Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim


Closer Updates: Orioles, Rays, Dodgers, Nationals, Rockies, Red Sox, Angels

As you can see from the title, there's been a little bit of closer news this week, so we'll get right down to business. Speaking of which, check out @CloserNews for up-to-the-minute info. Also, take a look at our Closer Depth Chart for a league-wide overview of the ninth inning. But anyway, on to business.

Orioles

Jim Johnson didn't have his best week ever. Three consecutive blown saves are enough to cost many closers their job, but Johnson earned his leash last year and manager Buck Showalter trusted him enough to hand him the ball in extra innings. Johnson earned the win, and there seems to be good reason to think this rough patch was just that and not a sign of impending doom.

For one thing, while his HR/9 rate and his HR/FB rate are much higher now than last year, a reliever's sample size is so small that that includes a whopping three homers allowed, two of which came during his three blown saves in a row. Moreover, while his BB/9 rate has also increased, it was already so low that it had wiggle room. Since his K/9 has increased since last year as well, he still maintains a 3.00 K/BB and is adding value with nearly two extra strikeouts per nine. All in all, he doesn't look like someone about to go Axford on us.

Rays

Speaking of impending doom and John Axford, Fernando Rodney appears to be turning into the proverbial pumpkin. His magical season last year has rightly earned him a lot of room for error, but at some point even that will have to be considered used up. Rodney has had bad results recently: he's blown three of his last four saves and looked bad doing it. Rodney has a bad process: his 8.35 BB/9 is rough to look at, let alone experience in the ninth inning. Not only is it worse than the sparkly but unbelievable 1.81 mark he put up last year, it's worse than any of the once-and-again wildman's previous ML rates, including the one that got him demoted by the Angels in 2011. Unless he gets his control under control, Rodney is probably on the way out of the ninth inning, at least temporarily.

Setup man Joel Peralta has gotten the most mention as a possible replacement, while neither Jake McGee nor Kyle Farnsworth have been obviously better than Rodney. Don't expect the Rays to go out of the organization, but don't be shocked if they do opt for a committee.

Dodgers

 The great and tragic drama of Brandon League and Kenley Jansen continues to play itself out, as manager Don Mattingly won't commit to "annointing" a closer. I guess that's technically a demotion for League, as he had already been annointed as closer (which apparently makes you some type of king by fiat). It's mitigated good news for Jansen owners and plenty of reason to pick him up if he's still unowned. Perhaps more reason to grab Jansen is that Mattingly may well play things as close to "the book" as he can while he flails around trying to keep his job. If he is fired, expect the new manager to make the obvious choice and officially install Jansen in the ninth, if only to earn some cheap points with the masses. As this situation begins to resolve itself, you're probably safe to drop League in most (a-hem) leagues. 

Nationals

Rafael Soriano came into the year as a top closer, and his 2.14 ERA suggests he still is. Though he blew two saves in a row this week (and tossed teammate Bryce Harper under the bus after one of them), he's firmly entrenched as the Nats' closer. There's trouble under the hood, however, as Soriano's FIP is 3.41 and his xFIP an even worse 4.23--Soriano isn't really pitching all that well. Perhaps more pointedly, his K/9 is sitting at just 6.43--the worst since his rookie season in 2002. As a starter. Now, he's got plenty of time to ratchet up the K's, but it might be a good idea to sell him while his ERA still shines as well as it does. Though he's not in imminent danger of losing his job, these things can shift quickly and the Nationals have other quality options in their bullpen.

Rockies

First, the rumor was that Rafael Betancourt was going on the DL, now it's that he won't. The facts are that Betancourt is having a very nice season (albeit with too many walks) and won't be supplanted by a quick injury, DL trip or no. The other facts are that Rex Brothers is having an even better season (also with more walks than are preferable) and saved the game for Betancourt on Wednesday. While the 38-year-old Betancourt will probably be just fine, this isn't a bad time to add Brothers, just in case. It isn't every team that can replace their closer with someone pitching at least as well, but the Rockies are one of them. In the event something bad happens, Brothers would be a quality setup man. If all stays well, he's still a usable non-closer in many leagues.

Red Sox

Andrew Bailey is back from the DL and back into the closer's role. Sort of. The Red Sox won't use him on back-to-back nights for an while as they let their fragile pitcher reacclimate. That means that Junichi Tazawa (who wasn't exactly a useful pickup during Bailey's absence) may still have the chance to grab some saves--more, certainly, than most setup guys. Keep him rostered until the Sox show us that Bailey is ready for a full workload. Considering his 25:3 K:BB ratio and Bailey's tendency to get hurt, Tazawa remains one of the better setup men to keep on your team.

Angels

Bad news for Ryan Madson is good news for Ernesto Frieri. Frieri will need it, as he's issued a ton of walks (6.75 BB/9) in April and May. He strikes a lot of people out too, which is good, but his ERA (2.25) doesn't match his FIP (4.58) or his xFIP (4.71). As long as Madson keeps having setbacks, however, expect Frieri to keep getting the call in the ninth inning. At least until those walks start costing him saves....

Add-Vice

Obviously, Kenley Jansen should be owned in all leagues at this point. If you own Fernando Rodney, I'd strongly suggest picking Joel Peralta up as backup (though the Rays do unconventional things whenever given an excuse). In fact, he's the top guy out there as far as speculative closers. If Junichi Tazawa's owner dropped him when Andrew Bailey came back from the DL, pick Tazawa up as he's in a great save-vulturing position. The same is true for Rex Brothers, but less so. Everyone else seems to be staying the course for now, so there isn't any real need to gobble up Orioles, Nationals, or Angels setup guys.

 



Closer Updates: Tigers, Blue Jays, Cubs, Angels, Mets, Brewers

Well, the good news is that you no longer need to worry about drafting a shaky closer. The bad news is that you may already own a shaky closer. Take me, for instance, I own John Axford and his 21.60 ERA in a couple leagues.

Speaking of shaky closers, Jose Valverde has signed a minor league contract with the Tigers, so you've got to wonder if he'll be in their bullpen mix in the future. For more up-to-the-minute updates, check out @CloserNews on the Twitternet. You better believe that's the first website I opened up to work on this article.

Brewers
Axford is the elephant in the room, with that 21.60 ERA, a WHIP of 3.60, and reports of lowered velocity. It's important to frame these things in their early-season context, though: he's allowed four runs on six hits in 1.2 IP. Of course, three of those six hits were home runs, but he's also struck out three in that time. Hiccups like these happen, and at times they are enough to scare a manager into making a change, but not on this team, or at this time. The Brew Crew isn't confident in Jim Henderson, and, really, if they demote Axford now, they're just admitting that they don't have a good bullpen. I don't expect them to do that just yet. 

Of course, Axford owners like me might want to stash Henderson just in case....

Mets
The Mets' situation thus far is one of rather happier news, as Bobby Parnell successfully put out a fire in the ninth inning of a four-run game. Fantasy owners don't care much about the results (he just recorded one out and didn't earn a save), but the fact that he was successful (and that other relievers struggled) strengthens Parnell's grip on the job just a little more. I really think Frank Francisco will have a hard time worming into save situations when he returns. Parnell is owned in just 68% of Yahoo! leagues, and 81% of ESPN leagues, so snap him up if you can.

Angels
Ryan Madson seems to be experiencing a setback (surprise!), while Ernesto Frieri locked down a save in the 13th inning of the Angels' opener. Neither fact is big news, or unexpected, but I'd say that Frieri's job security inched up just a little more over the week. He's owned in just 79% of Yahoo! leagues, so pick him up if you're among the 21%. No such luck for ESPN leagues, as he's owned in over 99% of leagues.

Cubs
You know what's worse than having your closer blow the lead in spectacular fashion? Having the lead rescued by his setup man. That's exactly what happened to Carlos Marmol on Monday, who threw just nine of nineteen pitches for strikes, getting one out before James Russell and Kyuji Fujikawa. It was Fujikawa (51% owned in Y!/40% in ESPN) who got the save, and the writing is on the wall for him to take over the job. The Cubbies really want to ship Marmol out for something, but it sounds like won't have any patience with him at all.

The above--unadulterated--is what I wrote before the results of Thursday's game. I leave it this way for instructive purposes, because Fujikawa came on in the eighth yesterday and earned the hold. Maybe that's why Marmol was allowed to give up two runs in the ninth before hanging on for the save. He got some trust--which is good news, of course--but he didn't inspire any real confidence. I'd say Marmol's closing days don't last long at this rate. Maybe the Cubs should have taken their chances with Dan Haren....

Blue Jays
At some point in the middle of the spring, I was sure that Sergio Santos was going to close for Toronto. Fortunately, I didn't have any drafts until late spring, when it seemed like Casey Janssen would be closing. I think he'll be great value for owners that got him with a late pick, and that thought has been reinforced in the last week. Janssen pitched a scoreless 10th on Wednesday, while Santos blew the game the very next inning. The situation was the opposite of the Cubs', as Janssen was leading the closer race, and Santos managed to widen the gap. Making things better for Janssen and his owners, he nailed down a clean save with two strikeouts on Thursday. Owned in most ESPN leagues, but in only 76% of Yahoo! leagues, Janssen is a great add if he's actually available.

Tigers
Just when you think things are starting to clear up, they get muddier. Valverde is back in the fold, though it remains to be seen how long it will take him to be MLB ready; Bruce Rondon is in the minors; and Phil Coke has pitched twice in the ninth inning. He saved a game he entered with one out, and he blew the save for a loss after that. Al Alburquerque has pitched in the seventh and eighth, and Joaquin Benoit has started the eighth twice. Is Coke (41%Y!/24%ESPN) the closer? I don't know. You'd think so, based on usage, but his split success and handedness don't suggest it. The way I figure, if they run him out to start the ninth, in a save situation, against a righty, then add him. But really, the Tigers don't have a lot of need to avoid a closer committee here.

Add-vice

Technically, the week isn't over, but I think I might be able to say comfortably that none of my closers has lost his job yet. This time last year, I think two of them had. So, I guess Marmol might have an even longer leash than he did last April. 

If Janssen, Frieri, Parnell, or Fujikawa are available in your league, add 'em, in that order. If you can, get all four and thank yourself for not drafting closers, I guess. Coke is the next best add, while Henderson might make sense for Axford owners with space on their bench.



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.



Closer Updates: Dodgers, Rangers, Padres

Now that I'm back from my weekend dead-arm sabbatical, please remember to follow @closernews on Twitter for breaking updates on all the bullpen situations. That being said, three's a lot to address this week, so I'll try to keep 'em short and sweet.

Dodgers
Kenley Jansen has apparently gotten a clean bill of health and is expected to return to Los Angeles' bullpen tonight. Despite a several-week layoff, I'd expect him to return to closing after one outing, if not sooner, so Brandon League owners should be ready to cut away. In fact, at this point of the season, depending on where you are in the standings, I don't mind making that move even before KJ is back on the hill, which I typically don't advise. End of the season calls for bold flavors moves, eh?

Rangers
Joe Nathan's surgically repaired 37-year-old right arm has generally held up surprisingly well this season (surprising to me, at least), but he was unavailable over the weekend due to a so-called dead arm period, his second such hiatus. He's supposed to be ready to return on Tuesday, but it's one worth watching. Meanwhile, Mike Adams and Alexi Ogando are both dinged, so if you want to foray into this mess, Koji Uehara is your guy.

Padres
Luke Gregerson owners who have been dreading the impending return of Huston Street may get a reprieve after all. Details have been sketchy, but Street is apparently fit to return ... yet he hasn't. Perhaps the Friars are shelving Street because they know he's rickety and he's under contract for a couple more years. Not to mention, Gregerson has done a fine job in Street's absence (with an odd assist or two from Tom Layne et al). LG is well worth holding onto until Street is on the mound again in a Major League game.

Reds
Aroldis Chapman says his fatigued shoulder is feeling better, but neither he nor the Reds have provided a firm timetable as to when a potential return could happen. The guess here is that both pitcher and team will want him to see some game action before the playoffs get underway, but he could take off another week or 10 days and still make that happen. Till then, Jonathan Broxton is the optimal add, but since he's not allowed to pitch on more than two consecutive days, Sean Marshall is worth a look if you're scrounging for every last save you can find.

Angels
Ernesto Frieri owners were dealt a double-punch to the gut this weekend, when the previously immortal right-hander blew a save in very un-Nasty-like fashion and then saw Kevin Jepsen convert one the next night. The former isn't a huge concern, per se; even the best closers blow saves. But no one would blame Frieri owners if the timing of Jepsen's unexpected save had them a little uneasy. Not to fear, apparently, as Frieri was just getting a breather. He should be good to go now, having rested on Sunday and Monday.



Recent Call-Ups: Conger, Kirkman, Moore

Let's round up three recent call-ups and their fantasy impact. Two hail from the AL West, the third from the NL East.

Hank Conger | C | Angels

Had it not been for an elbow strain earlier this season, Conger would have been up a long time ago. Chris Iannetta broke his wrist in early-May and the Angels had to turn to Bobby Wilson and John Hester to replace him while their top catching prospect was out. Now that he's healthy -- and Bobby Wilson is on the 7-day concussion DL -- Conger is in the big leagues but playing second fiddle to Hester. He's only started three of eight games since being recalled, including just one of the last six. Hester's solid batting line -- .256/.333/.349 with one homer in 48 plate appearances -- is a hindrance, as is manager Mike Scioscia's affinity for defense-first catchers.

Conger, 24, is seen as an offense-first backstop with a line drive swing from both sides of the plate according to Baseball America. He has more over-the-fence power from the left side and his minor league plate discipline rates -- 14.4% strikeouts and 8.7% walks -- are evidence of his contact-oriented approach. This isn't another Mike Napoli situation but it's similar, the Angels are focused more on defense than offense behind the plate and that works against Conger. With Wilson expected back as soon as this weekend, Conger might find himself back in Triple-A. He's a fantasy non-option until we know he's going to get regular at-bats.

Michael Kirkman | RP | Rangers

The Rangers have lost Derek Holland (shoulder), Neftali Feliz (elbow), and Alexi Ogando (groin) to the disabled list in recent weeks and with Roy Oswalt still a few weeks away, they had to dip into their farm system for a replacement starter. Kirkman, 25, has 29 appearances and 48 2/3 big league innings to his credit already, but all of them have come in relief. He's worked primarily as a starter in Triple-A but his performance hasn't been anything to write home about: 5.25 ERA with 9.0 K/9 and 5.8 BB/9. The walks are a problem now and have been throughout his career based on his 4.9 BB/9 in over 600 minor league innings.

I like Kirkman -- who Baseball America ranked as the teams 28th best prospect coming into the season -- more than most because he's a four-pitch lefty with some funk and deception in his delivery. He's slated to start at home against the Astros on Saturday, making him a fine end of the week candidate if you're desperate for counting stats or need to roll the dice on someone for help in the rate categories. Kirkman might not be long for the rotation with Holland reportedly on the mend, but if he sticks around he'll pick up SP eligibility soon enough.

Tyler Moore | OF | Nationals

Bryce Harper garners all of the attention and rightfully so, but the 23-year-old Moore has two straight 30 homer seasons to his credit in the minors and tagged Triple-A pitching to the tune of .310/.372/.660 before being recalled. He hit two homers yesterday -- the first two of his big league career -- and has started three of Washington's last five games after coming off the bench for the previous month. Baseball America only ranked Moore as the team's 16th best prospect coming into the season because of his high strikeout rate (23.5% of all minor league plate appearances) and defensive shortcomings, but they do acknowledge that his right-handed pop is very real. He's totaled at least 70 extra-base hits in each of the last two minor league seasons.

With Steve Lombardozzi starting to come back to Earth a bit -- .238/.289/.333 in the last 33 team games -- Moore could see more time in left field, particularly against left-handers. He's not going to give you much average or even OBP, but Moore will hit some homers and drive in some runs if given the playing time. Keep an eye on their lineups the next few days, if Moore starts to see more and more playing time, grab him if your team is power-starved.



Closer Updates: Angels, Mariners, Tigers

We've got in-depth closer analysis in this weekly column, but for timely, up-to-the-minute updates, be sure to follow @closernews on Twitter.

Angels
Ernesto Frieri has really taken to this closing thing. For one, he's sort of a ham. His jersey is untucked just so. He's extremely deliberate between pitches. He sports a closely cropped, curly mohawk (a sure sign of eccentricity). And, above all, he's really tough to hit.

And that seems to have been enough to convince Angels brass that Frieri should take the reins from Scott Downs, who has been every bit as good as Frieri, albeit with a completely different style. Perhaps the Halos prefer Frieri because Downs is a groundballer and a left-hander; prototypical closers are typically right-hander power arms.

Regardless, since May 23 Frieri has four saves to Downs' two, and while that's not an overwhelming split, it bears noting that Frieri has the past two and three of four. The Halos asked that Frieri earn his stripes before giving him the closer's gig, and he did; he remains unscored upon as an Angel through 14 appearances. That's about as well as a reliever can pitch.

The unbalanced saves split will continue between Frieri and Downs, with perhaps the former assuming an even larger share. Downs is worth an add if you're in need of saves and he's kicking around on your wire, but Frieri has taken precedence as the must-own.

Mariners
Brandon League was quietly removed from the closer's role late last month, and although I loved League coming into the year based on his strong 2011, he fully deserved the demotion based on his poor performance to date.

The problem is, the M's didn't necessarily have a no-brainer alternative at that point. The options included Tom Wilhelmsen, Steve Delabar, Hisashi Iwakuma and minor leaguer Stephen Pryor. Wow, that's a who's who of prominent relievers, ain't it?

Iwakuma -- in his first year stateside after a lengthy career in Japan -- snagged Seattle's first two saves following League's banishment, but both were under pretty unusual circumstances. The first was a three-inning save in a blowout win over the Rangers -- a mop-up save, as it were. The other came in the 12th inning of a marathon against the White Sox in Chicago, in which the M's had already burned through five relievers (including Wilhelmsen for three).

Pryor, meanwhile, became a trendy pick over the past week based on his minor league dominance, but it's pretty rare for a team to anoint a rookie as its closer immediately upon his debut. He didn't get to close in his first outing, and while he was impressive in striking out a couple batters, he also served up a home run. Keep a close eye on Pryor in the coming weeks, but I don't see Eric Wedge handing over the ninth to him so soon.

Wilhelmsen, 28, is the best add of the bunch, as he locked down a more customary save chance in Monday night's win over the Angels. His 3.60 ERA doesn't look great, but his 2.44 SIERA suggests a nice correction could be in the cards, and the 10.8 K/9 and 2.70 BB/9 seem to back it up. The one word of caution here is that Wilhelmsen didn't flash stuff like this at the upper levels of the minor leagues, but it's possible that he is still improving as he sat out of professional ball in his early and mid-20s before making a comeback prior to 2010.

All that being said, League remains a trade candidate this summer, and the M's would be best served to restore faith in his abilities by getting him right -- and back him back into the closer's role.

Tigers
Jose Valverde seemed to defy ERA estimators throughout the entirety of 2011, and perhaps it has finally caught up to him in 2012. The veteran right-hander has yet to hit his stride this season (4.64 ERA, 4.89 SIERA), and we're left to wonder whether he ever will. His strikeout-to-walk ratio has trended downward for several years now, settling at an unseemly 1.13 through the season's first two months. And every time he settles into a few-outing scoreless stretch, he runs into a meltdown. Ugh.

Joaquin Benoit, meanwhile, is enjoying a fine season and racking up boatloads of strikeouts, and I think he's worth a stash now in 12-team leagues (and deeper) with Valverde so obviously on the ropes. There's mild concern over forearm tightness Benoit recently experienced, which is always worrisome, but assuming he checks out cleanly, he has pretty good odds of dethroning the incumbent. Nothing's ever promised in this ugly chase for the ninth inning, but Benoit right now looks like as strong a candidate to pull it off as any reliever in MLB.

Quick-ish Hits
Santiago Casilla remains unavailable after suffering a bruised leg on a comebacker last week, but the Giants say a DL stint is not in the cards. Sergio Romo picked up the first save in his absence, and Jeremy Affeldt got the one after that. ... Aroldis Chapman pitched on consecutive days Friday and Saturday but wasn't needed on Sunday, although Dusty Baker said he was available to pitch if need be. Chapman has yet to go three in a row this season. ... Drew Storen was transferred to the 60-day DL in procedural move by the Nats. He's still expected back around the All-Star break. ... Huston Street has begun a minor league rehab assignment and could be activated Tuesday. Dale Thayer owners should hold on till Street is back and pitching effectively, but I fully expect Street to return to closing. ... Rafael Soriano will remain Yankees closer even when David Robertson returns from the DL, according to Joe Girardi.



Jered Weaver's Back Brings Garrett Richards Back

Initially it looked like a hamstring or ankle injury, but earlier this week the Angels lost ace right-hander Jered Weaver to the disabled list with spasms and a strained muscle around a disc in his lower back. It sounds -- and looked -- pretty painful, and right now it's unclear how long he'll be out.

"Hopefully it won't be too long before he's out there pitching, but we don't know what the timetable is going to be," said manager Mike Scioscia to Mark Saxon of ESPN Los Angeles. "I think everyone believes it's going to be manageable, and hopefully it won't be too long, but we have to give him enough time ... It's significant enough where it's going to take a couple of weeks. When he's back in the rotation is when he's healthy, and when that time frame comes isn't certain."

Taking his place in the rotation will be 24-year-old right-hander Garrett Richards, who appeared in seven games (three starts) with the Halos last season. He wasn't very good in his first taste of the show, pitching to a 5.79 ERA with nearly as many walks (seven) as strikeouts (nine) in 14 innings. Richards jumped right from Double-A to the big leagues though, and early this year he was able to get some Triple-A innings under his belt to continue his develop. He's pitched to a 4.31 ERA with unimpressive strikeout (7.67 K/9) and walk (4.63 BB/9) rates in 52 1/3 innings across ten starts. I have to think the Angels would have preferred to give him more minor league time, but duty calls.

Baseball America ranked Richards as the team's third best prospect before the season, saying "a No. 3 profile is the most likely outcome" in their subscriber-only scouting report. PitchFX data available at FanGraphs corroborates their report of a legitimate mid-90s fastball with a hard, mid-80s slider and a nascent mid-80s changeup. It's the kind of stuff that makes you wonder why Richards didn't rack up more strikeouts in the minor leagues, when he posted a 7.9 K/9 and whiffed just 21.1% of the batters he faced. Most hard-throwers are up around 25% in the minors thanks to pure velocity.

Coming into the season, Dan Syzmborski's ZiPS system thought Richards was a true talent 5.48 ERA pitcher at this point of his career. That's really harsh and despite his status as one of the club's top prospects, it's very much in line with what you'd expect given his recent minor league performance. The schedule will help him a little bit in the coming weeks. Richards will start against the Mariners in a few days (the Halos took advantage of today's off day to rearrange their rotation) after throwing a perfect tune-up inning last night, then he lines up for dates against the Dodgers, Giants, and Dodgers again. One of those three games (the first Dodgers matchup) will be in an NL park. You can use him as a matchup guy if you're desperate for counting stats late in the week, but otherwise Richards is unlikely to contribute much in a standard 12-team mixed league with 5x5 scoring. Sit this one out and hope one your opponents decides to roll the dice.



Mike Trout And Sustainability

The Nationals made waves when they called up Bryce Harper in late-April, so much so that Mike Trout returned the big leagues on the same day and was barely noticed. The 20-year-old Trout has actually out-produced his 19-year-old top prospect counterpart so far, and in fact he's producing like a top-five fantasy outfielder. He's hit .315/.382/.539 in 102 plate appearances this year, clubbing four homers and stealing six bases in his 23 games. There is no question he has the talent to play like this, but the question becomes how long can he keep it up at his age?

Over the last 50 years, only 23 players have qualified for the batting title as a 20-year-old. Alex Rodriguez circa 1996 was by far the most productive of the group, hitting .358/.414/.631 with 54 doubles, 36 homers, and 15 steals. Only three others managed to hit .300 (Ken Griffey Jr., Starlin Castro, and Claudell Washington) and only two others hit more than 20 homers (Griffey and Tony Conigliaro), though eleven of them stole at least 15 bases and five stole more than 20. That isn't to say Trout can't put up numbers like that -- what those guys did has zero impact on him going forward -- it just goes to show how rare it is for a player this young to be that productive.

First of all, I have little doubt that Trout will steal a boatload of bases this season. He stole 56 bases in 2010 and another 54 between the Majors and minors last season, so that's very clearly a huge part of his game. If Trout plays every day the rest of the season, he could steal 30+ bases very easily. Forty might be pushing since it's already late-May, but I wouldn't put it past him. The kid is going to steal a ton of bases for your fantasy team, that's all but certain. At the plate, maintaining a high average might be a little more difficult.

Trout's batting average is propped up by a .381 BABIP at the moment. That's obviously extremely high but it's incorrect to simply say his performance will suffer going forward because his BABIP will come back down to Earth. Trout is exactly the kind of player that will consistently post higher than usual BABIPs, meaning a speed guy who doesn't hit a ton of true fly balls. Guys like Austin Jackson (career .371 BABIP), Carlos Gonzalez (.346), and Emilio Bonifacio (.340) have similar offensive profiles and sky-high BABIPs. Now Trout's BABIP is sure to come down a bit, as .381 is a bit nutty, but he's capable of maintaining a .340+ pace and that will hopefully keep his batting average right around .300 mark.

Over-the-fence power is a different story. Trout did hit 16 homers between the Majors and minors last season but he is stuck in a division with not only some really good pitching, but also some big ballparks. His home park in Anaheim has a home run park factor of 93 for right-handed batters according to StatCorner, meaning it suppresses homer output by righties to roughly 93% of the league average. Safeco Field in Seattle is notoriously unfriendly to right-handers (83 HR factor) and the Coliseum in Oakland is even worse (80 HR factor). The Ballpark in Arlington is his one divisional reprieve (114 HR factor). The Angels will play 76 of their 117 remaining games (65.0%) at home, in Seattle, or in Oakland, so that's going to hurt Trout's power. Double-digit dingers seems inevitable, but I would be skeptical about his ability to threaten 18-20.

One non-statistical concern I have about Trout is his durability. He's not injury prone or anything like that, but reports indicated that he looked noticably worn down late last year and in the Arizona Fall League. Remember, he's still a 20-year-old kid who only has two full seasons under his belt. The 162-game grind is tough, especially for a leadoff hitter and base stealer who takes a pounding sliding into second and diving back to first on pickoff throws. This has nothing to do with Trout's skills and talent, but anecdotally there is a slight concern about his ability to maintain a high-level of performance right through the end of the fantasy season.

Dan Syzmborski's ZiPS system projects a .272/.342/.427 batting line with 11 homers and 26 steals out of Trout for the rest of the season, which is actually a bit below my expectations. That's a valuable player but probably not a top 20 fantasy outfielder. Trout is clearly one of the most exciting and best all-around prospects to break into the big leagues in quite some time, but as Matt Moore and Brett Lawrie owners are finding out, that doesn't guarantee instant and sustainable success right out of the chute.



Closer Updates: White Sox, Angels, Nats, Marlins

Henry Rodriguez ought to watch his back, because Chad Cordero has designs on a comeback to Major League Baseball. More on Washington's situation and others below, but first a gentle reminder to give a follow to @closernews on Twitter for all the latest breaking news.

White Sox
Named Chicago's closer after a heated spring competition, Hector Santiago never really found his rhythm once the curtain went up on the regular season. Manager Robin Ventura offered the rookie left-hander a vote of confidence after an epic meltdown last Wednesday (three earned in one-third of an inning), but no one really believed that, right?

Indeed, our skepticism was rewarded when old friend Matt Thornton was called upon for a four-out save on Sunday, which he converted without incident.

But does it signify a clean handoff? The answer, unfortunately, is probably not. I'd expect Ventura to cycle through a few different guys before maybe settling on one, so Santiago owners shouldn't lose heart yet. If you have the roster flexibility, just bench him for the next week or so -- until we've seen how Ventura divvies up the next couple save opps. Thornton, meanwhile, should be added by saves-needy owners, and fireballer Addison Reed is probably worth a look, too. Just know that there's bound to be some frustration, no matter which one you own, at least in the short-term.

Angels
Jordan Walden's unexpected -- and apparently temporary -- demotion sure felt like a panic move, didn't it? Don't get me wrong: Walden hasn't pitched especially well. But the guy has one blown save in two opportunities.

Unless there's something going on behind closed doors with Walden -- an injury or some other tomfoolery -- this one smacks of desperation, a feeble attempt at appeasing a bloodthirsty mob that's furious over the Halos' slow start.

In the meanwhile, Scott Downs takes over closing duties, and he should be added where available. Walden owners are within their rights to be steamed, but take heart and stow this young flamethrower on your bench. Seeing as he's the Angels' anointed Closer Of The Future (COTF), I'd expect him to regain the gig sooner rather than later. Downs is a perfectly adequate reliever but shouldn't be much less prone to the occasional flareup than Walden is.

It's worth noting that the Angels are kicking tires on potential trades involving closers, in which things could get hairy. If this frightens you enough to consider flipping him now, I don't blame you, but know that his value is pretty low right now considering he's not closing.

Nationals
Brad Lidge has been placed on the DL, and so what was a supposed closer platoon last week has quickly been streamlined into a one-man show led by Rodriguez.

H-Rod has mostly done the job so far, but I'm not especially high on him. (My colleague Tom Warman disagrees, which gives me serious pause because Tom is a sharp fantasy mind. But alas, I have to stick with my gut). Rodriguez's stuff is nasty, but he lacks control, which can lead to ugly meltdowns -- like the one he suffered Saturday night in Los Angeles. Plus, although I'm not a scout, he showed a Benitezian lack of composure as the game slipped away. Sounds like a powder keg, don't it?

The surface stats look pretty now, but don't be surprised if they've peaked, so if you're comfortable in saves or have other needs, H-Rod could make for a decent trade candidate. That being said, stranger things have happened than a guy like Rodriguez tearing off an extended hot streak, and since I firmly believe all closers should be owned, I have no problem holding onto him.

Marlins
 I wrote about Bell two weeks ago, and it's amazing how little the story has changed. He continues to stink, and the Fish continue to run him out there for save opps. His Rotoworld page is pretty depressing, actually, between the headshot and string of bad-news updates.

Can he snap out of it? I'm not optimistic. He's either injured or has fallen off a cliff age-wise, and I'm afraid neither of those scenarios is especially good news for his owners. But the only option for his owners now is to stash him and wait it out. Since the Marlins continue to use him as closer, something will eventually have to give here, and it'll get sorted out. Meanwhile, speculators are left to throw a dart at Edward Mujica or Steve Cishek, either of which could take the reins if Bell goes down. Cishek'll be your trendier pick du jour because of his better season stats to date, but Mujica is more of a sturdy veteran type. Recall, if you will, that the Fish were cagey as all heck last summer when naming a temporary replacement for then closer Leo Nunez (now Juan Carlos Oviedo).



Elite Prospect Updates: Moore, Trout, Harper

Elite prospects are always popular targets come draft day, and this year we have a trio of ultra-promising young players on the cusp of the big leagues and eager to help your fantasy team. To help you prepare for the early part of the season, here's the lastest news on each of those three players. Average Draft Positions come courtesy of Mock Draft Central.

Matt Moore, LHP, TB
ADP - 104

A mild oblique strain held the game's best pitching prospect back early in Spring Training, but Moore got into his first game action this week and struck out three of the six men he faced. Thanks to his new contract extension, the Rays have no salary or free agency-related reason to send the 22-year-old southpaw to Triple-A to start the season. Either Jeff Niemann or Wade Davis will be shifted to the bullpen to free up a rotation spot, with Niemann the favorite to remain a starter. A trade is always possible as well. There's enough time left in Spring Training for Moore to make four starts, which should give him plenty of time to properly stretch out and start the team's fourth or fifth game of the regular season. Oblique issues can be tricky though, and a setback would surely have him start the season on the DL.

I ranked Moore as the 43rd best starting pitcher in fantasy baseball a few weeks ago, but I like him quite a bit more than that. I can definitely see a Madison Bumgarner-type of performance coming in 2012, which means something like 13 wins, a 3.30 ERA, a 1.20 WHIP, and 8.5 K/9. Given the tough AL East competition, I would probably take the over on the ERA though.

Mike Trout, OF, LAA
ADP - 220

Injuries are a theme in this post, but in Trout's case it's an illness. The 20-year-old told Bill Plunkett of The Orange County register that he's "feeling weak and feverish with no appetite" due to a flu-like virus which has also caused him to lose ten pounds. Trout hasn't played in close to a week now, so his already long chances of making the club out of camp have been diminished further. The Angels have a logjam of outfielders and DH-types with Mark Trumbo, Bobby Abreu, Torii Hunter, Vernon Wells, and Kendrys Morales penciled into just three lineup spots (four if you're feeling generous and think Trumbo can cut it at third). Abreu and Wells are release candidates, but the latter will likely get a significant opportunity to show he's worth the $63MM left on his contract.

Trout was #59 on my list of fantasy outfielders mostly because his playing time is so uncertain. The talent is there for him to club double-digit homers with 30+ steals if given 400 plate appearances, although the high batting averages might not come right away. Fantasy owners won't benefit from Trout's above-average defense, but there's enough here to become a top ten fantasy outfielder in the near future. I just wouldn't expect it to happen this summer given the team's currect roster situation.

Bryce Harper, OF, WAS
ADP - 227

Harper has been limited by a calf issue this week, prompting him to tell Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com that he probably won't be able to make the team out of Spring Training despite his (and manager Davey Johnson's) wishes. Still just 19, Harper has five singles and two walks in 13 at-bats this spring, and he was going to really have blow the doors off the competition to have a realistic chance to make the club. There's a open spot in the outfield calling his name and GM Mike Rizzo says he's still a candidate for the roster, but I get the sense the club is content with letting the game's best power prospect get some more time in the minors rather than throw him to the big league wolves as a teenager.

I didn't rank Harper among the game's 60 best fantasy outfielders only because I find it very hard to believe a kid that young will be that productive right away. Harper has insane power, legitimate 40 homers-a-year type of power, but no teenager has ever hit even 30 homers in a season, and only twice in the last 50 years has a 20-year-old managed 30 homers (Alex Rodriguez in 1996 and Tony Conigliaro in 1965). There figures to be a point in the not too distant future when Bryce is among the game's very players (fantasy or reality), but that probably won't happen in 2012.





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