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Shutdown Corner: AL West Closer Roundup

For the next six weeks, Shutdown Corner will be reviewing the closer situations for each division in baseball, one by one. I'll give you a brief breakdown of who the likely stopper is for each team, a little bit of statistical info, a projected tier to consider when drafting your stopper, and a name or two of who might be in line to pick up saves should the projected fireman falter.

And for what it's worth, here's the tier system I'll be using, 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.

Texas Rangers: Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan revitalized his career with a powerful 2012 performance in Texas, during which he saved 37 games and re-established himself as a top-tier closer. Nathan's command seems to have come back following a 2010 out of baseball and a weak 2011, and the veteran struck out 30.4% while only walking 5.1%, which is actually a career low. He is entering his age-38 season, which means that his skills could fall off in a hurry if his arm goes, but recent performance says that he could still be solid.

The Rangers did go out and sign another once-mighty closer coming off injury: Joakim Soria. Soria won't be back until May, at the earliest, and will look to recover his command after Tommy John surgery. If Soria's very sharp AND the Rangers are out of contention (not too likely), then the Rangers may look to move Nathan at the trade deadline. But I expect Joe to be a powerful weapon at the end of the Rangers' 'pen for the entire season, and a nice pickup for any fantasy squad.

Projected Tier: Tier 2 (high effectiveness, minor concerns about age, park and competition)

Next in line: Joakim Soria

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: Ryan Madson

Before the 2011-2012 offseason, things were looking pretty good for Ryan Madson. Coming off a very effective 2011 as closer for the Phillies, in which he saved 32 games, posted a 2.37 ERA, and proved that performance was no fluke with an underlying 2.25 FIP. But as the offseason wore on, Madson wound up with one a one-year contract with the Reds, for what was perceived to be much less than his market value. Then, before appearing in a single regular-season game, Madson blew out his UCL and missed the whole season with Tommy John surgery.

Madson may be ready to return at the beginning of the 2013 season, but he also may not. But when he's ready, I expect him to get the first look at closing for the Halos. While Ernesto Frieri, last year's closer, is still on the roster and lurking, I expect Mike Scioscia to give Madson first crack at the ninth, given his past resume. Frieri struck out a host of hitters in 2012, posting a sick 36.4% strikeout rate, but he gave up too many homers (nine) to make the Angels very comfortable.

Unfortunately, pitchers like Madson who return from Tommy John surgery tend to struggle in their first season back. Command, especially, can be tough to recover in the first season, so I'd expect that Madson won't pitch anything like his 2011 self right away. Given this -- and the fact that the fireballing Frieri is waiting in the wings -- you'd either want to handcuff Frieri to any draft of Madson, or avoid him altogether, in my book.

Projected Tier: Tier 4 (coming off major surgery, stiff competition from Ernesto Frieri)

Next in line: Ernesto Frieri

Oakland Athletics: Grant Balfour

Boy, oh boy, did Ryan Cook look good in his 71 games in 2012. But when 2013 starts up, it's most likely that Grant Balfour will be back as the first option to close in the Oakland bullpen. Balfour, a veteran strikeout artist, has been pretty consistent since his 2008 return to a full-time bullpen role with the Rays. Balfour has a career strikeout rate of 26.4%, a critical skill for a high-leverage reliever.

And yet, I really don't expect Grant to finish the season as A's closer. If the Athletics repeat their 2012 winning ways, the team might hold on to him and keep their 'pen strength high going into the playoffs. But, more likely, I see the team dealing Balfour before his contract expires at the end of season, with young fireballer Ryan Cook assuming the ninth inning duties. If you draft Balfour, have Cook on standby, in case of a slump or deal.

Projected Tier: Tier 3 (moderate-to-high effectiveness, moderate likelihood of eventual trade)

Next in line: Ryan Cook

Seattle Mariners: Tom Wilhelmsen

One of the best bullpen stories in 2012 was the emergence of Mariners closer Tom Wilhelmsen. Despite being out of baseball entirely between 2005 and 2009, Wilhelmsen climbed through the Mariners organization to become the team's closer in 2012. He posted 29 saves despite not even earning the full-time closer position until early June. He even got in on a six-pitcher no-hitter, putting a nice bow on his narrative.

The Bartender serves up a nasty fastball-curveball combination, and it helps him get the strikeouts that are so critical to a closer's success. In 2012, Wilhelmsen logged a 26.7% K-rate, buoyed by a decent 8.9% BB-rate, which isn't half bad. Best of all, Wilhelmsen is cost-effective and isn't really challenged by any other arms in the Seattle bullpen -- meaning that he's likely to keep his closer status all season long.

While some draftniks may be put off by Wilhelmsen's late-career rise to stopper status, I'm not one of those people. I expect him to be very solid in 2013.

Projected Tier: Tier 2 (high stability, high-to-moderate effectiveness)

Next in line: Carter Capps (?)

Houston Astros: Jose Veras

There's not much in the way of proven late-inning relievers these days in Houston, which isn't a great sign. Sure, the bullpen is probably the last concern of a rebuilding club, but the Astros' impending move to the AL West means tougher competition, and shorter outings for their admittedly weak rotation. The Astros will lean on their young bullpen, and especially new recruit Jose Veras, who's in line to close.

Veras has been pretty good these past two seasons, spending 2011 with the Pirates and 2012 with the Brewers. In each season, Veras's performance was pretty similar: huge strikeout numbers (25.9% and 26.3% strikeout rates), terrible walk rates (11.2% and 13.3%) that led to pretty decent ERA totals (3.80 and 3.63). 2013 will be Veras's age-32 season, so while it's unlikely we'll see big-time improvement, there are no outstanding indicators that his performance will tank either.

But if Veras is as good as he could be, he'll have a "proven closer" tag to him, and that will make him an attractive trade target by the deadline. The Astros aren't a competitive team yet, and they'll look to move him for value, the same way they have with Mark Melancon, Brett Myers, and Wilton Lopez in the past. Don't expect him to finish his season in Houston.

Projected Tier: Tier 3 (high strikeout totals, high initial stability, high likelihood of eventual trade)

Next in line: Josh Fields (?)

All stats from FanGraphs.



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