to the problem was to convert Crow to relief pitching and the results were impressive, as Crow posted a 2.76 ERA and a 2.10 K/BB rate and even made the AL All-Star team.

The Royals toyed with the idea of converting Crow back into a starter this winter, but it looks like he'll remain in the bullpen for the time being. Crow becoming the team's closer is, frankly, a long shot --- both Broxton and Holland would have to struggle badly, get injured or get traded for Crow to get a crack at the job, and even if he did actually get a save opportunity this time, there's no guaranteed as to whether he'd be effective. Crow has a good but not great 2011 season, and in fact faded badly down the stretch in August and September. Whereas with Broxton we'll see if he can regain greatness, or if Holland can sustain greatness, with Crow we're still wondering if he has greatness in him at all.

Fantasy outlook: If I had to guess what will happen in Kansas City, I would say that Holland will start the year as closer while the club makes sure Broxton is fully healthy.  If Holland is performing well in the role, then he'll keep the job, Broxton becomes the setup man and the Royals could be no worse for wear at the back of their bullpen in Soria's absence.  If Holland struggles, however, Broxton would get the nod to finish games. The Broxton trade scenario I mentioned earlier could become even likelier should Broxton already be earning saves by the trade deadline, which would then open the door for Holland or even Crow to get chance to close if Broxton is dealt.

What this means is, Holland is your best fantasy bet for the time being.  He has all the tools to be a closer or at least a closer-in-waiting.  Under almost any scenario, he will be in line for save opportunities at some point this season. 

Also, the Soria situation is another reminder that you should always try to schedule your draft as close as possible to Opening Day.  You never know what injuries may crop up during Spring Training.  If you held your draft in early March and felt pretty good about your closing corps of Soria and Reds stopper Ryan Madson, Chris Carpenter in your rotation, Salvador Perez as your catcher, Chase Utley as your second baseman and Carlos Quentin in your outfield, then you have my apologies.

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