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Shutdown Corner: AL East Closer Roundup

Welcome back to Shutdown Corner, folks. We're rolling through closer roundups for every division in baseball, this week focusing on the five teams in the AL East. We've previously reviewed the AL West and NL East, if you're interested in that sort of thing.

And, if you haven't been following along at home, here's our closer tiering system for the pre-season:

  • Tier 1: World-class reliever, capable of putting up a season for the ages.
  • Tier 2: Very good closer, both stable and effective.
  • Tier 3: Average closer, may be lacking either stability or effectiveness.
  • Tier 4: Poor closer, either completely ineffective but stable, or very unstable.

Baltimore Orioles: Jim Johnson

Jim Johnson was the major-league leader in saves for 2012, racking up 51 for the surprising Baltimore Orioles during their playoff run. But despite the gaudy save numbers and 2.49 ERA, Johnson's a nice candidate to turn into a pumpkin next season. Johnson doesn't strike out nearly the amount of hitters that a closer needs to in order to be effective. Johnson had just a 15.3% strikeout rate, not an exciting number, and the fourth-worst of all qualified relievers. He was almost the worst strikeout reliever in baseball. Don't draft him for Ks.

Fortunately for Johnson and the folks who draft him, Pedro Strop isn't exactly banging down the door to take Johnson's job. Buck Showalter is probably locked into Johnson, so he'll get all the rope in the world with which to hang himself. If you want saves, and care less about strikeouts and rate stats, Jim Johnson's your man.

Projected Tier: Tier 3 (low strikeout rate, settled into role)

Next in line: Pedro Strop

New York Yankees: Mariano Rivera

I know, I know, he's the greatest closer in baseball history. His peripheral stats are phenomenal, and he's racked up nearly 40 wins above replacement despite only throwing 1219 and 2/3 innings over his career. Then you can toss in about 15 more RA9-Wins because the guy gets weak contact and can bear down with runners on.

This year, Mo is coming off a missed season, thanks to a brutal knee injury. Word is that he's about ready to return, and he's likely to be elite when he comes back. He's basically always been elite. However, if there's any chance that Rivera is still dealing with injury, or if the knee trouble causes an injury cascade, then Mo may not be as effective as we're used to ... or he may be out and David Robertson will be owning the ninth.

That having been said, Mariano is still an elite closer, based on prior body of work. Actually, I'm only giving out one Tier 1 grade this pre-season, and it's going to Craig Kimbrel. But, if anyone else was close, it was Mo. He is a monster, and while his K-rate dipped in 2010, it rebounded nicely in 2011 and what little 2012 he pitched.

Respect Mariano, everyone. Ignore him at your own risk.

Projected Tier: Tier 2 (phenomenal skill, injury risk)

Next in line: David Robertson

Toronto Blue Jays: Casey Janssen

Important news: Casey Janssen is probably better than you think. More than a few roto heads got a nice boost in the middle of the season thanks to Casey's solid performance and 22 saves as the closer after Sergio Santos flamed out before the season even started. Janssen checked all the boxes for solid closer performance, with only a few blown saves (three all season), high strikeout totals (27.7% k-rate), and a sparkly 0.86 WHIP.

So why aren't I rating Janssen higher?

The important thing about Janssen's status as closer is that the Jays have other options in the 'pen. Esmil Rogers, Brad Lincoln, Sergio Santos, all these guys could have strong seasons, and the Jays may be looking to make a quick change if the team isn't getting good closer production. If Janssen were on a different team, he'd probably be up a tier, maybe even two. But on the win-now Jays, the team may look to add another reliever, or move Janssen out of the ninth if he hits a rough patch. Plus, it's not like he has the track record that would give his skipper irrational confidence in his abilities going forward. There's always the possibility of performance decline, especially on the wrong side of 30.

Projected Tier: Tier 4 (small room for error, doesn't have "proven closer" title, only two years of above-average performance)

Next in line: Sergio Santos

Boston Red Sox: Joel Hanrahan

Do you want to know a secret? Joel Hanrahan was actually pretty terrible in 2012. I know, the guy had a 2.72 ERA and stacked up 36 saves for the Pirates. But when you dig a little deeper, a few very concerning peripherals speak to a poor season. Hanrahan walked 14.2% of the batters he faced, which is a HUGE number. That's more than five walks per nine innings, and completely unacceptable.

Hanrahan also gave up a host of homers (1.21 HR/9), and that works out to a 4.45 FIP. By FanGraphs' WAR metric, Hanrahan was actually worse than a replacement-level reliever. That's not what anyone wants from a closer.

Now, I don't think Hanrahan will be quite as bad as he was last season, his BB% and HR/FB numbers should regress closer to his true talent level. At the same time, Fenway isn't exactly the best place to try and 

Projected Tier: Tier 3 (big strikeouts, high walks and home runs, huge potential for performance variance)

Next in line: Andrew Bailey

Tampa Bay Rays: Fernando Rodney

Probably no player -- and definitely no closer -- was as much of a surprise last season as Fernando Rodney. Rodney really hadn't been a good reliever since the '06 and '07 seasons, but in his first season in Tampa, Rodney was the best reliever in the AL. The strikeouts jumped up (27% strikeout rate), the walks dropped down (5.3% walk rate), and he stranded almost every runner who hit the bases. The result: an otherworldly 0.60 ERA.

But let's be real, this had to be somewhat of a mirage.

First of all, Rodney is entering his age-34 season, and has literally no history of performance at this level before this big season. Second, his peripherals led to a 2.13 FIP, which is still great, but doesn't reflect 48-save, under-one-ERA performance for next season. I just can't imagine he'll have another elite season, and the Rays have a whole host of solid relief options surrounding him (Jake McGee, Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta), so don't draft him too early.

Projected Tier: Tier 3 (lots of competition, 2012 performance doesn't appear to reflect prior performance)

Next in line: Jake McGee and Kyle Farnsworth

As always, check out @CloserNews on Twitter for up-to-the-minute closer updates, and find me at@bgrosnick for everything baseball. Shutdown Corner will return next week with a look at the NL Central.

All data from FanGraphs.



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